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Amherst, developer near deal on long-stalled reuse of Westwood site

The former Westwood Country Club in Amherst would be transformed into a park and largely left undeveloped under the framework of a deal that representatives of the town, the developer and neighborhood groups are hashing out.

Mensch Capital Partners, which bought the club nearly seven years ago and has seen its ambitious, $250 million redevelopment stall since then, would construct senior housing on the Maple Road side of the 170-acre property.

The tentative deal also would see Mensch build a hotel near the Northtown Center complex and, possibly, housing along the edge of the town's 18-hole Audubon Golf Course.

Amherst Supervisor Brian J. Kulpa cautioned that the parties have not yet reached a final agreement and they have not worked out specifics on what, precisely, will be built where. But he said the proposals that Mensch Capital officials, Westwood neighbors and the town have discussed recently have the potential to break the logjam on the controversial, long-delayed project.

"It is a big step. The devil's in the details," Kulpa said in an interview Thursday. He will discuss what's happening with Westwood Friday in his State of the Town message.

Any development would need to go through an approval process, and the town and Mensch would need to formally swap different parcels as part of the project.

The town also has to find a way to pay for improvements at the Westwood park, which Kulpa envisions as Amherst Central Park. But the pending agreement is the first sign of progress in years at the site, and former critics are approaching it with cautious optimism.

"So far, I think it's a positive thing for us and for Amherst," said Judith Ferraro, a leading member of the "Keep Westwood Green" group.

An aerial view of the former Westwood Country Club. The town, developer Mensch Capital Partners and neighbors are close to reaching common ground on the long-stalled reuse of the site as part of a planned Amherst Central Park. (Derek Gee/News file photo)

The recent détente among Amherst, Mensch and the Westwood neighbors is a major shift from where things stood in September 2017, when the developer accused the Town Board of "numerous illegal actions" in a State Supreme Court lawsuit. That was the low point in a sluggish process that began in 2012, when a group of investors purchased the Westwood property between Maple Road and Sheridan Drive just west of North Forest Road.

In 2014, Mensch Capital unveiled its first redevelopment plan for the site. The most recent version called for housing for 1,700 people, retail and commercial space and parkland.

But the project moved slowly through the planning and approval process as neighbors of the site raised concerns about the density of the proposed development, sanitary sewer capacity and traffic effects.

The developer fenced off the site after contaminants left behind by years of spraying pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals were discovered.

The project stalled in late 2017, when the Town Board urged Mensch to come back to the town with a scaled-back plan for the site's reuse.

However, shortly after he took office in 2018, Kulpa said he was open to developing at least a portion of the Westwood site as part of comprehensive planning for the future of that section of Amherst, including town-owned properties and the University at Buffalo North Campus.

Mensch officials agreed to put their lawsuit on hold and participate in this long-term planning.

Finally, over the past few months, Kulpa met with Mensch managing partner Mark E. Hamister and with neighborhood leaders to see what each group could live with at the Westwood site.

Kulpa and neighbors wanted to see most of the development shifted off the Westwood property. But Mensch needed to build something there to be eligible for state tax credits that would help pay for the environmental cleanup of the site.

The latest planning would see a senior housing complex built at the northern end of the site, near the town's nine-hole Audubon Par 3 golf course.

The senior housing would be integrated into the rest of the Westwood site, Kulpa said. About 80 percent of the property would be turned into a park, including the golf course's former clubhouse, he said.

The mixed-use hotel and retail development sought by Mensch Capital would move to a parcel near the town's Northtown Center accessible from Millersport Highway. This land is now used by a local junior football league that has sought a new location for some time, Kulpa said.

Finally, Mensch likely would build townhouse-style housing on land along the western edge of the Audubon Golf Course, which is across Maple Road from the former Westwood course.

Kulpa said town officials and Hamister still need to flesh out some details. And the project must go through an extensive approval process.

The state would have to approve any swap of town-owned land for privately held land.

Hamister was out of town Thursday and couldn't be reached for comment, but he has previously expressed support for Kulpa and his approach to resolving the Westwood standoff.

Hamister, partners await answers on Westwood site in Amherst

"We have some mutual buy-in," Kulpa said.

"And we can continue the discussion," added Maggie Hamilton Winship, the town's director of strategic planning, who has worked on the Westwood and Amherst Central Park projects.

Ferraro, who with many of her neighbors vigorously opposed earlier versions of the development, said she appreciates Kulpa's work to address the concerns of residents in the Westwood planning.

"We do have a seat at the table, and we're not the meal," she said.

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