Deadline looms for long-delayed ‘Amherst Central Park’ deal

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After eight years of wrangling, Amherst officials and the owners of the former Westwood Country Club property are fast approaching a deadline over how to redevelop the 170-acre site.

Now, Amherst Supervisor Brian J. Kulpa said they have the framework of a pact that would preserve the Westwood property as a park while allowing new development at more suitable locations.

Amherst would swap land closer to its Northtown Center sports facility for the Westwood property and also money, an amount that would eventually be disclosed before the Town Board votes on an agreement. The developer would build medical offices, a hotel, a sports field house and senior housing on a site including a portion of the town’s Audubon Golf Course.

The town, as part of Kulpa’s Amherst Central Park vision, would overhaul the remainder of the Audubon course, carving out athletic fields while looking elsewhere for an improved 18-hole municipal course.

The Town Board on Monday will hold a public hearing on a key piece of the larger project: UBMD Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine’s request to rezone 15 acres on Maple Road to make way for a surgical center and medical offices.

“If UBMD isn’t in the picture, none of this works. It turns into a pumpkin,” Kulpa said.

The hearing comes two weeks before the town’s self-imposed deadline of July 6 to finish negotiations with Mensch Capital Partners, the Westwood owners.

“It was inevitable that we were going to go down to the wire,” Kulpa said.

Mensch Capital Partners officials could not be reached for comment Saturday. But the developers previously said they’re optimistic they can reach an agreement.

The debate over the future of the Westwood site, between Maple Road and Sheridan Drive just west of North Forest Road, began in 2012 when a group of investors bought the property.

Mensch floated a series of reuse proposals, including an ambitious mix of housing for 1,700 people, retail and commercial space and parkland at an estimated cost of $250 million.

By late 2017, the project had stalled over neighbors’ objections and concerns the area’s roads and sanitary sewers couldn’t support a development of that scale. Kulpa, since taking office in 2018, has sought to fit the Westwood site into his larger vision for an Amherst Central Park.

By January 2019, Kulpa and Mensch managing partner Mark E. Hamister had settled on the idea of shifting nearly all of the development off the Westwood site and closer to the Northtown Center facility.

Progress stagnated, however, as the parties debated the value of the town’s land compared with the value of the country club and whether Mensch could build senior housing on a corner of the Westwood site.

Still, the pieces of the project are coming into place:

  • The town would exchange land near the Northtown Center, which now includes football and softball fields, and likely a portion of the Audubon Golf Course for the Westwood property and money. Amherst and Mensch officials are still negotiating the final terms.
  • Westwood would have no new development except the possible new home for MusicalFare Theater and a town arts and cultural center at the course’s former clubhouse.
  • UBMD, the University at Buffalo affiliated physicians’ practice, would build a medical center off Maple Road on land between the Northtown Center and the Audubon course.
  • A field house for indoor sports would go where the softball fields are now.
  • Additional Mensch construction, including senior housing and mixed-use development, would take place on the western portion of the Audubon course. This includes a hotel to serve UBMD patients.
  • New town athletic venues would be developed, with recreational features on the central portion of Audubon, everything from ball fields and pickle ball courts to cricket pitches.
  • A virtual reality golf center and a 9-hole golf course would be created on the remaining, eastern section of the Audubon course.
  • The town has formed a golf task force and is working with a consultant to determine how to make up for the potential loss of 9 holes at Audubon.

    Golfers have complained about sub-par conditions at the 18-hole Audubon course, the Par 3 Audubon course and the executive Oakwood Golf Course — which isn’t open — for years.

    Kulpa said he wants to improve the golf experience for town residents and is talking to officials at Glen Oak Golf Club about a public-private partnership of some kind.

    “We are committed to a municipal 18. And we’re committing to golf at Audubon,” Kulpa said.

    He also said he wants any of the additional Mensch development  in later phases on the Audubon site to fit into a park-like setting the town is trying to retain there.

    “They’ve been talking to us and working with us on minimizing their footprint,” Kulpa said.

    One lingering concern is how much it would cost to clean up contaminants left behind by years of spraying pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals at the Westwood site — and who would pay for it.

    Kulpa said the town still is studying this question but added that transforming the former country club into a park may require little to no remediation.

    The town also is poised to hire a planning consultant to spend much of the week of June 29 soliciting public opinion and putting together an outline to guide development decisions in the area.

    If the town receives positive feedback to the UBMD rezoning request and the consultant’s work, the Town Board could vote on an tentative agreement with Mensch on July 6, Kulpa said. That comes just in time to meet a self-imposed deadline tied to the state’s pre-approval of the town-Mensch land swap.

    “It’s decision time. We’re going to make a decision. I’m not going to punt,” Kulpa said.

Posted by The Buffalo News

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