DEVENS — At a recent JBOS meeting, members asked MassDevelopment’s Vice President for Devens Operations George Ramirez if there’s “anything in the works” for Grant Road.
His answer was no, not now, but the options are open.
Housing could be built on Grant Road, he explained, but developers and potential homebuyers might be put off by its history. The area where the houses once stood is posted with permanent signs warning that it was once a firing range at Fort Devens before the houses were built.
More recently, Grant Road was eyed as the next step in plans to populate Devens.
When dozens of military-era housing units were razed on Grant Road, it opened the door to residential development within the same footprint. Because new homes would basically be replacing old ones, their numbers would not upset the housing cap set by state law and the Devens Reuse Plan.
And because the approximately 42-acre site is already zoned residential, development plans would not trigger a tri-town vote, Ramirez said.
First, though, the Grant Road area had to be detoxified, including removal and/or remediation of soil at the cleared housing sites, which reportedly contained toxins from house foundations permeated with pesticides.
MassDevelopment considered Grant Road for residential development before the real-estate market tanked. RFPs went out and bidders presented plans, including local outfits and nationwide players such as Pulte Homes, which eventually won out over the others.
But the deal fizzled out and redevelopment visions for Grant Road were mothballed.
Interest then turned to Vicksburg Square, which was twice targeted for redevelopment. Each time, plans that would have renovated and repurposed the area and saved most of its vacant brick buildings were derailed.
Neither plan, each of which called for rezoning, passed muster on a tri-town vote. The first time, Harvard and Shirley said yes, but Ayer said no. the second time, only Shirley agreed. Rezoning requires a majority vote of all three towns together.
Even in a faltering economy, it might seem logical to fall back on the Grant Road option. The area has been under soil management by the Department of Environmental Protection, the Army, the EPA and MassDevelopment, Ramirez said, but the work is done now.
“It’s cleaned up and ready for development,” he said, clearing the way for housing that could be built without triggering a tri-town vote.
Under rules spelled out in Mass General Law, Chapter 498, by which the state agency governs Devens, zoning changes require approval by the three host towns, Ayer, Harvard and Shirley. Grant Road, however, is already zoned residential.
JBOS member Phil Crosby, a Devens resident, seemed hopeful that the area could support cluster development, upping the number of units and of residents. Without a substantial uptick in population, Devens has little chance of becoming a town, he said.
“We’re looking at every opportunity,” Ramirez assured him.
Assuming the interest is in “a small project,” he said the question then becomes whether MassDevelopment should tackle the job in-house or seek a private developer.
Switching gears a bit, JBOS Chairman Tom Kinch asked Ramirez what he thought of “green” development at Devens, like a dozen or so recently built low-energy-use homes.
“They seem to be doing well,” Ramirez answered, with about three units sold.
It doesn’t surprise him that folks want to live in Devens, whose perks include direct highway access to Route 2 and sprawling acreage laced with paved roads, tree-lined sidewalks and utility infrastructure. Open space and recreational opportunities from its past as a planned military community include groomed playing fields and the beach at Mirror Lake.
However, Devens doesn’t include the typical array of suburban destinations. In a word, it lacks retail.
And it has yet to settle on a sustainable identity. After more than a decade of redevelopment since Fort Devens closed in 1996, Devens is home to some 65 businesses, many jobs, National Guard, Army and Marine installations and a handful of residents. Operating now under a state umbrella, Devens’ future disposition is uncertain.
But Ramirez’s update to JBOS focused on good news, in this case with a caveat. “The quality of life here is excellent,” he said. At issue, however, is “access to retail.”
Calling the new green development a “zero-net Petri dish,” he didn’t pick up the thread when Crosby suggested it might be a “model” for Grant Road. But he didn’t rule out similar innovative alternatives, such as a “Smart Growth” development on small lots, which Crosby suggested could be the way to go, even if the agency farms out the project.
With town-building in mind, Crosby said a “Smart Growth” development, which under state law could bypass local zoning, could bring 400 to 450 new residents to Devens, versus 176 if Grant Road were redeveloped as a typical residential area.
JBOS also quizzed Ramirez about the movie studio under construction. The project will offer only about 44 permanent jobs, he said, mostly for security and facilities managers. But it will put 110 to 120 people to work during each construction phase.
“Work is going on around the clock,” he said.
Asked if the studio project would generate a need for new housing, Ramirez said he envisions Devens hotels will fill up.
“Once there’s a shoot on the site,” however, who knows? Things could start happening. “We could get spin-off benefits,” he said.