Director of Community and Economic Development Chris Ryan has unveiled an ambitious plan to increase commercial activity in the Ayer Road commercial district without disrupting Harvard’s village character. After months of fine-tuning, the Planning Board gave him the green light to make the plan publicly available after conducting a final review at its June 17 meeting. The three-phase Ayer Road Corridor Planning Framework is detailed in a 24-page document. Reading copies are available for viewing in the land use boards office and on the town website. Ryan spoke about the plan in an interview this week.
Phase 1 calls for a market analysis and fiscal impact assessment. The market analysis will determine what volume and variety of businesses, such as retail, dining, and offices, the Ayer Road corridor could support. The assessment will be based on interviews with individuals, comparisons with nearby areas, and economic analysis formulae. The fiscal impact analysis examines both the tax revenue from and the cost of servicing new commercial development, providing an estimate of the most cost-efficient level of development. Between its two halves, Phase 1 is intended to inform Harvard residents about what they should try to develop in the Ayer Road corridor, and the potential financial reward of succeeding in this task.
Ryan estimated that Phase 1 will cost between $20,000 and $45,000, but this cost may be completely offset by a grant (whether from MassDevelopment or some other agency). Work on this phase could begin as soon as funding is secured and would not require the approval of a town meeting as long as the funding comes from an external source.
Phase 2 calls for the creation of a corridor vision plan, in which stakeholders would address the question: “What do we want to see in place 5-10 years from now?” The plan would aim to answer that question with regard to architectural design, siting, massing, traffic, transportation, and utilities, all informed by the data collected in Phase 1.
This phase would cost between $15,000 and $100,000, depending on how the vision plan is developed. In ascending order of both cost and work quality, Harvard could develop the vision plan in-house, work with a regional planning agency, hire a local consultant, engage in an open bidding process, or hire a nationally recognized expert firm.
Phase 3 is the creation of a form-based code, which would ensure that the findings of Phase 2 were implem
ented. A form-based code is a highly restrictive form of zoning that dictates the exact size, location, and appearance of each new building to be constructed in an area, even using graphics to show the proposed completed buildings.
According to Ryan, form-based codes are a popular way for towns to “make sure everything remains the same, or keep a traditional town-based feel” while still allowing new development. Ryan says that by frontloading many aspects of building design into the zoning bylaw, rather than leaving them to later developers, a form-based code removes much of the uncertainty about development. This allows citizens to know what they are going to get when they approve zoning changes (rather than needing to plan around worst-case scenarios), but also helps prospective businesses feel more confident that they will be approved as long as they meet the code’s requirements. The town of Ayer recently adopted a form-based code for its Main Street commercial area, while Littleton is in the process of adopting one for its town center.
Ryan estimates Phase 3 will cost between $43,000 and $150,000. Because of its graphic element, creating a form-based code requires the skills of an architect or urban designer specialized in such codes.
Ryan estimates the total process will cost $78,000 to $295,000 (much of which could be defrayed by grants) and last two to three years, which could be extended due to funding delays. The ideal finished product would be a detailed plan for the future of the Ayer Road commercial district, outlining both its commercial composition and physical appearance, which would be endorsed by Harvard’s citizens and would be based on sound economic analysis.
After completion of Phase 3, the next step would be to improve Ayer Road’s utilities. Ryan explained that the limited traffic capacity and lack of town water and sewer along Ayer Road are currently holding back commercial development. According to Ryan, one of the main arguments against improving these utilities is that the Ayer Road corridor might be overrun by poorly planned development, which would damage Harvard’s rural character. He sees the implementation of the form-based zoning code as a necessary step before “opening the floodgates” to commercial development, allowing Harvard to eventually reap the benefits of a thriving economic district without losing its village feel.