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Hopkinton readies for next growth spurt

A pedestrian scurries across downtown Hopkinton’s Main Street stretch of Route 135, which officials are working on to make more appealing. A pedestrian scurries across downtown Hopkinton’s Main Street stretch of Route 135, which officials are working on to make more appealing. (Jim Davis/ Globe Staff)
By Megan McKee
Globe Correspondent / May 2, 2010

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Long-time residents of the once rural and middle-class Hopkinton can tell you rapid change is nothing new.

From 6,774 residents in 1980, the population ballooned to 15,448 this year. The housing stock has more than doubled in 25 years. And the young families that have driven much of the expansion have been largely high-income producers, earning Hopkinton distinction as one of the wealthiest of the state’s 351 communities.

Now, if the stars align for several different forces, Hopkinton, perhaps best known as the starting point for the Boston Marathon, may enter a new era of growth.

By the May 17 annual town election, the Planning Board is expected to approve the master plan for Legacy Farms, a development that would add 940 housing units and 450,000 square feet of commercial development, including stores and life-science research companies, in the next five to 10 years .

Downtown revitalization, long a goal for business owners, town officials, and others pushing the town’s development, could get a major boost if voters approve a property-tax increase to fund its design. If residents approve the $400,000 Proposition 2 1/2 override, the state is set to give $3.5 million to Hopkinton to revamp the downtown area, where plans call for making more beautiful, pedestrian-friendly, and attractive to businesses.

And though less glamorous, long-sought sewer improvements — also partially funded by the state — will pave the way for major commercial and industrial expansion, changes that could bring more jobs to the town and lead to expansion of its medical and life sciences industries.

“This has opened up a whole new world for Hopkinton,’’ said state Senator Karen Spilka, an Ashland Democrat whose dis trict includes the town, and who helped secure a $2.5 million state grant for the sewer improvements. “There was the land, the space, and the desire, but the lack of infrastructure.’’

But some residents worry that progress comes at a price: Hopkinton’s rural character.

Jeff Furber can recall spending his childhood in the 1950s building trails and exploring his family’s 12 acres on Elm Street, as well as the large expanses his neighbors owned.

“Every house on the street had at least 5 to 10 acres,’’ he said. “It was just farmland.”

He said he feels Hopkinton missed a valuable opportunity to retain some of the town’s rural feel when it decided not to buy the Weston Nurseries property where Legacy Farms will be located. He worries about the traffic the mixed-used project will bring, despite the developer’s commitment to building a bypass road and making downtown traffic improvements.

He said he hopes the large swath of open space set aside as part of the project will be placed under a permanent conservation restriction.

“I would really liked to have seen . . . horse farms or something that would have kept the land natural and protected and not built on,” said Furber.

Until Baystone Development, formerly Boulder Capital, proposed Legacy Farms on 730 acres purchased from the owners of Weston Nurseries, the largest development ever proposed in town had been no bigger than 60 or 70 acres, said John Coolidge, a Planning Board member for 20 years.

“It was always there in the background but no one ever felt strongly that the family would sell it,’’ said Coolidge. “And when they decided to sell . . . suddenly we got an 800-pound gorilla.’’

The development has been in Planning Board hearings since December 2008. Its impact, Coolidge believes, will be “fairly drastic, especially in traffic patterns and use of the center of town. We’ve been trying hard to preserve the character of the town, and that’s one of the ways we’re pushing back on the developer. We seem to be working toward it.’’

Roy MacDowell Jr., head of Baystone Development, said his Weston-based company is working toward the same goal.

“I think the biggest way we’re working toward that is the open space we’re leaving,’’ he said. Of the property’s 730 acres, 500 will be preserved as open space, he said, and residences and commercial space will be clustered in several “pods’’ throughout the site.

“It’s going to be a natural setting with a lot of vistas and views,’’ MacDowell said. “When you talk about the commercial and retail, it’s going to be more of a village.’’

John Mosher, a Planning Board member who is running for the Board of Selectmen this spring, believes that embracing Legacy Farms is the right thing for Hopkinton, particularly given the “green’’ modifications the town has convinced the developer to adopt.

