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State grant furthers Ayer’s plan to makeover portions of Park Street

Ayer’s Park Street in all its “auto-centric” less than walkable glory – ready for transformation into a traditional New England downtown street.
Ayer’s Park Street in all its “auto-centric” less than walkable glory – ready for transformation into a traditional New England downtown street.
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AYER – A state grant awarded to help the town redesign part of Park Street ties into Ayer’s long-term, sustainable growth goals, according to Community and Economic Development Director Alan Manoian.

Ayer is one of several communities across the commonwealth to receive capital grants as part of the state’s $5 million Housing Choice Initiative, and one of a handful re-designated as “Housing Choice Communities,” the Baker-Polito administration announced last week.

Ayer received $108,000 and will use the money to fund an engineering survey/design plan and cost estimate for a planned reconstruction project on a section of Park Street.

The design will include building an ADA-compliant sidewalk along a 1,000-foot stretch on one side of the roadway, adjacent to Main Street, with obstructive utility poles relocated.

The big-picture vision calls for replacing the poles with underground utilities, same as Main Street, Manoian said, with on-street parking as a traffic-calming measure. Parked vehicles also provide a buffer, he said, making the sidewalk more pedestrian friendly.

Another envisioned add-on: trees. “Imagine Ayer sidewalks with shade trees,” he said.

But the makeover isn’t primarily about how much better the area will look, he said. It’s about function.

The “Housing Choice Community” designation opens up future grant opportunities for projects covered under the HCI umbrella, including sidewalks, roads, storm drainage and water/sewer systems.

Although the ultimate aim is to address the state’s housing shortfall, boosting housing production is only one link in a chain that also includes supporting municipal construction projects that improve the quality of life in Massachusetts communities.

According to a March 31 press release from the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development (HED), which oversees the grant program, along with the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), the purpose, in part, is to recognize – and reward – communities that have made “substantial progress” toward that goal.

“We are grateful to the 78 communities that have earned …” the HCC designation, Gov. Charlie Baker said at the awards ceremony, held in Quincy, which plans to use its $250,000 grant to help build a housing resource center.

Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito noted the need for more “sustainable housing” and applauded the Housing Choice communities for stepping up to address the situation.

HCD Undersecretary Jennifer Maddox underscored that point. “We are thrilled to support these communities who have worked hard to promote housing on the local level” and have demonstrated dedication to “making smart, thoughtful and future-oriented decisions on zoning … and other issues,” she said.

Ayer’s Park Street project, for example, is part of an ambitious to-do list Manoian has been working on for some time. Grants play a key role, he said, noting that the HCI grant is the latest to land in Ayer, which in recent months has seen completion of a parking garage and commuter rail station upgrades.

Other improvement projects on the horizon include a sweeping revamp of West Main Street as part of a $3 million government grant the town received last year, in partnership with MassDevelopment.

Manoian explained how Ayer’s long-range plans dovetail with state housing goals and the HCI grant.

“It’s all about housing,” he said. Ayer, a compact community of about nine square miles, is “pro growth,” he said, but has seen increased development pressure, with “lots of new residents moving out from the metro Boston area.”

“We have to grow … in a sustainable way,” Manoian said. Which means shoe-horning big plans into a small footprint. The alternative is “sprawl,” he said, such as building upscale residential developments on the outskirts of town, with more roads and municipal services needed and cost as a consequence. “It’s no mystery, that’s how taxes go up,” he said.

Clustered growth makes more sense, he explained. Improving infrastructure. Creating walkable spaces, accessible places. “It’s not about how it looks,” but how it works, Manoian said.

Buildings shouldered side by side along a sidewalk, similar to Ayer’s Main Street set-up, with businesses at street level – offices, stores, restaurants – and residential apartments on the upper floors, fits the profile the town’s new Form-based Zoning Code seeks to promote. “We want to channel (development) closer to the downtown area,” Manoian said, including West Main and Park streets.

There’s already movement in that direction, he said, with pending proposals from potential buyers eyeing properties on Park Street, where they hope to put up multilevel buildings that would include housing units, several of them “affordable” under state income guidelines.

The sustainable growth Manoian talked about hinges on a zoning change he championed.

Voters at the 2019 town meeting agreed to adopt the “Form Based Zoning Code” he’d laid out in detail during workshops and presentations, town-wide, gathering input as well as support.

He had previously told a reporter that form-based zoning wasn’t his idea, originally. He’d seen it in action and knew it could be a win/win for Ayer, going forward. It has already opened the door to projects that previous zoning would not have allowed, the kind that HCI grants support.

Manoian directed a shout-out to his colleague, Community Development Program Manager Alicia Hersey. “She deserves credit” for spotting the grant program and alerting him, he said.