A decade later, University Station’s train is finally pulling in
The developers of Westwood Station courted trouble when they used the phrase “Arriving Right on Time” as a slogan to market their megaproject. Clever tag line? More like a punch line.
That was a decade ago, and it proved to be wishful thinking. The Great Recession put the brakes on this 4.5 million-square-foot mini-city that would have gone up next to the Westwood rail station. The money dried up before anything could be built.
Flash forward 10 years. The train is finally pulling into the station. At long last, Westwood town officials have persuaded a marquee office tenant to move to town: Citizens Financial Group. To pull it off, they offered the Providence-based bank $2.5 million in tax breaks. The state Economic Assistance Coordinating Council is expected to approve the incentives on Wednesday.
The project is now called University Station, and it’s almost done. Stores and apartments opened, starting in 2015, led by Target and Wegmans. The office section represented the last missing piece. The development team got this far by scaling back ambitions: The new project is roughly half the size of the old one, about 2 million square feet. That helped curb traffic concerns. Surface parking replaced garages in the plans, making the entire 120-acre swath much less expensive to develop. And the region’s strong economy helped pushed things along.
Despite that tail wind, finding office tenants proved to be tough for the developers — a group that includes National Development, New England Development, and Eastern Real Estate. They courted a number of high-profile names: TJX, the Clarks shoe company, Haemonetics, Dunkin’ Brands. No luck.
Then Citizens came along. The state’s second-largest retail bank wants to consolidate workers in three suburban offices into one location — to offer a more modern environment that could appeal to millennial workers, and to save money on real estate. Citizens had just completed a similar project in Johnston, R.I., and wanted to pull together a smaller version in Boston’s southwestern suburbs.
Citizens considered several places along that stretch of Route 128 for an office that would accommodate nearly 550 people, to start. Town Administrator Michael Jaillet says the tax breaks were necessary to keep Westwood in the game. Plus, the town still gets $5 million in additional property taxes over the 15-year life of the agreement, after the breaks are factored in. Although not everyone was a fan, Town Meeting voters approved the tax incentives in May.
The University Station offices, Jaillet says, could help alleviate the tax burden on homeowners. Three decades ago, commercial properties paid about 40 percent of the town’s taxes. Now, he says, that has dropped to 24 percent, as home values appreciated at a much faster pace than those of office and warehouse properties.
Citizens expects to finish the 100,000-square-foot, four-story building by mid-2020. There’s enough room to accommodate 600 people; Citizens is looking to add jobs, another 50 or so, to the workforce in the area. Executive vice president Mike Knipper says the building will have many modern flourishes: a user-experience lab to try out new consumer technology, and a production studio for videos and photography.
Two down, two to go. Also on track: Meketa Investment Group will relocate from elsewhere in Westwood to a smaller office building in the complex. Jack O’Neil, managing director of National Development, says that leaves two commercial pads to be filled with either offices or hotel rooms.
Before the Great Recession, Legacy Place and Westwood Station competed for tenants. Legacy, a lifestyle center three miles away in Dedham, won that competition — or at least the first round. Legacy is among the places that Citizens is exiting as part of this move.
Westwood Station certainly didn’t live up to its developers’ ambitions. But University Station could prove to be the littler engine that could.