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Millis eyes parcels for downtown development

Millis has a rare opportunity to shape the future of its town center by helping to create a development plan for two large properties that have sat largely vacant for years.

The two former industrial sites are located near the historic Clicquot Club beverage factory chimney. The parcels, owned by Ann & Hope Co. and GAF Corp., cover nearly 31 acres between Route 109 and Curve Street. Ann & Hope still operates a garden center, and a curtain and bath outlet in part of its property, but the rest of the building that was once home to the Clicquot Club Co. is vacant.

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“These are important properties right in the middle of our downtown,” said Town Administrator Charles J. Aspinwall.

“So we want to have a plan to identify the direction the town would like to see development go.”

The plan is being put together with a $40,000 federal grant administered by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. The regional agency, along with a private planning firm from Brookline, Larry Koff & Associates, and a steering committee of elected town officials and residents, has been working since late January on the plan. The process includes a market study to determine what zoning changes would best fit the town’s needs.

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Millis has already started rebuilding its town center. Construction has begun on a new, $7.8 million library about half a mile from the Ann & Hope property, and a new police station is in the preliminary planning stages, Aspinwall said.

Police currently share space with the Fire Department in a facility that Aspinwall said is too small to house both operations.

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The town also built a municipal parking lot near the library site in tandem with Centennial Place, a private project featuring retail, residential, and office space that just completed its first stage of development.

Having two large parcels with adequate water and sewer capacity available for development in a historic downtown does not happen often, according to Angela Insinger, a project manager with the Metropolitan Area Planning Council who is working with Millis.

So rather than sit back and wait for the owners to sell the properties or redevelop them individually, the grant has allowed Millis to prepare a framework for what it would like to eventually see at the sites.

“There is a mixed-use potential,” Insinger said. “Our objective is going to be to try and give people a better understanding’’ of what the site could be.

While this framework will not be binding, and the town will not actively work to sell or redevelop the property, it will identify the direction it wants to see plans go and rezone the parcels to fit that model, according to Aspinwall.

Irwin Chase, president of Ann & Hope, said he welcomes the town’s move.

“I think the town is terrific to try and do something, I’m very much in favor of what they’re doing,” he said.

He said Ann & Hope will continue to operate its garden store and outlet shop, but might sell the other portion of its property.

GAF Corp., a roofing supplier based in Wayne, N.J., moved out of its Millis facility about five year ago, Aspinwall said.

A message left at the company headquarters seeking a comment was not returned, but Aspinwall said representatives of Ann & Hope and GAF have both met withtown officials.

The town is still seeking public input, but three broad scenarios have been identified, Aspinwall said.

The first would leave the current industrial zoning in place and market the property as manufacturing space, he said.

The second would assume a zoning change would be approved by Town Meeting to allow retail development on the vacant sections of the Ann & Hope property, and multifamily housing on the GAF property.

And the third scenario would change zoning to allow commercial or retail development at the vacant sections of the Ann & Hope site, and change the zoning for the GAF site to allow a mix of single-family and town house residential units along the street side of the property, and an assisted-living facility in the back, according to Aspinwall.

The plans could also incorporate a smaller, third parcel that might offer studio and loft spaces for artists.

“We’re trying to find the type of synergy the town would like,” Insinger said, “where people can live in the same place where they have goods and services available.”

Aspinwall stressed that the three scenarios are just a starting point, and that ultimately Millis residents may decide on different kinds of uses.

Chase suggested that for small retail to flourish on his property, another anchor-type store, selling sporting goods for example, would be needed to go along with his garden center and curtain and bath outlet.

But, he said, “it’s been a very difficult retail climate. There’s been very little opportunities for retail.”

Another suggested option for one of the properties is a sports complex, such as the ForeKicks operations in Norfolk and Marlbororough, which feature indoor and outdoor playing fields, courts, driving ranges, lighted golf courses, fitness centers, function space, and lounges, said Aspinwall.

“What has been identified is that the current buildings are likely not suitable for reuse,” Aspinwall said.

“Once you see that on paper, it focuses your thought process to think outside the confines of those buildings and see all kinds of potential.”

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