Devens: A Base Redevelopment Formula that Works
November 17, 2009
The Patriot Ledger, by Allison Manning
DEVENS – Military personnel who lived at the former Fort Devens Army base wouldn’t recognize the Devens of today. There’s a vibrant center of town, with a hotel, a conference center and new construction. Residents and commuters visit the post office, go to the gym, fill up their cars’ gas tanks and grab coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts.
Kids play lacrosse and Ultimate Frisbee fans compete in tournaments on the former base’s green fields.
Construction crews are finishing a $750 million Bristol-Myers Squibb pharmaceutical plant, which is to begin producing a rheumatoid arthritis drug in 2011. Several other businesses, including Anheuser-Busch, Procter & Gamble and Evergreen Solar, call Devens home.
Golfers in carts drive across roads to the next hole at the highly regarded Red Tail Golf Club.
In the residential area, Colonial homes and small ranches, once used by military officers, are now renovated and occupied by about roughly 250 Devens residents.
Not everything has changed, though. The Army still occupies 5,000 acres of the base for training and Reserve purposes. And other remnants of the base’s history remain, such as the Fort Devens cemetery.
The progress at Devens contrasts sharply with the empty hangars and boarded-up buildings at the former South Weymouth Naval Air Station.
But Devens had several advantages in its explosive redevelopment, including having as its master developer a state-backed quasi-public agency.
Roughly 600 acres of the Devens property remains to be developed. The rest produces $3.7 million in annual revenue for the Massachusetts Development Finance Agency, also known as MassDevelopment.
The agency in charge of the South Weymouth redevelopment project, South Shore Tri-Town Development Corp., essentially started from scratch in 1998. The progress has been limited to some roadwork, land clearing and construction of a small building used for marketing.
Devens’ journey began in 1993, when the state Legislature designated an agency that later became known as MassDevelopment to be the principal developer, and appropriated $200 million to be spent over a 40-year period.
Back then, residents and officials figured it would take decades to develop the base. But 15 years later, the development is almost complete.
“MassDevelopment, in the end, had access to considerable resources,” said Lucy Wallace, a member of Harvard’s board of selectmen who was on her town’s planning board in the 1990s. “They were borrowing with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts backing up their borrowings. That’s a pretty good way to go to the bank.”
MassDevelopment can provide low-interest bonds to developers; the typical municipality can’t.
But Devens isn’t perfect. In 1994, Ayer, Harvard and Shirley voted on the 40-year reuse plan for the base. (The Army still controls most of the base land in Lancaster, for training purposes.) The towns essentially gave up their rights to decide what businesses would go in their back yards, and that meant they would forgo development revenues. But it also means they were freed from the demands of revitalizing the massive property.
The reuse plan they approved defines a number of development and residential zones. The development zones include manufacturing, distribution, innovation and technology.
And while Devens residents pay taxes to MassDevelopment, they don’t vote for the officials that make their local governing decisions.
“It’s not exactly taxation without representation,” MassDevelopment Chief of Staff Meg Delorier said, noting that residents vote for the governor, who appoints the 12-member Devens Enterprise Commission.
The commission acts as the planning board, zoning board of appeals, board of health, conservation commission and historic district commission.
The towns still wield some power with the reuse plan, which cannot be changed unless all of the towns agree. MassDevelopment, which would like to add housing stock in the Vicksburg Square area of the base, has been unable to change that area’s zoning because of resistance from Ayer. There are 102 housing units, and MassDevelopment is limited to a total of 282 by the reuse plan.
The biggest challenge for the redevelopers has been branding an expanse of land that for decades was known as Fort Devens – a place physically and psychologically sealed off from the surrounding towns.
But business managers at the former base said they have been happy with MassDevelopment’s pro-business stance, bonding opportunities and quick 75-day permitting process.
“They really get it,” said Kurt Macnamara, principal developer of the Devens Recycling Center. “It’s an opportunity to build the perfect town.”
© Copyright 2009 The Patriot Ledger.