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Concord

Walden Woods Project delivers on affordable housing pledge

Don Henley, founder of the Walden Woods Project (left) and Kathi Anderson, executive director.

Jim Davis/Globe staff

Don Henley, founder of the Walden Woods Project (left) and Kathi Anderson, executive director.

Nearly a quarter-century after first pledging to help Concord find land for affordable housing, the Walden Woods Project has fulfilled its commitment by paving the way for construction of new units in town.

State and local officials joined representatives from the Lincoln-based environmental and conservation group last week at the Colonial Inn in Concord Center to celebrate the end of a long process to not only identify viable land but acquire it.

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Earlier this month, a 12-acre parcel near the state prison in West Concord was officially transferred from the state to the Concord Housing Development Corporation at no cost to the town.

“Twenty-three years later, we are here to say that commitment has been fulfilled,’’ said Kathi Anderson, executive director of the Walden Woods Project.

The corporation will begin the process of getting the housing designed, approved, and built, and will be seeking state and local grants, donations, and other funds to help subsidize the project, which will probably take years to complete, officials said.

Anderson said the pledge was made in 1990 after the Walden Woods Project, founded by musician Don Henley, fought a housing development near the area made famous by 19th-century naturalist and author Henry David Thoreau. Once the proposal was stopped, the Walden Woods Project said it would find land elsewhere in town for housing.

Many options were pursued but none of the previous efforts worked out, Anderson said.

“It’s very, very hard to conserve land, and it’s even harder to find land for affordable housing,’’ she said.

Several years ago, the Walden Woods Project learned of an undeveloped parcel under the control of the state Department of Correction, and began looking into its potential use by the town.

In 2009, state Representative Cory Atkins and then-Senator Susan Fargo filed legislation authorizing the state to convey the parcel to the Concord housing agency. The bill was passed and signed into law in 2010. Since then, state and local officials have been hammering out the details of the deal, and conducting appraisals and environmental tests.

Four years after the bill was filed, the transfer became official.

“This is a 23-year-old story,’’ said Atkins, a Concord Democrat. “It really took a spirit of cooperation. We’re delighted Concord has this opportunity.’’

Anderson said the Walden Woods Project paid for the appraisal and environmental tests on the property. She said because there were so many conveyance restrictions, such as requiring all units to be set aside for income-eligible residents, the appraised value was $0, meaning the land was free.

While the official conveyance was the last step in the land transfer, the task of planning, designing, and building the project is just beginning, said David Hale, the Concord Housing Development Corporation’s chairman.

Hale said the project is “an amazing opportunity’’ for the town to provide affordable housing with convenient access to public transportation, shops and restaurants, and recreation.

“It’s a fantastic location,’’ Hale said. “It’s right on the future Bruce Freeman Rail Trail, it’s within walking distance to West Concord and the train station.’’

Hale said the next step will be reaching out to the affordable housing development community and soliciting proposals for the site. He said the town agency will be looking for a variety of options, including housing for families and senior citizens. He said it’s still not clear how many units will be built, or whether they will be rental apartments or sold as condominiums.

Hale said once the corporation board receives the proposals, it will work closely with town officials and residents to pick the one that best meets the needs of the community, and fits in with the neighborhood.

“Our objective is to make it an open and inclusive process,’’ Hale said. “I expect it will be a several-year process before we have the opportunity to break ground.’’

Once a design is selected, Hale said, the project will have to be approved by several boards, including the Board of Selectmen. Also, because it is an affordable housing project, Hale said, the corporation will need funds to help subsidize the construction. He said it will likely be seeking state grants, tax credits, donations, and funds from the town’s Community Preservation Act program to offset the costs.

Carmin Reiss, chairwoman of the Board of Selectmen, said members support the project and will do what they can to help move it forward.

Reiss said given the high cost of living in Concord, having more affordable housing opens up the community to different groups of people, and also gives seniors on fixed incomes the option of staying in their hometown.

“We really want, as a town, to maintain a stock of affordable housing and the diversity that it brings to our community,’’ Reiss said.

Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at jflefferts@yahoo.com.
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