Surplus housing?

The sour real estate market complicates plans to renovate old Fort Devens headquarters

Janet and Tom Kinch have a clear view of the neighborhood from their home, once the quarters for an Army colonel at Fort Devens, but they are disappointed at the lack of progress in creating a new community on the old military base in the seven years since they bought the property. Janet and Tom Kinch have a clear view of the neighborhood from their home, once the quarters for an Army colonel at Fort Devens, but they are disappointed at the lack of progress in creating a new community on the old military base in the seven years since they bought the property. (Photos By Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)
By Scott Van Voorhis
Globe Correspondent / September 19, 2010

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When Tom Kinch bought a home once occupied by a colonel at Fort Devens, he envisioned the old Army base soon becoming a bustling community.

But seven years later, Kinch and his wife, Janet, are still waiting for more neighbors to arrive. Though about 100 homes have been developed on the sprawling property since the base closed in 1996, plans to convert the buildings that formed its headquarters, Vicksburg Square, into modern housing have stalled.

The old buildings, which predate World War II, sit empty, slowly crumbling in the harsh New England weather.

“From afar, it’s beautiful. It’s a symbol of Devens,’’ Kinch said of Vicksburg Square. “You get up close and there are boards on the windows and paint on the walls. It’s discouraging to watch it fall apart.’’

The dreams of Kinch and other Devens pioneers are running headlong into the sour realities of a battered real estate market.

Last year, a proposal to convert Vicksburg Square into as many as 350 residential units was scuttled when one of its three host communities voted against it. While Shirley and Harvard backed the plan, Ayer turned it down, citing concerns about the population influx.

The Massachusetts Development Finance Agency, in charge of redeveloping the property, is hoping to resurrect the plan with help from a Boston company.

But converting Vicksburg Square into a residential showcase may face even stiffer opposition the next time, according to local officials concerned that a flood of new housing could further destabilize local real estate.

“To be proposing more housing in this market is ludicrous,’’ said Frank Maxant, an Ayer selectman who also opposed the proposal the first time around.

Created during World War I, Fort Devens was home to thousands of Army personnel until its closing in 1996. With the state Legislature’s blessing, MassDevelopment took control of the property, and has since overseen the construction or leasing of millions of square feet of commercial space.

Residential construction, by contrast, has been more halting, slowed by controversy. A campaign to create a new, independent town was defeated in several votes in 2006. As a result, residents lead a bifurcated existence, voting in either Ayer or Harvard, depending on where the town lines fall, sending their children to school in Harvard, while paying taxes to MassDevelopment.

When the reuse plan was developed in the mid- 1990s, the number of housing units was capped at 282 and Vicksburg Square was zoned for offices or light industry. Any changes require majority approval by Town Meeting voters in all three host towns, according to the legislation creating the plan, setting the stage for last year’s setback.

Now, MassDevelopment is taking a more hands-off approach in its effort to redevelop Vicksburg Square, with Boston-based developer Trinity Financial leading the project under a tentative agreement.

James Keefe, Trinity’s president, has spent the last several weeks meeting with selectmen from Ayer, Harvard, and Shirley. He is preparing to hold a series of public meetings, and hopes to have a proposal before voters in all three towns next spring.

To win over the three towns, Keefe, whose company has specialized in building apartment and condominium projects in urban neighborhoods, said he hopes to use skills honed over his years of negotiating with community leaders and activists.

“We spend a lot of time on the front end of projects working with neighborhood residents, making sure whatever is proposed reflects their concerns,’’ he said. But Trinity Financial faces a daunting challenge, with opposition to the idea of converting Vicksburg Square into housing intensifying, according to some selectmen.

Some local officials said they are concerned that building another 250 apartments — one number thrown out by Trinity for Vicksburg Square — could put more pressure on a struggling local rental market.

Jonathan Greeno, chairman of Shirley’s Planning Board, said he has not been directly involved in the Devens debate, but he fears the amount of housing being discussed would be too much for the area to absorb.

“I don’t know how our small markets in Central Massachusetts could handle 250 rentals,’’ said Greeno, a real estate appraiser.

Jim Fay, whose Army career was capped by a stint as deputy finance officer at the old Fort Devens, today is an Ayer selectman. Fay helped lead last year’s push to change the zoning rules to allow housing at Vicksburg Square. But Fay acknowledged than any major housing proposal would face serious challenges in the current economy.

Citing conversations with local real estate agents, Fay said there is a surplus of vacant apartments in the region. Condos would raise similar concerns, with home prices having fallen dramatically in all three towns during the past few years.

Instead, Fay said, he would rather see Vicksburg Square converted into senior housing, along with supporting medical facilities.

The median home price in Harvard is $515,000 today, up from a low of $447,500 in July 2009 but down from $619,750 in 2006, according to the Warren Group, publisher of the industry journal Banker & Tradesman. The median home price in Ayer has fallen to $265,000, down from $319,900 in 2006, while in Shirley the median price is $256,000, compared with $367,000 in 2006.

“Home prices have fallen dramatically in Harvard,’’ said Selectman Tim Clark.

“To drop 250 units out of an airplane in a concentrated area like Vicksburg Square, that is something none of the towns have experienced,’’ Clark said. “We have a lot of houses for sale and for rent around Devens. How will that affect our property owners and our landlords?’’

There are also concerns that the new residents would drive up the budgets for local services, such as schools, public safety, and roads, according to Clark.

As the debate resumes over a residential remake of Vicksburg Square, the hundred or so homeowners who have bought and renovated properties on the old base are caught in the middle.

Kinch, who owns a computer company, bought his 3,000-square-foot red-brick Colonial in 2003. He is frustrated to see the nearby Vicksburg Square complex deteriorate.

“We are very, very disappointed as residents,’’ said Kinch, a member of the Devens Citizens Advisory Committee. “There is a high degree of frustration that we can’t do something.’’

There is also a yearning to be part of a larger community — or even an independent town.

“We get taxation without representation,’’ Kinch said, referring to MassDevelopment’s position as the property’s taxing authority.

But Devens residents may have to keep waiting.

Clark, the Harvard selectman, is skeptical there will ever be an independent Devens. While MassDevelopment officials have over the years raised the independence idea, nothing has resurfaced since its defeat four years ago.

For starters, having another town would further divide the already shrinking pie of local aid from the state, Clark said.

“The likelihood the Legislature is going to support that, I find hard to believe,’’ he said.

Even winning approval to redevelop Vicksburg Square into housing could prove challenging, Trinity’s Keefe acknowledged, based on the reuse plan’s requirement that votes be held at separate, simultaneous Town Meetings.

“It imposes a fairly extraordinary challenge to anyone who undertakes this,’’ Keefe said. “You do need to be in three places at once.’’

Based on his discussions with local officials, Keefe said there is strong sentiment to stick with an earlier plan for redeveloping Vicksburg Square into an information technology center or a business incubator.

That said, Keefe clearly hasn’t given up on a residential proposal, which he still thinks could benefit the three host towns. In particular, more residents could be a boon for Ayer as it pushes plans to reenergize its downtown retail area.

“Putting in 250 units, that is going to be more people shopping and going to the bank and the dry cleaners,’’ Keefe said.

“At the end of the day, growth is good.’’

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