Devens housing complex nearing reality

September 30, 2018 : The Lowell Sun, by Scott Shurtleff

DEVENS - After years of wrangling, the Shirley Commons elderly-housing proposal has cleared a final hurdle toward actuality.

The Hospital Road construction project skirts the border with Shirley, adjacent to town offices, and will be built by the Boston-based Women's Institute for Housing and Economic Development, according to a press release.

Funded in large part by two Massachusetts economic initiatives, Shirley Commons includes 58 units of affordable housing with tenancy for seniors determined on household income percentage versus the median income for the area. A $2.3 million rental housing award will provide the direct subsidiary funding for the project under the state's Department of Housing and Community Development.

This recent investment comes on the heels of several completed projects to upgrade the surrounding infrastructure by the Baker-Polito administration. The MassWorks Infrastructure Grant Program funded the rebuilding of a key bridge in downtown Shirley in August and a vital sewer line in Groton.

Both of those, and more than a hundred other projects under the MassWorks umbrella, are drivers of economic stimulation and community development.

With an upgraded infrastructure and coalition of support from neighboring communities, the development company moved forward with designs, tentative approvals and funding applications, culminating in this week's announcement.

MassDevelopment is the governing body for the Devens community, home to about 300 residents but workplace for more than 5,000. The three towns that intersect at Devens -- Ayer, Shirley and Harvard -- also played a role in the forward movement. By changing their zoning laws to accommodate the development, the towns allowed for the construction, which is scheduled to begin next spring.

State Sen. Jamie Eldridge, an Acton Democrat, said of the complex's importance and location, "Shirley Commons provides the opportunity for seniors to live in a community close to amenities such as the town offices and the commuter rail, which will ensure that they can continue to lead full, independent lives."

The Devens Enterprise Commission oversees all activity within the community and will be the regulatory authority to issue building permits, approve and certify all work.

"We have seen the design, and we approved it," DEC Land Use Administrator Peter Lowitt said. "They have not applied for a permit yet, but we do have our own building department here for when that time comes."

The Women's Institute for Housing and Economic Development is a nonprofit construction company specializing in affordable housing. It was under that agency's guidance that the fuse was first lit.

Loni Willey, chief operating officer of the Women's Institute for Housing and Economic Development, said that once winning the contract in 2016, the group was granted ownership of the property under MassDev's land-disbursement agreement. The institute then amassed a team of investors, brought on a design firm and pushed the project forward into pre-development phase.

"MassDev, DEC, the neighboring towns, lawmakers and the Baker-Polito MassWorks initiative all had a hand in getting us to this point," she said, citing also her construction and architectural partners.

Willey said she hopes to have residents moved into 27 Hospital Road by spring 2020. The institute will manage and maintain the property once it's completed.