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Westwood

University Station gains traction as some fret over impact

The stars have finally aligned at University Station in Westwood, where a much-anticipated, mixed-use development will begin to go vertical in April.

The beginning of construction culminates an effort that has covered most of the past decade to return a dormant 140-acre industrial park next to the Route 128 commuter rail station to the town’s tax base, according to Westwood Town Manager Mike Jaillet.

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“We are finally here, and we are excited,’’ he said.

Key to the development plan, the state Department of Transportation will hold a 6:30 p.m. public hearing Thursday to discuss the first phase of a sweeping $250 million reconstruction of the adjoining Interstate 95/University Avenue interchange.

Funding for the four-phase project was fast-tracked by the Boston Regional Metropolitan Planning Organization last year.

Upon completion, University Station will offer Westwood a net benefit of $3.5 million in tax revenue annually, Jaillet said, in addition to millions in one-time mitigation payments for schools and public safety.

Phase 1, set to begin around April 1, includes 550,000 square feet of retail space, including a Target and a Wegmans grocery store, and 350 high-end, one- and two-bedroom apartment homes, said Paul Cincotta, a vice president with New England Development, the lead developer.

Work to move earth and prepare for road reconfiguration and building pads has been ongoing since last summer.

“We are very fortunate,” said Cincotta, who has started filing building permits with the town.

University Station is the second incarnation for the site once called Westwood Station, a 5-million-square-foot project that fizzled with the 2008 economy after original developer Cabot, Cabot & Forbes could not obtain financing. In 2012, original partner New England Development and a new team including Eastern Development and National Development bought the land, halved the proposal, and renamed it.

In time, University Station will include 750,000 square feet of stores and restaurants, 500,000 square feet of office space, and 850,000 square feet for a hotel and housing, Cincotta said.

Upgraded highway infrastructure is key to its success, and economic development in the region, he and others said.

Estimating the road work’s first phase at $4.8 million, Department of Transportation spokeswoman Sara Lavoie encouraged residents to attend Thursday’s hearing. She said the project is expected to go to bid by the end of the year.

“Improved safety and access for all roadway users is the end goal,” she said.

Work will include revamping the I-95 southbound offramp to Blue Hill Drive/University Avenue; widening the I-95 southbound mainline to provide an auxiliary lane to the new offramp; and terminating Blue Hill Drive in a cul-de-sac just northwest of the end of the current offramp.

That will provide one-way access to Whitewood Road, an adjoining residential neighborhood of about 55 homes, among other changes and additions, officials said.

While town and state officials are enthusiastic, Whitewood Road neighbors Pam Peckinpaw and Robert Maloof fear the highway plan, and University Station as a whole, could ruin their lives.

“My impacts are direct, immediate, and prolonged,’’ said Peckinpaw, who is the closest abutter to the development.

Mitigation packages have been negotiated for residents of other roads to be affected by traffic, but Peckinpaw said she and others have received nothing but the promise of a “sound attenuation fence” along Blue Hill Road.

And while the developers’ marketing approach has stressed the reduced size of the project, she said traffic studies still show an expected 56,000 vehicle trips on weekends.

“I’m not going to be able to open my windows,’’ Peckinpaw said.

Still to come are a 350-unit apartment complex within 479 feet of her home, retail stores, a health care facility, restaurants, and 300 more housing units in Phase 2.

Maloof grew up on Whitewood Road and said he does not want to move. His children and elderly mother live nearby. A next-door neighbor has already left, he said, leaving the house boarded up.

“But this is my home,’’ he said. “No one seems to care, though. They are just pushing it through.”

Both residents criticized the lack of mitigation offered, and even what they said was the town’s failure to adequately publicize Thursday’s meeting. Local officials said it is not so.

“We have actively promoted it and done everything we can to get the word out,” said Jaillet.

He also rejected the idea that Whitewood Road residents have not been treated fairly, saying that a conservation restriction has been imposed on land fronting the neighborhood, and many more trees have gone in as a buffer.

And, Cincotta said, fence work will begin, but must be coordinated with the state.

“This should not be a concern,’’ he said. “It is a necessity, and DOT has been responsive.”

The hearing Thursday is scheduled to be held at the Downey School Cafeteria, 250 Downey St., in Westwood.

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