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Lt. Gov: Vicksburg Square a ‘Great Opportunity’ for Devens

March 20, 2012 : The Lowell Sun, by Hiroko Sato

DEVENS – Saying Devens is important to the region’s economy and veterans, Lt. Gov. Tim Murray visited Vicksburg Square on Monday morning, bringing with him a ringing endorsement for the $83 million project to convert the empty Army barracks there into 246 units of affordable apartments for seniors and veterans.

“The Patrick-Murray administration is behind this project,” Murray said, as he stood on the doorstep to a historic brick building that makes up part of the 19.6-acre quadrangle. “It’s a great opportunity (for the region) on so many levels.”

The Patrick administration’s endorsement comes as area residents try to prepare for so-called Super Town Meeting scheduled for March 28 to vote on the housing project. Super Town Meeting refers to a Town Meeting that will take place simultaneously in Shirley, Harvard and Ayer – the three towns that have a say over zoning issues concerning the former fort community of Devens.

Trinity Financial, a Boston-based company behind the housing project, is proposing a slew of zoning amendments for Vicksburg Square to make the project happen, which requires a majority vote in each of the three towns to pass.

The project calls for 78 units of senior housing and 168 apartment units with a preference for veterans. Eighty percent of the project would be affordable under state guidelines.

MassDevelopment, a quasi-public economic-development agency that provides municipal services to Devens, selected Trinity for Vicksburg Square redevelopment through a request-for-proposals process in 2010.

As a Worcester native, Murray said he understands how Devens has served as the region’s economic center and that a large number of veterans still live there because of the fort’s history.

“This is a real opportunity to do something significant” for veterans, Murray said of the housing project.

Murray said the housing development is projected to create 150 construction jobs while preserving the buildings that have a significant place in the region’s military history. And Trinity, which has developed a number of affordable-housing projects in the Boston area over the past 25 years, has a track record of partnering with community members to make projects a success.

“This is going to be a project that’s going to be here for both the short and long term,” Murray said.

State Sen. Jamie Eldridge, an Acton Democrat who also spoke at Monday’s press conference, said smart growth calls for housing projects that are “slightly denser” than conventional development in order to preserve open space, and the Vicksburg Square project is just that.

He also noted that economic development and housing creation go hand in hand, and each small project adds to the statewide housing supply.

“We need to think bigger. We need to think bolder,” Eldridge said. “Vicksburg Square is part of that bigger and bolder vision.”

MassDevelopment CEO Marty Jones said the rehabilitation of Vicksburg Square requires “complete gutting” of the buildings that contain asbestos and lead paint, and Trinity has the ability to handle such a comprehensive project.

With another 4 million square miles of industrial land left to be redeveloped, Devens has financial resources to pay for municipal services that future projects, including Vicksburg Square, may require, Jones said.

Dozens of supporters gathering for the press conference included area residents and town officials.

Armen Demerjian, a retired physician who has lived at Devens since 2001, said after the press conference that Vicksburg Square tenants would shop at local businesses and help make the community more vibrant.

“This is beneficial to us residents,” Demerjian said.

“It’s got to happen,” Harvard Selectman Peter Warren said, adding that the project would stimulate the local economy while preserving the historic buildings.

“There are more pluses than minuses,” Warren added.

Some Devens residents, who call themselves “Army brats,” said the former barracks is a symbol of those who sacrificed for the country, and rehabilitating the buildings would be a great way to honor veterans.

“This is our Statue of Liberty here,” Devens resident Regina Kim said of the buildings.

© Copyright 2012 The Lowell Sun.