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Nashoba Publishing/Mary Arata
Trinity Financial Assistant Project Manager Dan Drazen, right, pitched his company s proposed repurposing of the vacant Vicksburg Square campus on Devens to Wednesday s meeting of the Devens Business Roundtable. From the left, the roundtable included Devens Grill co-owner Elaine Gailey, Loaves and Fishes Food Pantry Executive Director Patricia Stern, SABIC Innovative Plastics Film Operations Manager Amber Fulmer, Jerilyn Ware of Johnson Matthey Pharma Services and Devens Enterprise Commission Planner Neil Angus.
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DEVENS -Trinity Financial Assistant Project Manager Dan Drazen continued to make rounds in support of the proposal to rezone the vacant Vicksburg Square to permit it’s reuse as a 246 unit apartment complex. Drazen talked with a dozen attendees at Wednesday’s Devens Business Roundtable meeting.

A show of hands revealed that seven of the twelve audience members live in Ayer, Harvard or Shirley – making them eligible to vote on the zoning issue that appears poised for a March 28 “Super Town Meeting” vote between the towns. .

Four out of five units would be set aside for “affordable” or “workforce” housing for low income households. Roughly a third of the units would be set aside for senior housing. There’d also be a rental preference within the affordable housing stock for active military soldiers and veterans.

In addition to adding a multifamily zoning use to the stalled Innovation and Technology campus, voters will also be asked to roughly double the present 282 unit Devens housing cap. By adding the 246 Vicksburg apartments, the new Devens cap would be 528 housing units.

A simple majority vote is all that’s needed for a town to vote “yes.” A ‘no’ vote from any town kills the proposal.

Pam Gordon of the Evergreen Garden Child Care Center on Barnum Road asked “does it just sit there” if voters reject the rezoning request. Drazen answered, “We’d pack our bags and go back to Boston. We don’t see any reason why we would stay.”

The buildings have been vacant for seven years. MassDevelopment tapped Trinity in June 2010 to shepherd the exploratory process forward.

Trinity’s “vision sessions” began that fall to gather community input on the potential reuse of the buildings. Trinity unveiled its project plans in May 2011.

Since then, Drazen and others Trinity leaders, including company president James Keefe, have pounded the pavement to drum-up support for the critical Super Town Meeting vote.

“It’s an arduous process we’re going through,” admitted Drazen. Securing support from one town can be tough enough “but winning three towns with their own unique characters is challenging.”

“Most of our work is in urban areas,” like Boston and Lowell said Drazen. Drazen said Trinity leans towards downtown projects and the overhaul of historic structures.

Water is Vicksburg Square’s enemy, Drazen said. Water leaks, followed by repeated freeze/thaw cycles are wrecking havoc on the mainly-concrete structures. “The longer this is held off, the more expensive it’s going to become.”

Trinity proposes 1-, 2- and 3-bedroom units. Twenty percent of the units would have market rate rents of $1,100 – 1,700 per month. The rest would have “affordable” monthly rents of $1,026 to $1,350, except for 20 units set aside for households with ‘extremely low incomes” and therefore “correspondingly lower” rents.

Drazen said the project is not a ‘subsidized’ or planned Section 8 HUD housing development. “This is not public housing.” But Drazen explained that Trinity is relying on the issuance of low income housing and historic rehab tax credits to make the project work.

The gatekeeper for the federal tax credits is the state Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) which last year apportioned the state’s $15 million annual tax credit allotment among competing Massachusetts applicants. Drazen acknowledged it’s a competitive playing field to land the credits but pointed to Trinity’s 25 year history in assembling financing portfolios for such projects.

Construction jobs will result, though Drazen admitted that not all workers will come from the local area. Drazen repeated Trinity’s contention that the project will deliver a tenant population with a combined $6- to $8-million each year in disposal income. Trinity contends that each household will have $2,500 each month left to spend after satisfying rent obligations.

Elaine Gailey of Shirley co-owns the Devens Grill. She asked if Trinity would manage the apartment rental operations. “We have a property management company that would manage the site. We want to make sure its maintained well and kept up to a pretty high standard.”

Gailey said she often hears from Devens homeowners that “all these rental properties will somehow bring their property value down. It can’t possibly- does it?”

Drazen said there are studies that suggest otherwise, but the answer lies largely with “how well the properties are maintained.” Drazen said Trinity is committed to providing tours of its prior projects to any and all. “Even if it’s just one of you.”

Drazen said of Trinity’s target tenant population, “These are working people. If they can’t pay their rent and fall behind, we’ll take action to correct that. That’s a bigger factor than property values. I can’t imagine how taking something that’s vacant and falling down and restoring it would do anything but add value.”

Judy Cohen of Devens Recycling Center said she heard a lot of negative reaction from local voters who attended the Jan. 18 MassDevelopment meeting regarding the proposal. She asked what strategies Trinity plans to employ to win the local vote.

“I associate this whole process with an election. And you’ve got to get all these towns to vote for you,” said Cohen. “Despite your outreach, I heard an awful lot of dissent. A lot of us are for this. It’s good for the business and good for the economy of this area. But I didn’t get that sense from the residents that live in Devens or in these local towns.”

“Without tipping our hand on our strategy,” Drazen said Trinity continues to battle against “misconception and that this is public housing and that it will be a ghetto.”

Once financing and tax credits are assembled, Drazen projected a 5-6 year time frame for the phased project to be complete from the time ground is broken. Ayer/Devens Postmaster Gary Luca, who is also an Ayer selectman, asked on the DHCD tax credit timeline.

Drazen didn’t hazard a guess but said “there’s a finite amount of resources and they are developers chasing those resources. The pie is shrinking. We have a track record securing those credits so I don’t think we’re at any disadvantage as compared to any developer out there.”

Alene Reich of Ayer is the Executive Director of the Devens-based Freedom’s Way Heritage Association. She said the rigorous Department of the Interior screening process will ensure the “best standard of practice” in the historic preservation of the buildings. In return, Reich said developers receive a 20 percent tax credit for the extra effort and investment in the historic structures.

Nashoba Valley Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Melissa Fetterhoff said “the Chamber is supporting this. In our mission, we do support economic development for the business community.”

The final two public hearings on the proposal are planned for Tuesday, Feb. 21 at 7 pm at Harvard Town Hall and Thursday, March 1 at 7 pm at Ayer Town Hall. The three towns are tentatively in agreement that March 28, at least at this point, looks like the prime evening for the ultimate Super Town Meeting vote.

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