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New Vicksburg Square redevelopment plan lacks provision to protect historic buildings

The Massachusetts Development Finance Agency has proposed a new plan for redeveloping Vicksburg Square, Devens, for residential use. MassDevelopment Director of Land and Permitting Ed Starzec and Vice President Jessica Strunkin presented the plan to the Harvard Select Board at the board’s Feb. 25 meeting.

This plan, which Strunkin described as the area’s “best possible chance for productive reuse,” is very similar to the residential option in the plan MassDevelopment put forward during early 2019. It would rezone Vicksburg Square from its current innovation and technology zoning classification to residential, and allow the construction of 288 housing units, many of which would be rented rather than owned. This would roughly double the amount of housing allowed in Devens, which is currently capped at 280 units. Up to 30% of the area could be developed for ancillary uses, such as a dry cleaner or gym, up from 15% in the 2019 proposal.

According to Strunkin, the plan does not guarantee that the historic Vicksburg Square buildings would remain intact. She said that she hoped they could be preserved, as they are on the National Register of Historic Places, but cautioned that the developer might not find it possible financially.

The redevelopment plan would roughly double the amount of housing in Devens. (Courtesy photo)

The development would include enough affordable rental units to fulfill the requirements of a 40B provision allowing all units, even nonaffordable ones, to count toward the towns’ affordable housing stock. This would either mean 25% of units would be available only to households earning 80% of the area median income, or 20% would be available to those earning 60%. Chapter 40B requires that 10% of a town’s housing stock be affordable (able to be rented or purchased by a household making 80% of the median income), a goal that Harvard has yet to meet.

According to Strunkin, Harvard School Superintendent Linda Dwight assured her that Harvard’s school system would have sufficient capacity for students living in the new units. Despite this, the plan caps the number of three-bedroom units at 10% of the total. Starzec estimated that the remaining units would be split evenly between one- and two-bedroom units, but that judgment would be left to the developer.

The plan does not add any new transportation options, but Strunkin expressed confidence in the ability of Devens’ current shuttle to carry residents to destinations such as local businesses and the commuter rail. It also does not address the fact that some of the Vicksburg Square buildings fall within Harvard’s historical boundary, while others fall within Ayer’s.

MassDevelopment has created a webpage where additional updates about the project can be found at https://bit.ly/3dcR8C7. According to Strunkin, barring further changes, the towns will vote on this plan during a Super Town Meeting in October 2020. During a super town meeting, Harvard, Ayer, and Shirley hold simultaneous town meetings to vote on the same issue.

Devens is a 6.8-square-mile area of land that was taken from the surrounding towns (Harvard, Ayer, Shirley, and Lancaster) in 1917 to form an army base. In 1996, the military returned most of Devens to the state, keeping the Lancaster portion and some other small areas for training. Since then, the state, through its MassDevelopment finance and development agency, has been working to restore the area’s economic well-being, while providing government services to residents and businesses. According to MassDevelopment, Devens is currently home to more than 400 residents and its businesses employ over 5,000 people.

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