Navy Identified its Hartwell Road Complex as an ‘Historic District’

April 23, 2024
The eligibility of the Naval Weapons Industrial Research Plant (NWIRP) complex, including the Navy hangar on Hartwell Road as historic was discussed earlier this month. Courtesy Image.

Members of the Historic Preservation Commission early this month reversed their previous endorsement of state historic preservation tax credits for the developers of the so-called Navy hangar on Hartwell Road.

Most of the commissioners were persuaded by an opponent of the massive hangar construction plan for Hansom Field near Hartwell Road, who told them, “If you go to the Massachusetts inventory of old buildings, you will find it is listed as being built in 1959, having no designations, and no architectural style at all.”

Neil Rasmussen, who heads the advocacy group Save Our Heritage, said the Navy hangar “is not historic and meets none of the criteria to warrant consideration as historic. It is clearly not eligible for credits as a historic building.”

However, the Massachusetts Historical Commission (MHC) in 2020 issued “initial certification” for the facility, “in response to the new owner’s application for state historic rehabilitation tax credits,” according to a spokesperson for the MHC.

Debra O’Malley, director of communications for the Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth, pointed out that the hangar’s original owner, “The U.S. Navy made the determination that the Naval Weapons Industrial Research Plant (NWIRP) complex meets the criteria of eligibility for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.

“In 2016, the MHC, as the office of the state historical preservation officer, concurred with the determination that the property met the criteria of eligibility for listing in the National Register,” she noted. 

“Letters of support are included in the application forms for the state historic rehabilitation tax credits. It is one of several criteria considered, but not the only one,” said O’Malley.

Why is the Navy hangar, which Rasmussen described as “a very large plain metal box with two big doors on it,” considered an historic site? The answer can be found in provisions of the National Historic Preservation Act that are intended to ensure that historic preservation is inherent in programs of federal agencies.

Section 106 mandates that each federal agency identify and assess the effects its actions may have on historic buildings,” says the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA). Section 110 requires the agencies “to establish their own historic preservation programs for the identification, evaluation, and protection of historic properties,” according to the National Park Service. 

In a 2016 letter to Brona Simon, state historic preservation officer, an environmental planning and conservation analysis from the Navy said the facilities are eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places, based on “the Navy’s responsibilities under Section 110.”

Indeed, wrote Michael H. Jones, the analysis concluded that “as a collective whole,” the entire NWIRP parcel is an “historic district with a period of significance of 1952-1989 and consists of 17 contributing resources.”

The Navy cultural resources staff, in a June 2016 memorandum, concluded that the compound “portrays the significant events that occurred during the Cold War era as a Navy research and development facility operated by Raytheon for the design and fabrication of missile-guided systems,” the letter says. “The contributing resources as a whole inventory depict the architectural styles and construction methods of the cold war era for the development of research facilities.” 

Although “the area is overgrown with vegetation, and 16 buildings and structures have been demolished,” the facility “still retains sufficient integrity of location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling, and association,” the memo says. “The two main buildings utilized for research and development are still extant.” One is the Navy hangar; the other is on top of the hill on the north side of Hartwell Road.

The Navy and the GSA “did their own historical research, which they submitted to the state historic preservation officer at MHC for comment. The State Historic Preservation Office concurred with the findings,” O’Malley wrote.

“The GSA made a finding that there would be ‘no adverse effect’ on historic properties because the transfer of the property would be accompanied by a historic preservation covenant on the deed,” she continued. “The State Historic Preservation Officer at MHC concurred with this assessment.” 

The binding covenants stipulate that the owner will “preserve and enhance the distinctive materials, features, and spaces that make this property eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places.” Rehabilitation is appropriate “when repair and replacement of deteriorated features is necessary, or when additions or alterations are planned.”

This explains why the Massachusetts Port Authority, assumed for years to be planning acquisition of the divested property contiguous to the runway, decided in 2017 that the preservation requirements precluded its need for the property. 

The GSA subsequently auctioned the site to the highest bidder, and it ended up as part of the hangar expansion proposal by Runway Realty Ventures and North Airfield Ventures. Their plans call for remodeling the hangar to allow for aircraft storage, as well as construction of other buildings on the 16-acre plot.

Rasmussen acknowledged that if the commission opposes rehabilitation credits, “it won’t stop the project,” but it could forestall a windfall for the developer.”

Certified rehabilitation projects on an income-producing property are eligible to receive up to 20 percent of the cost of certified expenses in state tax credits, as allocated by the MHC. The Bedford commission approved a letter of support for state historic rehabilitation tax credits, which so far have totaled $1.8 million.

To qualify for state rehabilitation tax credits, Rasmussen told the commission, criteria include “how the building contributes to the character and fabric of the town, how it contributes to local employment, and whether it provides affordable housing and other public benefits.

“This building is behind a fence in a restricted area. It is intended to serve a small number of very rich people, as a garage to house their private luxury jets,” he said. 

Commission Chair Alethea Yates pointed out that the process is for rehabilitation of a building that the state Historical Commission considers historic and should not be conflated with the larger hangar project. 

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