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Agency seeks to boost housing mix at Devens

A move to open up dozens of acres at Devens for home and apartment construction could nearly double the small but devoted residential community that has taken root at the former Army base.

The Massachusetts Development Finance Agency plans next month to begin vetting developers interested in building housing at the old base, which closed in the 1990s and was acquired by the quasi-public agency with plans for converting it primarily into a business park.

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Now, MassDevelopment is seeking developers for up to 120 units of housing on a 70-acre Grant Road parcel, and is open to proposals ranging from apartments and condominiums to single-family homes, said Edmund Starzec, its director of land entitlements.

The move comes with the state’s housing market on the upswing, and a big expansion by one of the top commercial tenants at Devens, pharmaceutical giant Bristol-Myers Squibb.

“It’s big, especially for Devens,” Starzec said of the housing proposal.

In a first step, developers interested in building housing on the Grant Road tract will need to submit their qualifications, outlining details about the company and its ability to undertake such projects, by May 24, according to the state authority.

MassDevelopment plans to pick developers over the summer, with the fall and winter devoted to reviewing and approving housing proposals, Starzec said.

‘We are very much in favor of it. We are looking to expand our community. We feel the area can absorb quite a few more homes.’

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If all goes according to plan, work could begin next spring, with the first new residential units ready to open by fall 2014, Starzec said.

That is welcome news to Tom Kinch, a longtime resident at Devens. Kinch has been pushing for additional housing in hopes that a more substantial residential community will take shape.

There are 140 homes on the former Army property, mostly renovated houses once used by the base’s officers; the number also includes 20 newly built energy-efficient homes.

A larger population would also give residents more political clout when it comes to determining the future of development at Devens, an unincorporated area that has sections in Ayer, Harvard, and Shirley.

“We are very much in favor of it. We are looking to expand our community,’’ Kinch said, and added, “We feel the area can absorb quite a few more homes.”

Still, exactly what will be built will be left for developers to propose based on market demand.

While current Devens housing rules allow for a range of housing options, one thing that won’t be possible will be single-family homes on 1-acre lots, according to Starzec.

Instead, there will be an emphasis on smaller lots and more compact homes, freeing up additional land for open space that can be shared by the community.

As a result, home building lots will be capped at 15,000 square feet, or less than half an acre, and 5,000-square-foot lots will be used to help create larger open spaces, he said.

With no proposals yet to look at, MassDevelopment officials said they could not offer price or rental ranges. Still, of the 20 energy-efficient residences that were recently built, the houses sold for $350,000 and the town-house condos fetched $230,000, said Kelsey Abbruzzese, a spokeswoman for MassDevelopment.

In pushing forward with plans for new housing, MassDevelopment officials say, the agency is responding to demand for more residential options at the base-turned-business park.

Companies expanding at Devens will also create demand for new apartments, homes, and condos, said Abbruzzese, citing Bristol-Myers Squibb’s expansion announcement.

Bristol-Myers recently announced plans for a $250 million expansion to its Devens plant, and is expected to add 350 new jobs.

Housing prices have also been on the rise. The median price for a single-family home in Massachusetts rose 12 percent during the first two months of the year compared with the same period in 2012, to $279,000, according to the Warren Group, the Boston-based real estate publisher and data firm.

Even with an increase in demand, it could take a few years to build out all the additional housing at Devens, Starzec said.

The approval process could prove easier than for some of the housing plans MassDevelopment proposed for Devens over the past few years. This time, the state authority won’t have to win approval by its three major host communities.

A proposal to convert the historic Vicksburg Square barracks into affordable housing was bitterly debated for months before being blocked by Harvard and Ayer voters last year.

But in contrast to the Vicksburg Square proposal, the plan to add 120 units of additional housing falls under the base’s original reuse plan inked two decades ago, MassDevelopment officials said.

“Unlike most of MaD’s development, I think this is actually Devens Reuse Plan-compliant,” wrote Frank Maxant, an Ayer selectman who has been a sharp critic of the state authority’s handling of Devens. “So, my personal opinion is we should welcome their almost unprecedented preapproval overture to us in hopes we will encourage more collaboration.”

Scott Van Voorhis can be reached at sbvanvoorhis@hotmail.com.
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