Fort Devens Redevelopment, MA

A Case Study of Fort Devens: The Transition to Civilian Use (2008)

Military bases take up large land areas, employ civilian and non-civilian labor, attract government expenditures, and provide customers for local shops and businesses. While bases vary in size and location, rural, urban and some suburban, they have certain similarities that become apparent as they are closed or downsized. Where once they provided a regional or local economic job and consumer base, they leave large, often polluted sites, in less-than-prime locations. As urban waterfront developments have become more popular, some navy sites may, in fact, sit on quite desirable real estate. Nevertheless, when a base closes, affected communities are faced with three primary challenges: replacing lost jobs, cleaning up pollution and finding suitable reuses for the land. Responding to base closure is a disruptive, difficult process. Each base closure creates a unique set of circumstances and there is no single approach for the successful transition of large areas of land from military to civilian use. Nevertheless, the strengths and weaknesses of previous closures can provide clues to other communities about how to go about effectively reusing and revitalizing the potential assets of polluted lands left by the closure large, former job centers, whether bases, factories or port areas.

Fewer than 10 years after the base closure, however, the institutional setup has begun to fray at the edges. Interested parties are voting to determine whether to create a town of Devens or reincorporate Devens into the towns. Towns are split on the matter and in all likelihood another compromise will be reached that creates a new town, returns some land, and allows for changes to the redevelopment plan that are favored by the Commonwealth. While the frailty of the initial agreement may seem a failure, it also demonstrates the redevelopment’s success. It has reached a point where the State wishes to add more housing units, some towns wish to reclaim it, and most of Devens’ residents wish to have their own town. Another future compromise will complete Devens’ transition to civilian use and give it a greater sense of permanence. Perhaps one of the most valuable lessons to be gained from Devens is that transition takes not just ingenuity, financing and public/private partnerships but also time, compromise and institutional flexibility.

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