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New Plan for Housing at Old Base

May 12, 2011 : The Boston Globe, by Scott Van Voorhis

Generations of soldiers passed through the now-deserted barracks in historic Vicksburg Square on the Fort Devens property. Now the abandoned center of the former military base may find new life as a home for old warriors, among others, under plans unveiled by a Boston developer.

The company, Trinity Financial LLC, last week rolled out a long-awaited proposal to renovate and redevelop Vicksburg Square, meeting with residents and elected officials in Ayer and Harvard, two of the property’s host communities.

The proposal calls for 246 apartments, with 80 percent of the units set aside as affordable housing for families earning less than the median income. Rents would range from $450 to $1,200 a month, according to Trinity.

And in a major nod to the large number of retired military living in the towns around Devens, there would be a built-in preference for veterans and active-duty personnel when decisions are made on renting out the apartments.

The initial pitch won praise from some residents and officials in Ayer, a town that a few years ago spurned a proposal to build residential housing at Vicksburg Square. While the Massachusetts Development Finance Agency controls the former Army property, renamed Devens, any major zoning changes have to be approved by residents of the three towns that share portions of it: Ayer, Harvard, and Shirley.

“I think your veterans preference is a winning formula,” said Jim Fay, a retired Army officer and Ayer selectman who spent 20 years of his military career at Fort Devens.

Trinity’s presentations on its $83 million redevelopment project kicked off what will be a monthslong campaign to win over voters in the three towns.

The development company, which has built a number of housing projects in Boston, began more than a year ago to explore plans for redeveloping Vicksburg Square, a collection of historic, 1920s-era Army buildings and barracks named after a key Civil War victory.

Trinity executives said they ended up ruling out any plan for commercial redevelopment, after deciding that there is simply no market interest in such a project at Devens.

“It is a white elephant,” said James Keefe, Trinity’s chief executive, of the idea that Vicksburg Square could be turned into an incubator for young companies.

However, Trinity officials said, its outside consultant found significant interest among potential investors in building rental housing at Devens, a finding that comes with an upsurge in apartment construction activity across Greater Boston.

Trinity’s plans call for renovating Vicksburg’s four buildings, which form a square around a sprawling parking lot, into affordable, market-rate, and senior apartments. The parking area would be replaced by green space, with a pair of smaller roads running alongside the buildings.

The complex would also include a pair of potentially signature elements as well. The base’s old movie theater would be converted into a new home for the Fort Devens Museum, currently operating out of unmarked office space on the former base.

Trinity also plans to hold a national competition for artists interested in creating public art for the central green slated to take shape in the center of the Vicksburg Square complex.

Along with detailing its plans, Trinity sought to address concerns that have been raised in the past about converting Vicksburg Square into housing.

When the developer first broached the idea of housing last year, it faced anxiety among elected officials in Ayer, who were concerned about the impact that hundreds of new rentals would have on the area’s still shaky real estate market.

Company officials responded with their own study, which they contend shows that the new units would meet less than 10 percent of the area's demand for rental housing, said Abby Goldenfarb, project manager for Trinity.

Gary Luca, an Ayer selectman, said that instead of hurting the local real estate market, the lower-cost rentals could provide a feeder market of first-time home buyers.

“I think it’s a great plan,” Luca said. “You have my full support.”

But Ayer Selectman Frank Maxant, a vocal critic of adding housing at Vicksburg Square, remained adament in his opposition. He said that the project is too urban to succeed in a largely rural area.

Instead, he believes Vicksburg Square would be better utilized by providing rented quarters for growing young companies in need of affordable space.

“You are taking a city block and putting it down in a rural area,” he said. “I can’t see how this can work.”

Meanwhile, even as it gains newfound support, the proposal still has a long haul ahead of it, acknowledged Keefe, Trinity’s chief executive.

The development company plans to hold a series of meetings and public hearings over the next few months, culminating in a triple Town Meeting vote held on a single night in the fall. Ayer, Harvard, and Shirley residents will be asked to decide on a proposal to change the zoning in Vicksburg Square from commercial to residential in simultaneous Town Meeting sessions.

“We are at the beginning of the middle of the process,” Keefe said. “In the end, we are not going to be able to make everybody happy.”

© Copyright 2011 The Boston Globe.