Site near T station prime for upgrade

Study cites best spots along I-495 corridor

By John Dyer
Globe Correspondent / March 29, 2012
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Land near Ashland’s MBTA commuter-rail station would be one of the best spots to build housing, shops, and offices in the communities along the Interstate 495 corridor, according to a state report seeking to steer growth in the region.

Three empty parcels totaling 190 acres that run along the commuter rail tracks in Ashland were on a list of 42 areas highlighted in the 495/MetroWest Development Compact Plan, a study based on more than a year of discussions between state and local officials on where they want to encourage development, as well as preserve open space and historic sites.

“The rail district is a unique piece of property,’’ said Ashland’s town planner, David Manugian, who participated in discussions that led to the report’s findings. “So many concepts could be employed. Mixed use would be best. Walking, biking, transit, work-live environments. Those are the sorts of things we are trying to promote with this piece of land.’’

Other areas listed as ripe for development in the report included downtown Framingham, Clock Tower Place in Maynard, and industrial parks with vacant space throughout the region.

Forests in Berlin, orchards in Harvard, and farms throughout the area were among nearly 200 properties listed as best for preservation in the study.

Released on March 19, the report stemmed from a series of public meetings and a $300,000 state-funded survey that asked officials and planners in 37 communities where they wanted to promote or prevent new construction.

The report doesn’t change zoning anywhere. It doesn’t force state or local governments to purchase land for open space. Instead, it provides an inventory of locations that could help builders, officials, and others understand where they should spend time and money on new projects, said the head of the state’s Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, Gregory Bialecki.

Builders in Massachusetts often complain about the slow permitting process in the state, saying it often stymies growth, said Bialecki. Now, developers in area communities should have a picture of where local governments have set up zoning that encourages growth, the agency’s secretary said. Because the state has concurred on the list of locations, builders would probably make more headway on the state level if they choose to propose projects in those areas, too.

“It tells us where you have reason to think we’re likely to say yes,’’ said Bialecki. “It’s also very clear in signaling to you the places where we’re going to say no.’’

Like most locations cited in the report, the area near Ashland’s rail station is ideal for development because it is a former industrial site that is close to public transit, said Bruce Leish, director of the Ashland-based MetroWest Regional Collaborative, who helped collect data for the report.

The property is part of the Nyanza Superfund site, so its natural habitat has already been irrevocably disturbed, said Leish. It’s near downtown Ashland, so taxpayers wouldn’t need to pay for new roads or other improvements to provide access to the area. And residents who would live in new housing on the site could commute to Boston without ever driving a car, alleviating traffic on Route 9 and the Mass. Pike.

“The principle of smart growth is to build where you can where you’ve already built,’’ said Leish. “You’re not taking away farmland. You’re not taking away wooded or open space. The state does not want to put money in places that are way out in the middle of nowhere, far from transportation, building on virgin land.’’

Bialecki stressed that the list included locations where officials, residents, and developers largely agreed on whether development or preservation was the best option for the sites. As a result, the report identifies many properties that officials have been marketing to builders or seeking to preserve for a year or more.

In Marlborough, the report listed office buildings once occupied by Fidelity as among the state’s priorities for development in the city.

Coincidentally, this month TJX Cos. announced it was purchasing the buildings to create a new headquarters in the city. Fidelity moved its Marlborough operations to New Hampshire and Rhode Island last year.

Mayor Arthur Vigeant said he and officials from the Marlborough Economic Development Corporation had been aggressively lobbying TJX to seal the deal for the move. “It’s just a great opportunity,’’ said Vigeant. “We’re filling 700,000 square feet. We’re bringing in 1,600 jobs. People are going to be spending money in the convenience stores and gas stations and hotels.’’

In Littleton, the report included the 31-acre Couper Farm as a priority for preservation. Selectmen also recently established a committee to study whether the town should purchase the property, said Town Administrator Keith Bergman. “We’re identifying areas that we don’t want to see developed,’’ he said. “If it’s green, we want to keep it green.’’

Buying Couper Farm is part of a broader scheme in Littleton to retain farmland, said Bergman. Last year, Town Meeting changed zoning throughout town to permit farms to establish ancillary businesses on agricultural land, meaning they can earn extra money with a small restaurant, craft shop, or similar endeavor, rather than selling land to developers who might erect single-family homes, which generate more cars, more children requiring school expenditures, and more water, sewer, and utility improvements.

Measures like Littleton’s new zoning reflect how government can work with the private sector to bring growth to the region without replicating the sprawl that has changed suburban Boston’s character in the last three decades, said Bialecki. The compact’s study is aimed at supporting those local efforts, he said.

“There is a very legitimate concern that any new growth that is not done right is going to create impacts on the community and environment,’’ said Bialecki. “Those are not inevitable. If we do it well, we can certainly grow for the next 30 years in MetroWest in the way we have grown in the last 30 years. We can fit it all in if we do it right.’’

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