SHIRLEY -- With a representative of the Economic Development Committee his agency has been working with in the audience Monday night, MassDevelopment's Ed Starzek gave the selectmen an overview of the agency's latest plans for an area of Devens land off Hospital Road in Shirley known as the "Village Growth" district.
Formerly the so-called "Shirley housing area" in Fort Devens days, the now-vacant site behind the Ayer-Shirley Regional Middle School is zoned for commercial and retail uses.
But because such uses are no longer considered likely to thrive there under current conditions, MassDevelopment - the state agency charged with redeveloping and temporarily governing the former military base has decided to pursue another course: senior housing/assisted living, which studies show there's a need for now, Starzek said.
Senior living with "some life care" and a medical component is an idea with "traction," he said, sketching a concept for a 30-40 unit, 2-3 story building in the first phase.
Studies show a "decent demand" for affordable rental options in that category, Starzek said, such as Bowers Brook in Harvard. After a couple of years' struggle, the senior housing complex off Ayer Road is now filled to capacity.
As for the envisioned senior and assisted living project MassDevelopment envisions for Devens, current zoning won't allow it, Starzek said. "That's the crux of why I'm here."
MassDevelopment plans to seek a zoning change, he said, requiring approval from all three stakeholder towns - Ayer, Harvard and Shirley -- in a super town meeting scenario.
The last time MassDevelopment sought a zoning change was to redevelop Vicksburg Square, most of which is within Harvard town boundaries. Despite well-publicized, professionally orchestrated efforts, both of them failed.
But Shirley voters said yes, twice.
Now, with another plan on the table that calls for rezoning but which Starzek said should be less controversial, MassDevelopment is seeking support from Shirley selectmen first. After all, he said, the target area this time is in their back yard and the envisioned development would be unlikely to have much impact on the other two towns.
It could, however, create jobs and fill a need for seniors.
"I fully support the idea," Selectman David Swain said. "There's a huge need ..."
EDC member Jackie Esielionis said her committee met with the Council on Aging to talk about MassDevelopment's senior housing plan. "They were "very enthusiastic about this kind of project," she said.
Robert Prescott also liked the idea. "Any growth there would support economic activity" the town has been trying to promote," he said.
Chairman Kendra Dumont asked about local preference, with a certain number of units set aside for Shirley, Ayer and Harvard seniors to get first dibs. Starzek made no promises but said it would be possible and there's precedent.
Town Administrator Patrice Garvin asked if the complex would put added stress on the town's public safety services, especially ambulance calls, as River Court in Groton has done in that town.
"We'd need to research that," Starzek said. But if that issue turned out to be a problem, the state agency would address it. "Basically, we'd find a way," he said.