The Amherst supervisor's plan to redevelop the former Westwood Country Club as a destination venue that fits within a broader "Central Park" neighborhood has won the support of the investors who own the sprawling property.
Mensch Capital Partners is putting on hold its years-long effort to transform the shuttered country club into a $250 million mixed-use development and cooperating with town leaders as they figure out how best to use Westwood and neighboring properties. The group also has set aside a lawsuit it filed against the town over its handling of the project.
"We're rebooting the planning process," said Andrew J. Shaevel, Mensch Capital's managing partner, adding, "with hope that the outcome of that is a usable plan for the Westwood site."
Town Supervisor Brian J. Kulpa said he's optimistic this new approach will lead to a result that wins the support of Amherst officials, the developer and town residents. He said that work should take about 18 months.
"What an opportunity to create a core – a heart if you will – for the town, and have it be green and have it be a destination," Kulpa said.
Kulpa earlier this year said he wants to restart the planning for Westwood, a project that has stalled in the face of neighborhood opposition and a slow-moving approval process.
Instead, Kulpa said he wants to consider Westwood as it fits within a "Central Park" section of town that includes the town-owned Audubon Golf Course and Northtown Center and the former gun club site. He said he wants to create a "magnetic" park-like setting, akin to Buffalo's Delaware Park or New York City's Union Square that will draw users from all over.
"It's nice to see a grand vision here," said A.J. Baynes, the president and CEO of the Amherst Chamber of Commerce.
Mensch Capital Partners bought the property in 2012, and unveiled its ambitious redevelopment plan two years later. The latest version calls for $250 million worth of housing for 1,700 people, retail and commercial space and parkland.
But the review of the project has proceded cautiously. The Town Board late last year issued a statement urging Mensch Capital to consider a proposal that removes a planned hotel, works within sanitary sewer capacity and is smaller in scale.
Kulpa, after expressing skepticism about the proposal during his 2017 campaign, talked in his State of the Town address about working collaboratively to find a winning plan for the site within the context of the larger neighborhood. Kulpa said he wanted to play down any feelings of "the town versus the developer."
Shaevel said he is open-minded to what could come out of the planning process and said he likes the supervisor's idea of approaching the neighborhood as "a clean canvas."
Would the investors be willing to sell the Westwood property, which they bought six years ago for $2.5 million, to the town?
"I think it's too early to have that conversation," Shaevel said, before adding anything is possible as long as the partners make a reasonable return on their investment.
Mensch Capital has put its lawsuit against the town on hold but it has not dismissed the suit.
Kulpa's planning process, which also will include Maggie Winship, the town's director of strategic planning, will draw in other partners as it extends beyond the Westwood borders.
The University at Buffalo and American Campus Communities, the owner of the former Buffalo Shooting Club on Maple Road, also will have a say.
Kulpa said it's premature to say what the "Central Park" community eventually will look like, but he said he envisions a park of some kind at Westwood and, perhaps, a conversion of the former clubhouse into a building akin to Delaware Park's Marcy Casino or Letchworth State Park's Glen Iris Inn.
He also speculated about converting the town's 18-hole Audubon Golf Course into a high-end 9-hole course.
He said he wants public input as the town pursues sustainable options through a planning process that follows state guidelines.
Is the town open to development at Westwood?
"I don't know if it's on that site," Kulpa said. "It has to be the right kind of development."
Anything that happens at Westwood has to factor in the cost of cleaning up contamination at the site.
The Chamber's Baynes said the site is too important to remain unused.
Judith Ferraro, a leading member of the "Keep Westwood Green" group and a critic of the Mensch Capital proposal, said residents have made it clear they want to see parkland and recreational access protected in the town.
"We don't want business as usual," Ferraro said. "We want a fresh start, and we want it now, to preserve our green space."