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Westwood

School officials want review of University Station impact

Westwood school officials have commissioned an independent look at the impact of a proposed 2.1 million-square-foot mixed-use development next to Interstate 95 and the MBTA’s Route 128 commuter-rail stop, after a study paid for by the developer said University Station will produce just 55 students from its 650 housing units.

With Westwood’s seven schools at, or over, maximum capacity, Superintendent John Antonucci and members of the town’s School Committee say they are skeptical of the developer’s figures, and are awaiting details of a mitigation plan to address any increased costs.

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“Whether it’s 55 students or 155 students, I’m only concerned about how we protect our school department,’’ Antonucci said.

“Right now we are probably over capacity at the middle school, next year we will be at capacity at the high school, and we are maxed out in our elementary schools,’’ he said.

Although class sizes in the early grades seem to be trending downward, he said, the addition of potentially dozens, if not more, students is a concern for the district, which has a total population of 3,200 students. As it stands, children in the University Station area attend the Downey School, one of five crowded elementary schools.

Once accurate figures are available, Antonucci said, officials may have to address the need to expand schools, or perhap redraw the district lines.

“We can’t cannibalize our current services,’’ he said. “The days are long gone when you had contingency in your budget. A development needs to add value to a community.”

District officials have hired BETA Engineering, a firm already under contract with the town for a peer review, to produce a separate report on the schools.

Special Town Meeting is scheduled to convene on Feb. 28 to consider adding a layer of new zoning for the 130-acre industrial tract on University Avenue that formerly was known as Westwood Station. It would also vote on the development’s first phase — to include a Target department store, a Wegmans grocery, and 450 units of one- and two-bedroom housing — and a proposed mitigation agreement to help assuage costs related to schools, traffic, and public safety.

The agreement is still being negotiated, officials said.

The peer review will take at least a month, Antonucci said, and will probably cause Town Meeting to be delayed. For the project to go forward, two-thirds of the residents taking part in Town Meeting must approve it.

Westwood has been trying to develop the parcel for years after much of the site’s former industrial park, and tax base, faded.

Hopes rose with the plans for Westwood Station, envisioned as a mega mall at twice the size of the current proposal and promising the town $11 million in incentives, fees, taxes, and mitigation payments. The deal fell apart, however, when developer Cabot, Cabot & Forbes was unable to obtain financing.

A partner in the original plan, New England Development, is proposing a scaled-down version as part of a new collaboration with Eastern Real Estate, National Development, Charles River Realty Investors, and Clarion Partners, after paying $45 million for the site earlier this year.

The developers hope construction can begin as soon as voters give their consent, said Douglass Karp, a senior vice president at Newton-based New England Development.

“We have been working extensively with the town and have had public meetings just about every week for months,’’ Karp said of the evolving plan. “We want everyone to have the time to absorb everything.”

Housing is an integral part of the University Station project and can’t be eliminated, Karp said. But the development team has reduced the number of units from an original 1,000, he said, with the goal of attracting young professionals and empty nesters rather than families.

“We are also in the middle of working out a development agreement,’’ he said, but it will not compare with the millions that Westwood Station offered because the project is much smaller.

Town Administrator Mike Jaillet said he is confident the developers are listening to the town’s concerns and adjusting the project accordingly. The developers have also chosen Hanover Realty, a reputable builder that constructed similar housing at Charles River Landing in Needham, he said.

“Everyone is encouraged that things are progressing,’’ Jaillet said. “It is an evolving plan based on what the developers are being told by the community.”

Michele Morgan Bolton can be reached at michelebolton@ live.com.
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