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HARVARD -Trinity Financial officials faced a cadre of key municipal boards on Nov. 8 in a months-delayed face off over the merits of the developer’s vision for the vacant 19-acre Vicksburg Square campus on Devens. None of the assembled board members spoke in favor of the 246-unit apartment concept, the concept was more a question and answer discussion about the project.

Trinity needs to secure Town Meeting approvals from Harvard, Ayer and Shirley to rezone the complex from business incubator space to residential uses.

The Harvard Board of Selectmen, Planning Board, and School Committee along tables that formed a horseshoe. At it’s mouth sat Trinity Financial President James Keefe, flanked by his Project Manager Abby Goldenfarb and Assistant Project Manager Dan Drazen.

Trinity maintains the project is dependent on the 80-percent “affordable” and 20-percent market rate rents (a “80/20 mix”) in order to attain critical housing tax credits from the state, which would come atop historical preservation credits. Trinity’s firm position on the 80/20 mix was the genesis of much of the negative commentary Tuesday night.

The three boards delayed meeting with Trinity until the selectmen-appointed Devens Economic Analysis Team (DEAT) returned its study of the municipal-style impacts of the project first laid out by Trinity in May. The DEAT report was filed in September.

The commentary and questions quickly piled upon one another, painting a picture of a disconnected island of low- and very low- income persons stranded in a rural suburban locale not directly serviced by mass transit services.

“Please identify a suburban community where you’ve developed this type of project,” asked Selectman Chairman Marie Sobalvarro. “Many of your developments are dependent on transportation infrastructure.” Most Trinity projects have been in the metropolitan Boston area, while Trinity has just concluded Phase 1 of a multiyear, multi-phase, mixed use project in Lowell.

“Vicksburg Square has municipal water and sewer,” said Keefe. “The basics are in place.” On the transportation front, Keefe said “we have no reservations on our ability to market this property.”

Selectman Tim Clark said the lack of transportation and other supporting services missing from the Trinity plan poses “real challenges.” Devens area residents are among those with the longest commute times – 45 minutes – in the state. Clark pegged annual transportation costs at $10,000. He called the factors a “deterrent” for low income tenants residing on Devens and asked, “Any possibility that the [80/20] profile can be changed in some way to recognize this?”

“I am really struggling to understand what you’re driving at here,” responded Keefe. “If you’re concerned about our ability to lease it out due to a lack of subways, I want to put those concerns to rest .As far as any marketability issue? Again, we’re not feeling it.”

Vacant storefronts in Ayer would refill to serve tenants, said Keefe. But Sobalvarro said that getting around is ‘going to be tricky.” After making rent, Sobalvarro figures household disposable income drops to “$21 a day” with “the nearest services a quarter mile walk to a gas station or 2.5 miles to a supermarket.”

“This is a location where, in effect, the numbers work for you but we’re not sure they work for us or your targeted population,” said Sobalvarro.

“The numbers result in a project that can be built,” said Keefe. “This is a feasible project.”

Housing and transportation costs bedevil the low income population, Keefe said. “Which of these two evils do you want to deal with first? I wish I could move this closer to a transit stop or a downtown but it is where it is.”

“Am I correct in assuming you’ll not go forward without a commitment of low income tax credits?” pressed DEAT Chairman Victor Normand.

“Let’s put it this way, it’s predicated on the allocation,” said Keefe.

Normand said there are 13 approved projects already in the state Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) “pipeline” with a 3-4 year wait time for tax credit approvals. “There’s a bit of a disconnect here. Are we to believe you can jump that list? Do you have a commitment?”

Keefe recoiled, “Look at our track record of attracting tax credits. We have a lot of credibility. We’ve done $1.5 billion worth of development. I can’t guarantee when things are going to happen (but) this will rank very competitively.”

Normand noted that there’s no specific start and completion date in draft documents Trinity’s distributed to the towns for approval. “What you’ve represented is that the [Trinity] budget works for you now. Previously you’ve stated that there is no market present for a market rate project but there could be at some point in the future.”

“It’s not going to be a year from now,” said Keefe. “It’s not going to be three years from now.”

Instead of launching now, Normand suggested “Vicksburg Square may be the last piece of the redevelopment of Devens.”

“With all due respect,” started Keefe, who has jousted with Normand and DEAT’s over its suggestion that condominiums would generate more tax revenue to municipal services for its residents- a concept that Trinity has not placed on the table. “Anything is a possibility.”

