By Matt McDonald
In what would be its first attempt at revitalizing downtown, the Ashland Redevelopment Authority has reached an agreement to purchase vacant land on Front Street in hopes of constructing apartments and commercial space.
Pending approval from Town Meeting in the fall, the authority plans to buy a little more than an acre and a half at 125 Front St. from the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority for $171,000. Since 1991 the town has leased the property, which sits across the street from the library, for parking.
The authority's preliminary plans call for a three-story building, with retail space on the first floor, and an undetermined number of below-market-rate apartments on the second and third floors. The project is estimated to cost about $2.7 million, which board members expect to fund with help from the Massachusetts Housing Financing Agency.
Supporters of the Front Street project hope it will give some energy to the downtown, which lacks the foot traffic and hustle and bustle of some nearby town centers, such as that of Wellesley.
"There's no reason to go there now," said the authority board's vice chairwoman, Pat Abbott, who noted that the busiest event of the year is a chili bakeoff sponsored by the Fire Department.
Town Meeting approved creation of the Redevelopment Authority in May 2003. This proposal could be its first test.
The idea behind the authority's creation was that it could help spur commercial development and decrease the town's dependence on its residential tax base. The body also has the power to cobble together parcels of land for major commercial developments, because it can finance projects by issuing bonds and take land by eminent domain.
Authority board member Steven H. Greenberg noted that key elements of Ashland's downtown area already are getting makeovers. A major renovation of Town Hall and an expansion and renovation of the town's library are underway.
"It's going to help downtown Ashland reinvent itself," Greenberg said of the Front Street project. "The downtown needs housing and it needs more retail, and we're providing both."
Ashland's interim town manager, Dale Morris, who is also the redevelopment authority's acting executive director, said it's important for the town to acquire the Front Street site.
"It's been almost like a hidden asset to the town, because it's been sitting dormant for many years," Morris said. "By doing this, we're controlling our own growth versus having it controlled by someone else."
Some business owners in the area reacted enthusiastically to the plan.
Brenda Rivera, a beautician at Salon Illusions on Front Street, said apartments are needed in the area. She said she is a little worried about losing parking but generally supports a project that would provide a boost to downtown.
"There's really not a lot here," she said, "so that would be a nice addition, I think."
Andy Talvy, who owns Talvy Florist on Front Street, also said he thinks the proposal is a good idea. "We need business as much as we can get here. Everybody goes out of town to do shopping," he said.
At the time the redevelopment authority was first proposed, Selectman Adam Shuster questioned why creating it was the best course of action for the town. But he called the concept of a mixed-use development on Front Street "a good idea" and said he is pleasantly surprised that the authority's first project would include below-market-rate housing.
"It would be good to get people downtown," Shuster said. "I'm tantalized by the idea, and would like to see it go forward."
Selectman John Ellsworth, one of the early supporters of creating a redevelopment authority, said he likes the idea of building commercial space downtown. But he sounded a cautionary note about building apartments at 125 Front St., noting that the site abuts railroad tracks. Residents who live in a nearby housing complex for the elderly have complained for several years about train whistles that go off at all hours of the day and night when trains approach the downtown crossing.
"I'm not sure that we ought to be building housing of any kind backing up to the railroad, since they started blowing their whistles," Ellsworth said.
The Redevelopment Authority is asking the town's Community Preservation Act Committee to recommend that Town Meeting, which is to begin Oct. 20, appropriate $245,000 for the project; that figure includes the purchase price plus $74,000 for studies, design, and other preconstruction costs.
The Preservation Act, which Ashland voters have adopted, allows communities to combine a local property tax surcharge with state matching funds to promote open space, historic preservation, and below-market-rate housing. Proposals to spend from the account must be recommended by the Community Preservation Act Committee and then approved at Town Meeting.
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