WALNUT ST SITE (2)

A schematic of the parcel at the intersection of Walnut Street and Route 140 eyed for a public housing project.

Townspeople last week got their first peek at what local officials hope will be Foxboro’s first public housing project in more than a decade.

The May 26 virtual presentation, billed as a neighborhood meeting and hosted by Foxboro Housing Authority members, served as a launch pad for the long-anticipated project, which is proposed for a parcel of town-owned land near the intersection of Walnut Street and Route 140.

Emily Innes from Innes Associates, a planning consultant hired by the housing authority, said local officials are currently preparing an RFP (request for proposals) document to serve as a framework for interested developers.

Innes said the RFP will be drafted in June, with a follow-up community meeting in July to air comments from stakeholders. Barring complications, a preferred developer for the project could be selected by the housing authority as early as September.

That developer would then collaborate with local officials on a final project design.

“The RFP will take a couple of weeks to develop so there is still plenty of time to get your comments and thoughts in,” Innes told online listeners.

Innes explained that any future housing complex would likely involve leasing all or part of the parcel to a developer or property management firm, which would construct and/or operate the complex going forward.

At this point, she added, no decisions have been made about project size, scope or the mix of prospective units.

“We don’t know how many buildings there are, or parking spaces or traffic impacts,” Innes said.

In anticipation of the project, the town has received a $250,000 state grant to redesign the intersection at Walnut Street/Route 140 -- long considered one of the most dangerous in Foxboro -- as well as a future sewer connection from Central Street to the project site.

“That would allow the site to accommodate more units,” making the project more attractive to prospective developers, Duncan said of the sewer connector.

The intersection redesign, which includes the installation of traffic signals at a projected cost of $2.5 million, would not occur unless the project is built, Duncan added.

Originally owned by the state Department of Mental Retardation as part of the old Walnut Street farm complex serving the former Foxboro State Hospital, the land was acquired by the local housing authority in November 2016.

That transfer, approved by the state Legislature, stipulates that the property be used solely for affordable housing, otherwise it reverts back the state Division of Capital & Asset Management.

“We don’t necessarily want them to have control over this parcel,” said Planning Director Paige Duncan, who moderated last week’s forum.

Duncan said the project would fall under the state’s 40b affordable housing statute, even though Foxboro already has met its obligations under the controversial program which allows developers to override local zoning in order to construct below market-rate housing units.

“That’s the only way you can permit this type of development,” she said, adding the project would still be permitted by local boards.

According to Duncan, Foxboro currently has 865 units which qualify as “affordable” under the 40b statute, while suggesting that at least 375 of them “are not affordable at all.”

Partly to address this situation, Duncan said the town has tried to promote grass-roots discussion on housing options for the past two years. This included an initial round of surveys, followed by development of a housing production plan, which is still in draft mode.

“As we started [this process] it became very clear there is significant housing need in this community,” Duncan said.

Reviewing findings from the 2019 housing survey, Innes said that 34 percent of local households qualify as low income, as defined by the federal government, and that 4.3 percent live below the poverty line which is defined as $13,000 for an individual and $23,000 for a four-person household.

The survey also suggested that seniors and young families have been most challenged by Foxboro’s housing market, noting that over the past decade the number of seniors living locally has increased from 12 to 17 percent of the overall population.

Housing authority Chairman Greg Spier characterized the demand for both family and senior housing as “incredible,” and told listeners the authority has been actively working on the Walnut Street site for the past decade in hopes of siting public housing there.

Spier said the housing authority currently manages 179 units throughout the town. This includes two primary complexes at Centennial Court and N. Carl Annon Court on Baker Street, also built on former state hospital land, as well as numerous duplexes and other scattered-site units.

Although participants were not allowed to participate directly in the virtual forum, questions and comments submitted in writing raised concerns from neighbors about maintaining a high level of privacy and security.

“Because you are all stakeholders we wanted to be sure to let you all know what’s going on and what the next steps will be,” Duncan said.

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