MassDevelopment CEO to Devens: We’re ‘not going anywhere’

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DEVENS — MassDevelopment President and CEO Robert Culver claims many wins since the agency took title to 4,400 acres following the 1996 decommissioning of most of Fort Devens. There are more than 75 businesses developed, more than 3,500 workers employed, one million square feet of built-out space, and an annual combined payroll of about $220 million a year. “Pretty healthy for something that’s been in existence for a dozen years or so.”

Other achievements touted last Thursday at the MassDevelopment board of directors meeting on Devens included plans for 20 zero-net-energy-consumption homes, the contracted integration of Devens students into the Harvard school system, and the relocation of the Devens Museum to Jackson Road. Culver boasted, too, about the selection of Boston-based Trinity Financial to study and lead the redevelopment of the 440,000-square-foot vacant Vicksburg Square building space.

Culver said Trinity is exploring “whether or not it makes sense to move forward” by talking to voters of Ayer, Shirley and Harvard. “I don’t want to speak for Trinity,” cautioned Culver, “but they are a very experienced firm in all elements of development — financing through construction and community consensus building. They won’t seek to go forward if this doesn’t work,”

Trinity treads where MassDevelopment failed last year. Any rezoning of Vicksburg Square away from innovation and technology uses requires the approval of the three towns. Ayer Town Meeting withheld such approval for a residential reuse for the buildings in June 2009. At that time, MassDevelopment also sought to bump up the 282-unit Devens housing cap to permit up to 350 residential units at Vicksburg Square.

Ayer Selectman Jim Fay is the chairman of the Joint Boards of Selectmen for the three towns. The former Army officer became “the self-appointed face of the Vicksburg Square effort” last year. “I don’t want to equate myself with the failure of that effort,” Fay said before offering “I still want to remain involved.”

But Ayer Selectman Frank Maxant, a vocal opponent to rezoning Vicksburg Square, went head-to-head with Culver. The Ayer native said the 1994 Devens Reuse Plan was intended to see the redevelopment of the former Army base “to 2033 and beyond…To say it’s old and outdated is just not true.”

Maxant asked what the towns would get in exchange for a yes vote. He claimed permitting residential uses at Vicksburg Square would create “the biggest apartment house we’ve ever seen in this area.”

Culver said that in a meeting four years ago, “folks spoke loudly” about a desire to retool Vicksburg Square for housing uses. “We chose Trinity as the most qualified to undertake that exercises.”

Undaunted, Maxant blasted the quality of an eight-page Hunneman Commercial Properties brochure on Vicksburg Square that he copied for the Board of Directors. Hunneman was previously retained to market Vicksburg Square for research and development purposes. The literature was heavy on color pictures and short on text. “Does that represent a good faith effort to market Vicksburg Square?”

“I would just note for the record, every day we market Vicksburg Square,” retorted Culver. He chided Maxant for handing out the old literature as a “misrepresentation of an entire real estate development effort.”

Harvard Selectman Ron Ricci weighed in with personal observations. He hoped the project would create jobs. “Not just construction jobs but something that goes beyond after they are long gone. Job creation is still important in this area.”

But Ricci added Harvard may share Ayer’s concerns over a housing glut if Vicksburg Square housing is built out. “My town has well over 100 dwelling units on the market. It’s unbelievable. I think Ayer has similar concerns with flooding the market with residences, so that’s a concern.”

Culver responded, “the challenge is you’re elected every two years and we’re trying to do something that takes a lot of time.” MassDevelopment is looking for “consistency” both on the Vicksburg issue but also as the agency looks ahead to the ultimate disposition of Devens.

Culver denied MassDevelopment would seek a legislative fix to amend Chapter 498 and the Reuse Plan to rezone Vicksburg Square. “There’s no plan for any end run. There’s just not.” Still, regarding the tritown consensus vote process that has trumped both last year’s Vicksburg rezoning and a prior disposition vote, Culver offered, “If there’s any way to get consensus, we’re willing to entertain it.”

George Ramirez, the newly appointed executive vice president for Devens Operations, denied the success or failure of the redevelopment of Vicksburg Square is a test bubble for MassDevelopment’s continued presence on Devens.

“MassDevelopment isn’t going anywhere,” added Culver, who admitted, “There is a kind of referendum that occurs because abutting towns and residents must agree” to changes to the Reuse Plan. “With all great deference to my friend Frank Maxant, plans change on a regular basis as the economy changes or conditions within a city or town changes.”

“I want to be very clear that we are in no way looking to cause problems relative to the business of abutting towns. If demand is such that it makes sense for Devens to have various retail abilities, we’ll take a look at that.”