EASTON - An overhaul of a historic neighborhood in Easton is set to get underway, bolstered by $3 million in state grants and an $8 million commitment from taxpayers.
The North Easton Village revitalization plan, put together by local officials, consultants, and a private developer, will include a facelift to the business center and construction of a sewer network. The plan’s key component is construction of a 113-unit apartment complex in the historic Ames Shovel Works, set to break ground in March. The project will ensure the preservation of the shovel-manufacturing plant, a key player in Easton’s flourishing industrial base in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Easton Town Administrator David Colton said the village improvements will bring “tremendous change to that area and make it a first-class place to live.’’
Town planner Brad Washburn said the changes will improve accessibility to the village center and attract more people and new businesses. The improvements “will restore visual connections to historic landmarks and restore a sense of place to North Easton Village,’’ the planner said.
Redevelopment of the Ames Shovel Works was the driving force behind the revitalization plan. The complex of granite and wood factory buildings, nestled in the heart of North Easton Village, was built and run by the Ames family from 1803 to 1952. Ames shovels were used in the California Gold Rush, the Civil War, and construction of the transcontinental railroad. The operation was an example of the technological evolution of America’s industrial age, from water- and steam-driven engines to the turn-of-the-century switch to electricity, but until recently also a sad reminder of the company’s and town’s past glory.
Five historic stone buildings border the factory complex, built by the Ames family and designed by well-known architect Henry Hobson Richardson. Those, along with the factory, are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and form the North Easton Historic District. The factory restoration will meet National Register standards.
Its preservation was in jeopardy in 2008, when property owners George and Robert Turner secured a permit to build 182 affordable-housing units. According to industrial historian Gregory Galer, who is also a member of the town’s Historical Commission, the Turner brothers’ plan mobilized officials and community members to search for an alternative that would preserve the complex. Easton’s demolition delay bylaw halted bulldozers long enough for the town to approach Beacon Communities Development, a Boston-based firm with experience in historic preservation.
“The factory is a rare survivor in southeastern New England, which was an iron-working center in the 18th and 19th centuries,’’ Galer said. “We came so close to losing this historical asset, but the whole community came together in a remarkable effort.’’
Locals have long viewed the complex as a shining example of the connection between commercial enterprise and community.
“The shovel works is the keystone pulling it all together as a unified district,’’ Galer said. “North Easton grew around the factory.’’ Members of the Ames family built their own lavish estates near the factory as well as more than 90 units of housing for their workers.
The family also commissioned a large public library, a memorial hall, the “Rockery,’’ which was a landscaped Civil War memorial, and a high school. The growing village in the late 19th century also included six churches. Two were Swedish churches built to accommodate the booming Swedish population drawn to the area by the shovel factory. The area also hosted several commercial operations to serve residents.
Easton Historical Society member Frank Meninno said the shovel shop was the largest employer in Easton in its heyday.
“Company housing dotted the area, trains were running in and out, trolleys were going to Brockton and Taunton, and the Ames estates were built around it,’’ Meninno said. The village center featured dry goods stores, the butcher shop, the company store, churches, and schools.
“North Easton was the center of politics, industry, and population for all of Easton,’’ Meninno said. “Once you were outside the village, everything was very rural.’’
Beacon, set to buy the property from the Turners sometime next month, says it will convert building interiors into apartments. The developer will preserve the exteriors and rooflines of the factory buildings, add a park and a perimeter walkway, and convert a small onsite tenement into a museum for shovel works artifacts. The property will cost Beacon $6 million and the build-out $43 million, the company says.
Beacon’s chief executive officer, Howard Cohen, said the project has been tough to put together. “It involves several very old buildings, each with their own issues,’’ he said. “It has been an incredible challenge to preserve their historic character and make them meet modern standards.’’
Washburn said the redevelopment, which will provide much needed market-rate and affordable housing units within nationally recognized historic structures, has set the bar high for future projects in an exciting new chapter for the village.
The town’s contribution to the shovel works plan is $7.5 million in community preservation funding, approved by local voters in 2010. Of that, $3 million will secure a preservation restriction protecting the shovel works site, and $4.5 million will be loaned to Beacon and eventually paid back.
“It’s a wonderful project,’’ said Brian McNiff, spokesman for the Massachusetts Historical Commission. “It shows an excellent coming together of various agencies to preserve an important historic area and part of our commercial and industrial history.’’
Construction of a waste-water treatment plant and sewer network, to serve the apartment complex and 70 neighboring business and residential properties, will be done at the same time as the shovel works overhaul.
The town secured a $1.5 million state grant to cover part of the cost of the sewer project and will borrow the $2 million balance from a state revolving loan program, to be repaid by system users through betterments charges. Beacon is supplying the land for the treatment plant as well as the discharge area.
Washburn noted that a waste-water plan developed by the town several years ago identified North Easton Village as a top priority for sewer improvements, which he said would “allow for residential and business redevelopment and expansion opportunities.’’
Easton officials then decided to roll in other improvements to the village’s commercial center and recently learned the effort will get a $1 million boost from a state infrastructure grant program. Plans call for burying some utilities when sewer lines are laid, installing historic lighting, improving sidewalks and crosswalks, and expanding public parking. The work should be complete by 2014.
The village is also set to gain another asset. The privately owned Governor Ames Estate, located behind the shovel works, is set to become a public park overseen by the Trustees of Reservations. Easton chipped in $1 million toward the effort, with $500,000 coming from local community preservation money and a $500,000 match from the state.