Town Meeting voted overwhelmingly in favor of a zoning proposal this week that supporters believe could be the secret to igniting a renaissance of shops, restaurants and housing in the area around the downtown railroad station and the Shawsheen River.
The so-called “Andover Historic Mill District” was approved Monday night by a vote of 389 to 115, well over the two-thirds majority needed for zoning changes. It was the last and final night of the 2015 Town Meeting.
Proponents of the measure, calling themselves Andover Tomorrow, said the new district, which encompasses about 100 properties with different allowed uses currently, will provide the opportunity for new development. It also could lead to fixing the tricky and dangerous intersection at Pearson, Essex and Railroad streets, which is also bisected by MBTA tracks.
“This changes the rules of the game without bringing any negative impact to the businesses that are already there,” said Charles Kendrick of 8 Forbes Lane, one of the leaders of the group.
Tim Vaill, another leader of the group who is also chairman of the town’s Economic Development Council, said the initiative would bring different groups together to open up pocket parks along the river, among other benefits.
Selectman Paul Salafia agreed, saying it would not require anyone to move and in fact would have no bearing on the location, or relocation, of the current public works facility known as the Town Yard.
He said it would create “new growth and new taxes” and that any developers who move in as a result of the overlay district would be required to pay for mitigation of traffic and other problems.
Even state Sen. Barbara L’Italien, D-Andover, testified, saying she had spoken to a number of state officials who said the proposal could spur investment by state agencies. She mentioned historic tax credits, trails grants, and economic development incentives for downtown areas.
Resident Don Robb said at first he was skeptical of the plan, but found that the originators of the proposal were “trying to do something interesting.”
He said “change is inevitable and this overlay gives us the opportunity, as a community, to have a voice, to be part of the discussion” on what happens in the area.
Julia Fraser, a senior at Andover High School, said she was in favor of the district because it might lead to improvements along the river and elsewhere in the overlay district, which would give her and other classmates “something to come back to after going off to college.”
Not everyone was so enamored of the overlay district, however.
Selectmen Chairman Dan Kowalski said the district could increase housing in Dundee Park alone by 800 units, which would bring more children into an already stressed school district.
He said he would have liked the district to include provisions to address the lack of affordable senior housing.
While the district does call for 15 percent of a new residential units to be affordable, a developer could opt out of the requirement with a one-time payment to the town.
Donal Coleman of High Street said the problem with downtown was lack of long-term parking, not the availability of shops.
“Vote against this,” he said. “It’s not right for the community.”
Ron Abraham, who owns Elm Street Auto, said his business could be affected by the overlay district if housing were approved near his property and the people living there decided they didn’t want to look at “wrecks waiting for the insurance company to show up.”
He added, “I’m concerned about new people moving into this area and not liking what they see,” he said.
Former Selectman Mary Lyman of 50 School St. said more work is needed to be done on the proposal, noting that more housing would lead to more students while more development wouldn’t necessarily mean more taxes.
She added that proponents often spoke about the so-called “Transportation-Oriented District,” or TOD, but that the MBTA’s double-tracking plan was behind schedule and over-budget, meaning train service will continue to be sub-standard.
She said the town spent millions of dollars redeveloping the Main Street corridor only to see empty storefronts.
Later in the meeting, Lyman requested that anyone speaking about the article be required to say if they have any financial stake in the proposal.
Shortly after that, Mark Spencer got up and said he owned 100 School St.
“I am at ground zero for the Historic Mill District,” he said, adding that historic districts have “led the way” in other cities and towns, like Amesbury, Lowell and Boston with Faneuil Hall.
“We have a treasure here in Andover. But it can’t flourish unless the zoning allows it,” he said.
Cal Perry of 25 Timothy Drive said he felt that the zoning district was simply “a scheme” masking the bigger issue — how to move the Town Yard out of downtown to some other part of town, which would open the so-called “Golden Triangle” to development.
Moderator Sheila Doherty quickly cut him off, saying the Town Yard was “not germane” to the zoning proposal.
Within seconds, someone in the audience “moved the question” meaning a vote had to be taken immediately. Others who had lined up to speak against the proposal lost their chance to speak and Town Meeting voted to approve the proposal.