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Army plans Natick Labs upgrade

By Megan McKee
Globe Correspondent / August 29, 2010

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The Army recently opened its Natick installation to the public to unveil a modernization plan that it says will allow the circa-1950s facility to attract top talent to research and design food, shelter, and gear for America’s soldiers.

Though the installation has no money earmarked for the changes, developing the plan is the most important step to secure funding from the government, officials said.

“This plan enables us to grow but this plan doesn’t require any growth,’’ said the site’s commander, Brigadier General Harold Greene, during the Aug. 19 event. He said it could take 10 to 20 years to institute the changes.

The Natick Soldier Systems Center, or Natick Army Labs, as it’s commonly known, is responsible for developing the bulk of the food, shelter, and clothing used by the military branch.

The 78-acre compound features concrete buildings with small windows, no central area conducive to community gatherings, outdated housing, and lackluster green space. Its access road often backs up with traffic stalled by the security check-in process, said officials.

All of this would change if the Army gets enough money.

Mark Gillem, an urban planner for the Army, said the plan will help secure the Army’s future in Natick.

“A lot of the installations that were closed didn’t have a plan of where they wanted to go,’’ Gillem said.

The Army hopes to move family housing onto the property, and collaborate with the town to improve conditions on Kansas Street, the facility’s central artery. Officials envision changing the street to a boulevard with tree-lined sidewalks and a median strip.

Officials said they can mitigate traffic backups by building a multistory garage that would allow many visitors to skip the time-consuming vehicle inspection process when entering the site.

As both a symbolic and aesthetic measure, the Army would take down a perimeter fence that was put up after 9/11. Greene said the plans call for recreational playing fields that could be shared by the Army and the community, and the possibility of providing additional access to Lake Cochituate from the Army Labs property.

All of this is part of a broad push to be a good neighbor and collaborative community member, Army officials said.

“There are not a lot of installations that have actually opened their gates, allowing members of the community in, and showed them their master plans,’’ Gillem said.

The Natick Army Labs employs about 1,800 people, according to public affairs officer John Harlow, including 1,650 civilians. The facility is the town’s largest employer, he said.

Officials said the changes would add 444,000 square feet for offices, and research and development, and 12,400 square feet of storage space.

Megan McKee can be reached at megan.mckee@gmail.com.