“We’re never going to see the run-up in housing that we saw in the middle of the last decade,” said Keefe. “Alot of real estate deals were done that shouldn’t have been done. Many shouldn’t have been homeowners. I’m in real estate. I’m sort of hoping- sort of banking – on you being right. But to defer this opportunity that we’re very confident on…is not wise policy.”

Normand called such talk a “developer’s perspective” while DEAT looked longer term. Normand said Devens first turned to lower paying warehousing jobs when the Army base closed, but has since grown steadily in high tech jobs with salaries that “effectively disenfranchises two-thirds of the [Devens] workforce.”

Keefe bristled at the use of the word “disenfranchising.”

“Excluding?” offered Normand instead.

“I don’t think we are disenfranchising anybody,” said Keefe.

“One person is making between $35,000 and $40,000 in this room,” said Goldenfarb. “It’s a very honorable salary.”

“Your project meets a very important need,” said Normand, who added, “That need doesn’t need to be satisfied by one project . So Vicksburg Square would become the ‘low income housing area’ on Devens and I don’t think there’s any way around that.”

“Victor, your choice of words,” pleaded Keefe. “You can say ‘low income’ 20 times and it has an adverse effect. Consider these ‘working people.’ There’s nothing wrong with them “I don’t think we’re going to change anyone’s mind at this point.”

“We want to know how this is a good deal for us. We know it’s a great deal for you,” said Sobalvarro. “We’re concerned it’s not going to be a great deal for the one’s who’ll live there.”

Keefe began, “The people who are housing here are not special needs or require ” before Sobalvarro cut him off, “We’re not implying that and I wish you’d not continue to go there.”

Selectman Bill Johnson said the project wouldn’t serve most of Harvard’s municipal employees, nor empty nesters in Harvard who wouldn’t qualify to live in Vicksburg Square based on their income. “Our concern is you building this, we still have need in our town that will not qualify for affordable housing in this [project].”

Trinity projects 78 school aged children in the complex, but Harvard School Superintendent Joseph Connelly said his data suggests as many as 117 students could live at Vicksburg Square. The education cost slides accordingly from $1 million to $1.5 million a year, said Connelly.

“The School Committee’s primary concern has been to have the ability to maintain the quality of education for all kids,” said Connelly. Connelly sought, and Keefe offered, data that shows MassDevelopment’s ongoing financial ability to fund its education contract to educate all of Devens students within the Harvard Public Schools.

Keefe said the contract is “beautiful for both sides. I can’t see anything that needs to change. If Harvard thinks it doesn’t want to handle any more kids, next time the contract comes up, put a cap on the number of kids.”

Planning Board Chairman Kara Minar quizzed Keefe on the cost for a taxi to get to the Hannaford Supermarket in Ayer. “I can find out,” offered Keefe.

“Ten dollars or twenty dollars round trip,” answered Minar. “And I haven’t even bought the groceries.”

“How do they do it in Boston?” asked Keefe.

Minar spiked the ball. “In Boston they’re near mass transit. In October around here, it can be snowing.”

People “scrimp” to get by, countered Keefe with a jibe. “That may be a shock to many people here in Harvard.”

“You’re putting up a red herring to say we’re not supporting people with very low income,” blasted Minar. “In fact, I don’t think you’re supporting people with very low income.”

Clark said another concern is the life expectancy of the “golden goose” – MassDevelopment’s funding for the cost of educating Devens pupils while the concept of the final Devens disposition remains unresolved. “It won’t last forever and we have to figure out how we’ll manage without it.”

Keefe apologized for any “somewhat adversarial” comments.

“We’d like to get behind the project. Maybe this isn’t the right time,” said Clark. “We’re trying to shape the project to be an asset to all the communities.”

If granted three ‘yes’ votes from the simultaneous Ayer, Shirley and Harvard Town Meetings in late January or early February, Trinity said it will need another 2-3 months for final schematics and more time for a development plan to follow. Trinity proposes taking title to the four main Vicksburg Square buildings on the 19 acre campus in pieces, and constructing the apartments in phases of two massive buildings at a time. “One building would be insufficient to give an investor confidence that it [the project] would be completed all the way,” said Keefe.

Despite the tax credit approval wait, Keefe projects Phase 1 construction could begin in late 2012 or early 2013 with complete occupancy within three months thereafter except for “variables beyond our control.” Then the second group of massive buildings would undergo rehabilitation and build out.

After the meeting adjourned, Keefe approached the school committee members and pledged, “We’ll either make you happy or we’ll go home. You can quote me.”

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