Plans for Ashland mill buildings worries preservationists

Owner proposes turning Civil War-era buildings into residential, retail space

ASHLAND, Mass. — They were part of the post-Civil War building boom, but a set of granite mill structures on Main Street is now threatened by a new building boom -- a move to modernize downtown Ashland.

Town Manager Michael Herbert tells Boston 25 News that the owner of the mill complex wanted to tear everything down to make room for a 270-unit apartment and retail complex.

Herbert and the town’s Select Board rejected that proposal earlier this year. But still on the table, pending an economic development report, is a scaled-down proposal involving 200 units, more retail space and retention of at least the façade of the granite structures. The town also wants current tenants held harmless.

Herbert said the owner is seeking a zoning change, which would first have to pass through the Planning and Select Board’s for approval -- before it became an item on the fall town meeting warrant.

That would represent the earliest anything could be decided about the possible project, he said. But, already, some of the nearly 40 tenants are worried they will have to make a move. One, who did not want to be identified said her lease terms have gone to a month-to-month situation -- which she feels is indicative of being told, in not so many words... get ready to vacate.

“We got basically news that in the next couple of years the place is going to be shut down and bringing in apartments and things like that,” said A.J. Thomas, owner of UpperKuts Boxing Club, a tenant the past five years at the complex. “I try to take it one day at a time. I do keep my eyes open for other space.”

Because the mill buildings are from another era, finding similar space -- for many tenants -- may be difficult. UpperKuts is in the basement, where the high ceilings make it practical to hang punching bags.

Cliff Wilson, president of the Ashland Historical Society, remembers those high ceilings well. They were so high, in fact, that his sister, a baton twirler, was able to practice her craft there on Sundays when their father would take them into work.

“They really are beautiful buildings,” Wilson said. “It has always been an economic portion of the town. It makes no sense to destroy an economic portion of town and make it residential.”

A couple of tenants also told Boston 25 News the rents were reasonable.

The buildings, constructed of local granite, were built around 1870. The original tenant was to have supplied dyed cloth for the Jordan Marsh department store.

But those plans were choked off by Boston’s thirst for drinking water -- which obviously could not contain dyes.

What’s putting extra pressure to do something with the old buildings now is the overall revitalization taking place nearby.

“We’re in the midst of a major project now for the downtown renovation,’ said Ed Eglitis, co-owner of The Bagel Table, a business open for two-and-a-half years, just across from the mills. “It’s just at the beginning. But the entire downtown is going to be renovated with new sidewalks and all the utilities are going underground and it’s going to be a nice village for people to walk and enjoy.”

In Ashland’s Town Hall, two old photographs show the mill buildings back when the town actually was a walkable village. They have changed very little since then and some find comfort in that.

“I think it’s sort of a symbol of what Ashland was,” said resident Dave Perkins. “I think with historic buildings you have to be sensitive to that. These things could be irreplaceable.”