HARVARD — Following up on a discussion begun last week, selectmen Tuesday night shared their views on the Vicksburg Square redevelopment proposal set to come before voters in Ayer, Harvard and Shirley at simultaneous super town meetings next week.
They also heard public comment on the project, a 246-unit residential complex with a hefty “affordable” component and veterans’ preference for some apartments.
Over the last couple of years, proponents – Mass Development and Trinity Financial, the firm the state agency picked for the project – have presented the plan in the communities. In a nutshell, Trinity proposes to rehabilitate, repurpose and subsequently manage four vacant buildings in Devens’ historic Vicksburg Square as rental apartments.
The project requires a zoning change and amendments to the Devens Reuse Plan that all three towns must approve.
Plea for Veterans
Veterans’ Services Agent Dennis Lyddy, citing the veterans’ preference included in the project, urged Harvard residents to vote for it. He underscored the town’s history as a “leader on many issues,” and said he hoped its citizens would do the right thing for its veterans this time. “This is one of those moments,” he said.
Devens Weighs In
Devens Committee Vice Chairman Tom Kinch said Devens residents surveyed at the board’s request were evenly split on the issue. Half favored it, half did not.
“We surveyed all registered voters” living on Devens, he said, including those in veterans and women’s shelters. But they did not survey live-in students at Shriver Job Corps.
In all, 110 people responded to the survey: 55 said yes and 55 said no, Kinch said.
Clearly, if folks were looking to this survey for a reason to say yes or no, “It’s not there,” he said. He indicated the result might have been different if the committee had educational material to hand out. “One thing we learned is that we didn’t have the information that will be available at the super town meeting,” Kinch concluded.
With four of five board members present, the selectmen spoke their minds on the issue, one at a time.
Tim Clark opposed the proposal. He cited “a lot of information” from different town groups, none of which found it “favorable.” His main concern was that the development was the wrong fit for the area, which he said is “not suitable for low and moderate income families” in part because there’s no public transportation. He questioned whether the affordable units would be “sustainable.” Other DHCD projects are more “deserving,” he said. “I don’t see how raising the housing cap is in the town’s best interest right now.”
Peter Warren strongly disagreed. He favored the proposal, the only selectman to say yes. He pointed out that Harvard previously approved another Vicksburg Square proposal for 350 units, but it didn’t pass because the other towns said no. Although there are fewer units, it will be an “economic boost” for the entire area,” he said. Citing other pros, he said the Devens area is walkable for residents and the project will create jobs as well as housing.
As for schools, projections show Harvard schools should have “plenty” of space in future to educate Devens students. Another plus is Trinity Financial, a capable developer and manager. Warren was the only selectmen to accept Trinity’s invitation to visit some of its other managed projects and he was ‘disappointed” that nobody else did, he said.
As for the “groups” Clark mentioned, he said the DEAT report is flawed and data might be inaccurate. One more stalling tactic, in his view, and “nothing done at Devens” again.
Ron Ricci agreed with Warren about Trinity, but not the project. “You couldn’t find a better developer,” he said. But he doesn’t think the proposal is in the town’s best interest.
Chairman Marie Sobalvarro also said no, citing negative votes by the Ayer and Shirley Finance Committees. Another con was that this project, unlike the last one proposed for Vicksburg Square, relies heavily on grants and is not “sustainable,” she said.
“Mass Development makes a lot of promises that don’t pan out,” Clark added.
“We’ve articulated to them what Harvard wants.”
Warren responded. “You’ve spent $150,000 studying the Devens issue,” he said. “What does it take?”
If that’s so, “Why haven’t we reached consensus?” Clark shot back.
Sobalvarro halted the heated exchange and the board voted: one for and three against.