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Framingham

Neighbors question plans for treatment center

Plans for an 80-bed treatment center in a residential neighborhood in Framingham for clients with eating and mood disorders are drawing fire from some residents worried about traffic and public safety.

Walden Behavioral Care LLC wants to move its corporate headquarters and much of its treatment facility from Waltham to the former Marist Retreat Center at 518 Pleasant St. Walden has signed a purchase-and-sale agreement to acquire the sprawling property from the Marist Fathers of Boston, pending approval of its plans.

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It would continue to offer some psychiatric services in Waltham.

About 100 people attended a Walden-sponsored forum Tuesday to press for details on the project. Many who attended were skeptical, and let their objections be known.

The Marist property is in a residential zone, and as a result, Walden would need to obtain a special permit from Framingham’s Zoning Board of Appeals to open its clinic there. The board has scheduled a hearing on Walden’s application for 8 p.m. Tuesday in the Memorial Building.

‘Town Meeting voted to zone this site in particular as a residential zone. If your project is allowed, it’s just the beginning of changing the entire character of that part of town.’

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Framingham resident James Brady expressed alarm at the proposal, saying that the facility would house young people who exhibit inappropriate behavior and “mentally defective people” who may become drug addicts after being treated with medication.

“To refer to them as mentally defective is really not appropriate,” said Stuart L. Koman, Walden’s president and CEO. He added that about 10 percent of the population has been diagnosed with some form of depression. Medications are prescribed by doctors and used in effective doses, he said.

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Koman said the Framingham facility would treat patients with eating disorders, such as anorexia, obesity, and bulimia, as well as depression and other mood disorders. He also said Walden does not, and will not, treat anyone with a history of violence, sexual offenses, cruelty to animals, or a tendency to set fires, or a primary diagnosis of substance abuse.

“We don’t do this now; we certainly aren’t going to do it in Framingham,” Koman said.

After being asked why Walden would employ fences, cameras, and security guards, and have its facility locked around the clock, Komen said that its patients are often in dire straits and prone to harming themselves. The security measures are also in place to protect patient privacy, he said.

“They deserve confidentiality, and they deserve to be protected,” he said.

The proposal calls for the two buildings on the religious order’s property to be renovated and new structures to be added. The 45,000-square-foot Marist House would be redone to provide 24 beds for those suffering eating disorders, and 24 beds for those with mood disorders. There would also be office space for 20 staff members.

The for-profit company’s plan also calls for the adjacent Bishop’s Hall to be converted into offices, and three new buildings: a 16-bed, 12,000-square-foot residential facility to treat obese adults; a 16-bed, 6,000-square-foot facility for adolescents; and a 10,000-square-foot space for offices, and intake and aftercare services.

Walden has been looking for a new facility for two years, Koman said.

Overall, according to traffic consultant Robert J. Michaud, the Walden facility would increase vehicle traffic by 5 percent in the vicinity of the property, which sits between Pleasant Street (Route 30) and the Mass. Turnpike on the north side of town.

However, even that was too much for a number of residents.

“I don’t see this as a terribly intrusive project, but that relatively small amount of traffic will cause us major problems,” said resident Larry Marsh.

Many worried about adding to the already chaotic traffic load at the intersection of Temple Street and Route 9, less than a mile away.

“Temple Street is a huge problem,” said state Representative Chris Walsh, a Democrat from Framingham.

“If we push them away, my concern is about what else could’’ go in its place, said neighbor Brian Benstock. “I’m not saying I’m 100 percent for this,’’ he said, but noted “this is a for-profit that we have a little bit of a say in. . . If 40 homes go in there, is it going to be any better? If a community college goes in there, is it going to be any better?”

Thomas Drive resident Robert Cohen said the zoning issue was the “800-pound elephant in the room.

“Town Meeting voted to zone this site in particular as a residential zone,” Cohen told the Walden contingent. “If your project is allowed, it’s just the beginning of changing the entire character of that part of town.’’

Koman said property values would not be affected “much or at all” by proximity to such a facility, and pointed out that his project would lead to the existing buildings being restored and renovated.

Architect Gary Graham said that, based on input from neighbors, one proposed building has been moved away from the road and closer to the center of the campus. “We will be adding a significant amount of landscaping,” Graham said.

Koman said Walden would do everything it can to maintain the character of the property.

According to Koman, 110 jobs will be relocated from Waltham to Framingham, and 25 new jobs created.

As a for-profit company, Walden is expected to pay six-figure property taxes each year, Koman said.

“The biggest benefit, by far, is to have us available to Framingham residents who require our services,” Koman said, as well as providing free preventative services to the town’s schools.

“We believe that over time you will come to embrace us,” Koman said.

John Swinconeck can be reached at johnswinc@gmail.com

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