It looks like ground will finally be broken next month on University Avenue, where a 130-acre former industrial park is slated to be redeveloped into a 2.2-million-square-foot mixed-use complex once envisioned on a much grander scale.
Voters at Monday’s Special Town Meeting approved a string of seven warrant articles authorizing zoning changes, tax breaks, and other measures to enable the long-awaited University Station project to move forward. Eight years in the making, the complex will boast easy access to Route 128, Interstate 93, Interstate 95, and the MBTA’s Route 128 commuter rail station.
“This project will turn an eyesore into a dynamic, smart-growth community,’’ said Philip Shapiro, chairman of Westwood’s Board of Selectmen. “It will be a great asset for our town and region for generations.”
Monday’s voice vote followed hours of Town Meeting debate before a capacity crowd at Westwood High School, and came almost a decade after a megamall at double the size, once known as Westwood Station, was first floated with much fanfare to the community.
That plan fizzled when former developer Cabot, Cabot & Forbes failed to find financing, and the new incarnation emerged last spring after the new developers, New England Development, Eastern Development, National Development, Charles River Realty Investors, and Clarion Partners, bought the site for $45 million.
When completed, University Station will include retail shops, restaurants, housing, a hotel, an assisted-living facility, and offices.
To get the project started, residents agreed to create a new mixed-use zoning district; change roadways and easements; and establish a $6 million development agreement that includes $2.2 million for the school district, $500,000 for Deerfield School playing fields, $900,000 to meet increased public safety needs, and $2.35 million for traffic calming measures and studies.
Developers will install sound barriers next to the Whitewood Road neighborhood, which abuts the project, and will also create 16 acres of green space in the first building phase.
As their part of the bargain, voters agreed to allow selectmen to reinstate a 2007 pact for state tax breaks, and open the project up to $10 million in state infrastructure funds.
Of the project’s 650 units of one- and two-bedroom housing, 25 percent will be affordable, officials said, raising the town’s affordable-housing stock to just over its 10 percent requirement by law.
“This is well planned, well controlled, well vetted, and will bring well-needed tax revenue,’’ resident Mary Beth Parker said, before the first vote was taken.
Parker and others said the complex will help turn around a declining commercial tax base in the bedroom community, whose split tax rate levies higher taxes on businesses to help ease the burden on homeowners.
The promise of increased traffic clogging the surrounding Canton, Everett, and Forbes streets area has long been a bone of contention for Forbes Street resident John Harding, but he said neighbors are satisfied with mitigation measures included in the development agreement.
“We have a fund that exceeds $2 million for neighborhood traffic mitigation projects, including approximately $700,000 that can be deployed immediately,’’ he said. “We have been waiting for years to see this happen, and it appears that it will happen.”
Not everyone was pleased, though.
Highview Street resident Susan Wisialko said that while she supports the concept of the project, she believes voters should reject the agreement because the estimate the new housing would send 63 new students into the school district comes from flawed calculations. She said the eventual number, if higher, could have a bigger impact on taxpayers’ wallets.
“I believe people will move into town to take advantage of our greatest asset, which is our schools,’’ Wisialko said. “We need a structure to protect Westwood taxpayers if more than 63 students turn up.”
School Superintendent John Antonucci said he’s comfortable with the estimate and said school enrollment is, in fact, declining.
“There is no one more committed to maintaining the excellence of the school district than me,’’ he said. Citing the millions of dollars in mitigation revenue and taxes that the district will see, he added, “I find it hard not to be excited that the schools have the potential for such funding.”
Board of Selectmen chairman Shapiro said elected officials, Town Hall staff, and Westwood residents were patient and vigilant, demanding over time a development for University Avenue that they could be proud of, “and we got it.”