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Devens' former military facilities offer chance for community with few residents

April 1, 2019 : Worcester Business Journal, by Grant Welker

In the two decades since the closure of its longtime military base, Devens has rebounded with thousands of new jobs from dozens of employers like the pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb or consumer distributor Quiet Logistics.

Yet, the community still lacks for residents, with less than 2,000 living there, according to the U.S. Census.

A cluster of brick buildings dating to before World War II – which have stood empty since Devens's military days – could help change that. Rezoning efforts to allow for residential use have stalled before, but now the MassDevelopment, the state agency controlling Devens, is seeking approval from residents in the three towns who make up the former base – Ayer, Harvard and Shirley – to allow for up to 300 housing units.

Vicksburg Square remains as perhaps the most visible sign in Devens of the site's military history.

A series of buildings kept behind fencing and security checkpoints remain in use by the U.S. Army, but Vicksburg Square stands in front of Rogers Field, a former parade ground and a centerpiece of Devens where sports events are held, making it a reminder Devens hasn't entirely recovered from the base's closure in 1996.

Jessica Strunkin, MassDevelopment's top official in Devens as its vice president for the community, said the goal is to be able to preserve Vicksburg Square for its aesthetic appeal and historical roots.

"It's the quintessential image, the centerpiece of this community," Strunkin said.

Vicksburg Square includes more than 400,000 square feet in four buildings that once housed more than a thousand soldiers.

Three of those buildings – all but Revere Hall, the one stretching along Buena Vista Street in front of Rogers Field – have been empty since the 1990s, when Devens was still a military base. Revere Hall has been empty since MassDevelopment moved its offices out 15 years ago.

MassDevelopment officials see an opportunity now to both save the visual heart of Devens and add housing to what's still a community dominated by commercial and industrial uses.

"It's been a challenge to redevelop because of its size and the cost it's going to take to fix it," said Ed Starzec, MassDevelopment's project manager for Vicksburg Square.

Empty buildings and failed votes

The large brick Georgian Revival buildings in Vicksburg Square are stately but have seen better days.

Vandals have taken out most of the buildings' original copper piping, and little to no maintenance has been done since the buildings were vacated. Heating, ventilation and utilities have been shut off. Many windows have been broken, and much of the buildings' roofs and facades have crumbled. Inside, lead paint, asbestos and mold require major remediation work.

Break-ins were so common MassDevelopment fenced off the four main buildings, boarded up all first-floor windows and doors, and installed motion-sensitive video cameras monitored around the clock.

The buildings remain safe structurally, but with rust starting to wear away at the building's concrete and steel support frame, MassDevelopment is starting to watch more carefully.

A 2012 estimate put renovation costs at $120 million, but a more updated projection hasn't been undertaken. The project would require some mix of historic and low-income housing tax credits to be financially feasible.

One ally of the proposal to turn all this into housing and mixed use commercial is the Nashoba Valley Chamber of Commerce, which is based in Shirley and counts Devens businesses among its members. The chamber was the last tenant of Vicksburg Square, moving out just after MassDevelopment.

"They were definitely ready for improvement at that time," Melissa Fetterhoff, chamber president & CEO, said of the buildings' condition then, also praising their aesthetic appeal and historical significance. "For that alone, we'd love to see them renovated."

The chamber supports Vicksburg Square's renovation into housing, Fetterhoff said, because employees for businesses in the area have a hard time finding a place to live nearby.

Vicksburg Square last failed to win residential zoning approval in 2012.

Since that time, voters have backed other Devens proposals. The community won approval to rezone 33 acres to help accommodate a biotech building of up to 500,000 square feet, and to increase the community's housing ceiling by 120 units to make way for a new senior living complex.

MassDevelopment officials have spent much of the last few months meeting with residents in Devens and its member towns and fine-tuning a zoning proposal for Vicksburg Square housing. A simultaneous vote of residents in Ayer, Harvard and Shirley could take place in June, with a majority of support needed in all three towns.

The 2012 proposal called for four-fifths of Vicksburg Square's housing units to be restricted to lower-income households. After hearing from residents, that rate would be just 20 percent now, Starzec said.

Officials are taking care with the latest proposal to make sure they have support in place, knowing Vicksburg Square could soon become unsalvageable.

"It would be hard to replace those buildings with something else that has the presence that they do," Starzec said.

Success elsewhere

Aside from challenges with Vicksburg Square, Devens has been a success story for overcoming a military closure, which led to the loss of 7,000 jobs.

Today, the nearly 7-square-mile community has more than 6 million square feet of occupied space and more than 5,000 workers. Companies have been drawn in large part by a fast permitting process and easy accessibility to Route 2 halfway between I-495 and I-190.

Ongoing growth isn't just commercial and industrial. Aside from the proposal for Vicksburg Square, the housing development Emerson Green is starting its second phase with 81 units split between rental apartments and for-sale units in single-family homes and duplexes. A groundbreaking is planned this spring for 62 units of affordable senior living in the first phase of a complex off Hospital Road behind Ayer Shirley Regional Middle School to eventually have 120 units.