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“The Devens reuse challenge demands a visionary planning effort grounded in environmental, social, economic reality. It must be realistic, pragmatic, market-driven, flexible and future-oriented.”

Did this goal morph into something different as it was squeezed into sub-goals and objectives?

Has the passage of time petrified positions? Has “flexibility” and “future-oriented” become locked in the repetition of old grievances and defense of outdated concepts?

What a concise selection of words to frame the task of redeveloping Devens. What dynamic wording, realistic, pragmatic, market-driven, flexible and future-oriented. All represent, cry out for ongoing and serious review to stay current.

In light of this clear and lofty goal, we need to question the implementation and update of the reuse plan. We need a renewed 2012 reuse plan that creates a dynamic process as its implements this lofty goal.

Developing Devens as an economic handmaiden to the surrounding towns was the natural inclination in 1993. Unfortunately the importance of a thriving, populated Devens was and still appears to be viewed as a threat, not an opportunity.

Fort Devens was an economic engine for Ayer, Shirley and Harvard, due to the population of soldiers and their families that lived on Devens and the region. I contend that this was the primary economic driving force, far outstripping the employment factor. The implementation of the reuse plan followed, “the bring jobs to Devens model.” I contend this does not have near the impact of an expanding Devens population. If jobs alone could return the region to economic health, we should have seen a greater impact from the thousands of purported employees streaming into Devens everyday. Most come in Jackson Road daily and leave via Jackson Road daily.

Population is needed; people need services, people shop locally and people using local professionals. To view people as a liability for a community is to negate the purpose of a community. I view this Vicksburg Square rental development as an important step in attracting people to Devens. Renting compliments local home ownership. Condo ownership at Vicksburg Square will not. One supports and one competes.

I really do not expect renters to come and stay decades. A few might, but it is clear to me that most will use Vicksburg Square as a stepping stone to ownership in the region. I see this as, “They come, they like, and they stay in this region.” Indulge me for a minute and let’s just play out this scenario.

Jay is a returning veteran, two tours oversees and finally ready to launch his civilian life, he’s recently married and needing to gain traction in civilian society. He plans on additional schooling but need to work along with schooling to support his new family. He finds a job in Fitchburg that pays a modest starting salary. His family needs a place to live on his $28,000 income. His wife worked while Jay was oversees but they are now expecting their first child, a son.

They see Vicksburg Square veterans’ preference rental units at a cost they can afford, and they qualify. This young family starts their new life in a two-bedroom unit at Vicksburg Square, Devens. They first discover the joy of easy walks on quiet streets, skating on the outdoor rink, sliding down the slope behind their unit. A short walk to the playground brings joy to their young son. Fishing and swimming at Mirror Lake, the affordable season pass is a blessing on their tight budget. Jay likes to golf but limits himself to evening rates to stretch the family budget. A big day for this young couple is hopping the train to Boston and enjoying the sights and sounds of the North End and shopping at Faneuil Hall. Both volunteer at the Devens Museum once a month. Jay is enrolled in an evening college course at Mount Wachusett Community College here on Devens.

Jay’s parents want to downsize, they are on the waiting list for an over 55 senior rental unit at Vicksburg Square. After moving in, they now spend serious quality time with their grandson and family. Jay’s dad is a former Green Beret who immediately becomes active in veterans’ organizations in the region. Jay’s mom is a former elementary teacher, and it does not take long before she lands an aide position at the Hildreth Elementary School in Harvard. Evenings she runs a volunteer study program she organized in the Vicksburg Square function room for Devens, Ayer and regional students in need of just that little extra help.

Well they have been here five years now and Jay’s family now numbers four. Both family units love living in this area. Jay loves his job and with the recent promotion, looking for a home is now in the family’s immediate future. Their attachment to this region results in a decision to restrict their housing search to Ayer, Harvard, Devens and Shirley. Jay’s parents plan to stay another 10 to 12 years, until the grandchildren reach that independent age, then relocate to a warmer climate.

So goes the story, a neverending loop of young families or retired couples, cycling in and out of Vicksburg Square rentals.

In my future-oriented thoughts, a revitalized Vicksburg Square creates countless variations of this story over the next number of years. Go ahead, dream a vision and see the possibilities that your future-oriented thoughts create for a revitalized Vicksburg Square.

How does the reuse plan fall short of its lofty goal? The basic goal of the reuse plan requires a committed cooperative ongoing effort to maintain a current implementation plan. The design for implementation ignores this necessity; the decision making process addressing change seriously missed the mark with “tri-town super town meetings.” Apparently the sentiment in 1993 was, if we make it hard to change we will avoid frivolous change. Make change very hard and we will secure the integrity of the plan, secure the future. Instead the result is a dynamic goal, saddled with a static review and an illogically difficult change process frozen in 1993.

The current Trinity proposal addresses the elements of the reuse plan goal as follows:

Social and economic reality: Housing serving the workforce necessary to drive our economy is scarce and costly. Permanent reasonable rentals become a mix in the area and drive an opening of this region to hundreds of new family units. Businesses on Devens now have a local housing option attracting the workforce they need to thrive.

Realistic: There is a general agreement that to save and restore Vicksburg Square to its rightful historic prominence calls for housing. It is understood that restoration of historic Vicksburg Square will only occur with private developer investment.

Pragmatic: Eighteen years has resulted in one serious opportunity to save these historic buildings. We all seem to agree that Trinity is innovative, committed and visionary. Eighteen months of listening and dozens of community meetings attest to this. Is a roll of the dice at some future time seeking another developer really in our best interest?

Market-driven: The area needs good affordable rental housing to complements this area’s housing needs without competing in an already fragile housing market. Immediate development of Vicksburg Square will immediately affect Devens’ property values. Removing this prominent blight sitting at our community center is an economic “game changer.”

Flexible: Vicksburg Square redevelopment went nowhere under current zoning. Flexibility is needed to address 2012 reality.

Future-oriented: Vicksburg Square is developed and populated, housing values bump up and economic vitality is dramatically improved. West Main Street comes alive and current Ayer retailers gain customers. The Devens Museum becomes a destination for a steady stream of visitors. We move on to the numerous other challenges that face us.

PHILIP CROSBY

Devens

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