HOPEDALE — The town is edging closer to developing plans that will reshape the downtown of the small community in an unprecedented circumstance.  

Town officials are looking to formalize plans for what will become of the former Draper mill site, a massive 80-acre vacant lot that was once home to the 1.8 million-square-foot Draper factory. The goal is to rezone the area as a new downtown district, and to encourage mixed-use development.

“There seems to be a consensus about mixed use at that site, which has been consistent with the plans that have been considered since the late 1990s,” Town Administrator Diana Schindler said. “There have always been discussions about the mill space having some residential, some light commercial space and some open space.” 

Through a series of proposals, surveys and public hearings over the past several decades, the town has seen a consistent interest in redeveloping the property as part of a multi-faceted approach to reshape the community’s village center. Planning Board Chair Stephen Chaplin said during a board meeting last month that the panel is working on developing a zoning proposal that would match those ambitions.

“We are currently trying to create zoning to encourage and permit mixed-use development in this area,” he said during the Aug. 24 meeting. “We are taking industrial land and we are creating a vehicle for it to become a mixed-use neighborhood.” 

Plans, proposals … and a lawsuit

The mill ceased operation in the mid-1970s, then sat idle for decades as different plans and proposals were considered.

Chronicling Draper: New book offers photographic history of iconic factory

That suit was settled a year later, with the town scrapping the redevelopment plan and agreeing to keep Shwachman in the loop on any new plan going forward.

A call to Shwachman’s business, First American Realty Inc., seeking comment for this story wasn’t returned. But he told the Daily News in March 2021 that there’s “a vision” for open space that can “daylight the river, open it up from Freedom Street all the way to Route 16.”

Later that year, the mill was demolished, leaving a massive vacancy in the downtown area of Hopedale, which encompasses just 5 square miles. 

The Planning Board is expected to draft a bylaw by the end of the year that will propose a change to the zoning map to create a mixed-use district of some kind on the former Draper site. The board will also hold a public hearing on the proposal, take public comment into consideration and then make a recommendation to Town Meeting on whether to adopt the bylaw.

Town Meeting next spring would then decide whether to make the zoning changes.

‘Rebuild a village center’

The large size of the Draper site, within such a small community, creates a unique opportunity for a Massachusetts town to reshape its entire downtown. The Draper property itself comprises about 2.5% of the entire land area in town.

“To have the opportunity to rebuild a village center, I don’t know of any town around here that has had that opportunity,” Schindler said. “What does Hopedale want to be now? Does it want to become a residential community? I think that with the density that will be proposed with some of the housing, people will have to ask themselves about that.” 

Jane Wyrick, a planner with the Central Massachusetts Regional Planning Commission, which is working with the town to consult on future uses of the property, said during the Aug. 24 Planning Board meeting that the Draper property could be a spot to increase the town’s housing stock — something that is challenging given the limited amount of space available in the town.

“One of the things that came out of the survey and master plan was a need for housing for people who are aging,” Wyrick said. “It could be that one of the parcels in this area has senior housing, another may have it for families. With most of the town built out and other land having restrictions on it for conservation, it really limits the area that this town has had for development if we are trying to meet the housing needs. Bringing in mixed-use districts and allowing for housing downtown, hopefully that can meet some of the needs.” 

‘Symbol of Progress’: Book depicts link between the Draper Corp. and Hopedale

Schindler described Hopedale as a “unique place,” and that careful thought needs to be put into plans that will redevelop the village center. She cited the town’s small size in saying that it could lead to it being culturally absorbed by larger neighboring towns. 

“Hopedale is right in between Milford, Mendon, Upton, that little valley,” she said. “It could just meld into a suburb of Milford, depending on what gets built here. It is critical to be really thoughtful about what this development looks like, to keep kind of that unique character of Hopedale and maintain that identity.”

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