The development will feature energy-efficient buildings, and reuse the waste-water generated by laundry, dishwashing, bathing and the like. The impact, he said, will be to lower energy costs for tenants, making the project a highly attractive space for the retailers, businesses, and assisted-living facilities that the developer envisions renting space.

“If we do this right, we’ll be well poised for the next few decades,’’ said Mosher, who feels layering this new modernity over the town’s rural character will make Hopkinton an even more desirable place to live and work. “We have a lot of open space, a lot of winding roads,’’ he said.

Downtown, on the other hand, is another matter.

The area has unsightly power lines, is less than pedestrian-friendly, and has inconsistent architecture. Cars speed through it, and the stretch of Route 135 that leads from Interstate 495 to neighboring towns is the scene of frequent accidents. This is according to almost anyone you ask — town officials, residents, paid consultants, and members of the 7-year-old Downtown Revitalization Committee.

If voters approve the $400,000 debt-exclusion override, securing nearly nine times as much in state money toward downtown improvements, there is huge potential for improvements to downtown’s aesthetics and safety, said Peter LaGoy, head of the revitalization panel.

“Instead of the narrow, falling-apart sidewalks, there’d be the potential of having much wider sidewalks which are more pedestrian-friendly,’’ said LaGoy. “Some parts of the roadway are too wide and would be made safer for both pedestrians and cars.’’ The conditions that lead to flooding would be alleviated, and the town wouldn’t have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in patches each year if the work is done, said LaGoy. Shade trees could be planted along the street.

The town recently hired graduate students from the Conway School of Landscape Design to do an in-depth study of downtown’s layout and needs, a study that LaGoy said will guide both the town and private business owners as they plan improvements.

Though communities everywhere grapple with changing landscapes and populations, the rapidity of change in Hopkinton has been unusual. Paul Matthews, executive director of the 495/MetroWest Partnership, said several factors contributed to Hopkinton’s growth, but the single greatest one was the arrival of the EMC Corp., which set up its headquarters here in 1986. The company now employs thousands of people.

“If you look at when the economy started taking off, it closely parallels EMC’s’’ arrival, said Matthews. Young families found good schools and quality of life in Hopkinton, as well as ample options, he said. “If you live in Hopkinton in a central location, you have a tremendous amount of employment opportunities.’’

The 2000 Census ranked Hopkinton 23d in median income out of the state’s 351 communities; it was 63d in 1980.

In the 1990s, Hopkinton was seventh in the state for rate of population growth, and experienced the fifth-largest increase in housing stock, according to a Planning Board report.

It was also in the 1990s that sewer lines first arrived in town to replace failing residential septic tanks and serve the town’s expanding business base, said Dan McIntyre, head of the town’s public works board.

In March, the state announced a $2.5 million grant to finish a sewer connection to Milford that will allow the town to pump out up to 500,000 additional gallons of waste water per day.

“It’s critically important and that’s why it’s very exciting.,’’ said Spilka.

In February, construction began on a sewage plant on Fruit Street that will handle an additional 100,000 gallons per day. The work started despite opposition from residents concerned about environmental impacts.

Matthews said that if the infrastructure upgrades do herald a new era of business expansion, more affordable housing stock must be available.

“There still needs to be long-term attention paid to entry-level houses for workers,’’ he said.

Though many details about Legacy Farms have yet to be crafted, the development is scheduled to eventually bring 50 single-family homes, 650 condominiums, and 240 rental units. Sixty of the rentals will be preserved as affordable, available only to people who meet income-eligibility limits.

LaGoy said now is an opportune time to start downtown revitalization, with Legacy Farms in line to bring 1,900 to 2,500 people to Hopkinton.

“It’s a sleepy downtown. There’s not a lot going on right now,’’ he said. “I think people go outside of downtown a lot for amenities.

“There’s the potential for synergy,’’ LaGoy said of Legacy Farms. “They’re not in the business of creating a town. They want us to create a town.’’

Megan McKee can be reached at megan.mckee@gmail.com.

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