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Mass. needs more housing. Why not at Devens?

State lawmakers launching push to raise cap on housing at the sprawling old Army base, but the towns it straddles have concerns.

Massdevelopment is being asked to revisit plans for housing at Devens, including at the area known as Vicksburg Square (pictured here in a 2010 file photo).Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Three north-central Massachusetts lawmakers plan to press the Baker administration to open up the sprawling Devens industrial park for more housing in a virtual meeting on Thursday with leaders of the quasi-public agency that oversees the area.

A 4,400-acre former Army base that straddles three towns, Devens has experienced a boom in commercial development and private-sector jobs over the past two decades. But the number of housing units allowed there is strictly capped at 282, excluding a small section carved out for senior housing, leaving room for only 18 more to be built, according to the administration. And while there are still about 118 acres of residentially zoned land in Devens left to be developed, the vast majority of the old base off Route 2 is zoned for business uses.


The three lawmakers who represent the Devens communities — Senator Jamie Eldridge and Representatives Sheila Harrington and Dan Sena — wrote a letter on Dec. 27 to Dan Rivera, chief executive of MassDevelopment, imploring him to push for more housing at Devens. They are scheduled to meet Thursday with Rivera and state economic development secretary Mike Kennealy to discuss how best to reach that goal.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle: getting the towns of Ayer, Shirley, and Harvard to agree. Any zone change or lifting of the cap needs to win town meeting votes in all three municipalities. Two previous efforts to raise the housing cap failed, once in 2009 and again in 2012.

“I’ve become more cautiously optimistic that MassDevelopment and Secretary Kennealy realize that there needs to be more housing production at Devens,” Eldridge said in an interview. “The first step, as difficult as it is, is reaching out to the three communities — Ayer, Harvard, and Shirley — to have this conversation given that there is a housing cap that has almost been reached.”


More than 7,000 people worked on the base when the federal government decided to shut it down in 1991; the base officially closed six years later. But employment has rebounded since then, with more than 6,000 people working on the base today, largely in private-sector jobs in manufacturing, logistics, and other industries. Meanwhile, the demand for housing in the region, particularly affordable housing, continues to climb.

“The jobs have been replaced, … and now there’s a need for housing,” said Victor Normand, who chairs a Harvard committee charged with planning the future of the Devens land within the town’s borders.

So far, efforts have focused on Vicksburg Square, a nearly 20-acre section of the old base that once housed Army offices. The seven vacant buildings there, together encompassing 435,000 square feet, could accommodate roughly 300 units. Developer Trinity Financial put forward a plan to redevelop the site a decade ago but did not get the town meeting votes it needed. Now, local and state officials are revisiting Vicksburg Square as perhaps the best option in Devens for more housing.

There are questions, though, that local officials would want to see resolved, in part because Vicksburg Square straddles town lines (Ayer and Harvard) and county lines (Middlesex and Worcester).

Among issues raised by the Devens committee in Harvard that Normand chairs: Who will collect property taxes there? Will it be a mix of rental apartments and condos? Where will the kids attend school? And should the “square” end up in just one town?


MassDevelopment currently contracts with the Harvard school system to educate the kids who live at Devens, but the committee said it’s unlikely that Harvard residents will endorse a Vicksburg Square redevelopment without a good understanding of the impact on their town’s schools.

All that said, Normand supports converting Vicksburg Square to housing, a big improvement over the run-down, empty structures that are there today.

“It just makes a lot of sense to rezone Vicksburg Square for housing,” Normand said. “MassDevelopment has tried to market it for commercial purposes. But the buildings are historic, so demolishing them is a challenge.”

Ayer officials are open to a conversion as well, also with the caveat that some of those pressing issues get resolved, Ayer town manager Robert Pontbriand said.

“There is a statewide housing crisis as we speak,” Pontbriand said. “From our vantage point, we would need more specifics to understand the potential impacts of what more housing would mean for the region, and for our town services.”

Part of the challenge is figuring out whether MassDevelopment should push to raise the cap and rezone first, without a development proposal in hand, or whether it should line one up first. Pontbriand said both approaches have their downsides: Residents might vote down a rezoning if they don’t have a clear picture of what would be built, while developers might be reluctant to get involved if the three towns haven’t already agreed to allow housing there. (In a 2019 presentation, MassDevelopment said it had received some preliminary interest in Vicksburg Square from housing developers.)


Another possible spot for housing: an old, 20,000-square-foot “bachelor quarters” barracks, near Vicksburg Square on Sherman Avenue.

That’s where Clear Path for Veterans New England wants to develop 25 to 30 units of senior housing for military veterans, said Jason Gilbert, the nonprofit’s chief operations officer. The building is within walking distance of Clear Path’s service and wellness center for veterans, making it an ideal location, Gilbert said. The three state lawmakers who represent the area said in their letter that they want MassDevelopment to give property in Devens to Clear Path at a below-market price, if not for free.

Eldridge said there are other sections of Devens that could work for housing, too. He knows that securing even one town meeting approval wouldn’t be particularly easy, let alone three at the same time.

“I recognize the concerns … of the three towns so let’s engage and have these conversations,” Eldridge said. “We’ve had some great commercial development that required some zone changes that the three towns approved but there hasn’t been that conversation about housing and the housing cap.”

Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.