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Eldridge, Sena, and Harrington ask for increase in affordable housing at Devens

Devens’ three-member State House delegation says it’s time for MassDevelopment, the quasi-state agency that governs Devens, to diversify the mix of new housing at the former Army base, including redevelopment of the abandoned headquarters complex at Vicksburg Square.

In a three-page Dec. 27 letter to Dan Rivera, president and CEO of MassDevelopment, state Sen. Jamie Eldridge and state Reps. Dan Sena, D-37th Middlesex, and Sheila Harrington, R-1st Middlesex, wrote that given the state’s shortage of affordable housing, the agency should get behind the construction of additional units for low-income and working-class residents living in the Nashoba Valley region of central Massachusetts.

“If a state agency is not willing to exert the political will to build more housing in its own backyard, why should the 14 cities and towns that I represent, or any Massachusetts community, do their part?” asked Eldridge in a follow-up Jan. 10 press release.

The three legislators say MassDevelopment can take immediate steps to increase the availability of low-income and workforce housing at Devens in several ways:

Rezoning the seven-building, 20-acre Vicksburg Square property for residential development.

Pushing the developer of the Emerson Green neighborhood to construct the long-delayed 40-unit apartment building called for in its Phase 2 plan.

Requiring that the 14 remaining units of homes allowed by the current statutory limit on housing units in Devens be affordable to workers earning 30% to 80% of the region’s median income.

Sell at least one property at a below-market price to Clear Path for Veterans New England to provide housing for senior veterans.

The letter also urges that MassDevelopment help the towns of Harvard, Shirley, and Ayer pay for independent studies on the future of the redevelopment zone. “It is absolutely critical,” they wrote, that MassDevelopment support the three towns—whose political boundaries run through Devens—with “very specific contributions and value.”

Change is difficult

In a phone call Wednesday afternoon, Eldridge said that he, Sena, and Harrington understood that making any change at Devens, whether about housing or governance, was difficult. “But you know, that’s what MassDevelopment is there for—to have those conversations and discussions about the different interests and needs of the three towns. So let’s have that conversation now.”

The Harvard Select Board and Harvard-Devens Jurisdiction Committee (HDJC) have been waiting to hear from Rivera whether—and when—such support can be expected, but he has yet to answer a letter sent to him by the Select Board in August. The three legislators met with Rivera in late October to advise him of Harvard’s concerns and to discuss the issue of housing more generally.

On Tuesday, however, Rivera responded quickly through a spokesperson to a request for comment from the Press, saying that MassDevelopment was excited to have support for housing at Devens from the state delegation. He said that in response to the letter, the agency plans a second meeting with Eldridge, Sena, and Harrington to discuss how best to accomplish its requests and how to build consensus among the towns.

“We see this as a positive development in MassDevelopment’s desire for housing at Devens and the state’s focus on dealing with the housing crisis statewide,” Rivera said. “All in all a good day for the people in the area in desperate need for housing.”

While there is widespread support among town and state officials for rezoning Vicksburg Square for residential housing, previous attempts to rezone the property in 2009 and 2012 failed to win the support of voters. New residential housing at the iconic site requires the approval of the town meetings of Harvard, Ayer, and Shirley, all meeting on the same day—a Super Town Meeting .

New Massachusetts legislation passed in 2021 lowers the town meeting vote necessary to rezone a property for multifamily housing from two-thirds to a simple majority. But the Devens reuse plan—the 1998 agreement between MassDevelopment and the three towns that authorized the former base’s development—says voters in all three towns must approve the change. Ayer opposed redevelopment in 2009, and Harvard voted no in 2012.

The reuse plan includes one additional hurdle: It caps residential housing at Devens at 282 units. Only 14 units will remain once the 124 units of the Emerson Green neighborhood are complete. Past proposals for the redevelopment of Vicksburg Square have envisioned as many as 300 rental or  condominium units. To allow that many, a Super Town Meeting would have to raise the limit.

Harvard’s stake

Harvard has a particular interest in the planned apartment building at Emerson Green. The town’s Municipal Affordable Housing Trust agreed in 2016 to subsidize 10 units for sale as affordable rental units with a payment to the developer of $140,000. By subsidizing the 10 units, 25% of the total, Harvard is allowed to count all 40 toward its state-mandated goal of 10% affordability, which currently stands at 5.8%. But construction has been delayed by the pandemic and financial problems. In an email Neil Angus, the Devens Enterprise Commission’s environmental planner, said the developer is expected to begin construction of the multifamily apartments this spring. “That is consistent with the [DEC’s] approval that requires the multifamily apartments to be constructed no later than phase 2,” he said.

MassDevelopment has said repeatedly it supports the redevelopment of Vicksburg Square and was preparing for a Super Town Meeting when the pandemic struck in 2020. Officials there have said they will try again soon. The idea is supported by the Devens Enterprise Commission, which is the area’s planning board and permitting authority. The Nashoba Valley Chamber of Commerce declared in November that the redevelopment of Vicksburg Square is important to the continued economic expansion of Devens and the region. “We support it,” wrote President and CEO Melissa Fetterhoff.

Harvard’s own HDJC also supports the redevelopment, but with caveats. In a letter to the editor this week, Chair Victor Normand wrote that no vote should be taken until the towns and MassDevelopment had agreed to a housing plan that meets the specific needs for affordable housing in the area. Concurrently, he said, there must be agreement on governance—where Vicksburg Square residents will vote and be schooled, given that 30% of the abandoned complex lies in Harvard and the remaining 70% in Ayer.

Both the HDJC and DEC have released position papers on the rezoning of Vicksburg Square. Ayer, Shirley, and a stakeholder committee of Devens businesses and residents have been invited to do the same, but have not yet done so. Harvard’s stance was on the agenda of Wednesday’s meeting of the Devens Jurisdiction Framework Committee.

Gov. Charlie Baker has made housing a priority for his administration, setting a goal of 35,000 new housing units statewide by 2025, or about 17,000 new units per year, and creating incentives for development through a two-year-old Housing Choice Initiative that awards grants to cities and towns to pursue local housing projects. As the Devens representatives note in their letter, the chair of MassDevelopment’s board of directors is Michael Kennealy, Baker’s appointee and secretary of the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, a key player in the governor’s Housing Choice Initiative.

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