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Amherst weighs swap of parkland in latest plan for Westwood site

As town officials take the next key step in reshaping the neighborhood they've branded Amherst Central Park, new details are emerging about big changes on the horizon for the former Westwood Country Club and Amherst's main recreational facilities.

Amherst is preparing to seek state permission for a future exchange of town parkland – possibly involving shifting around Northtown Center ball fields and holes on the Audubon Golf Course – for a large park on the privately owned Westwood property.

Supervisor Brian J. Kulpa said several ideas are in the works, including:

• Construction near the Northtown Center of a hotel and medical offices for a relocated UBMD Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine.

• A new location on the Westwood grounds for MusicalFare Theatre, which would move from Daemen College, as part of a potential town arts center.

• A 200-bed senior living center on the Westwood grounds.

• New sports venues for the town, such as an indoor field house, cricket field, pickleball court and virtual-reality golf center.

To be sure, the town and the developer, Mensch Capital Partners, haven't worked out exactly what would go where on the massive swaths of land. But getting state approval ahead of time for transfers of land down the road would help the town develop a master plan for the overall site, Kulpa said.

And this is the latest sign of progress in a development stalled for the better part of seven years.

"We're not changing any of our operations, and we're not selling anything yet," Kulpa said in an interview. "This gives us the flexibility in the coming years to be a little creative."

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)

 It started when a group of investors bought the 170-acre Westwood property, between Maple Road and Sheridan Drive just west of North Forest Road, in 2012.

Mensch Capital's most recent in a string of redevelopment plans for the site called for housing for 1,700 people, retail and commercial space and parkland.

But the project struggled to gain town backing as neighbors raised concerns that roads and sanitary sewers in the area couldn't handle a development of that scale.

The project stalled in late 2017, but Kulpa after taking office last year said he was open to developing at least a portion of the Westwood site.

Kulpa, Mensch partner Mark E. Hamister and other officials have spent the past 18 months or so trying to find common ground on redevelopment on and around Westwood.

Those discussions have heated up in the past few months, with a general agreement to shift most of the development off the Westwood property and closer to the town's Northtown Center sports complex off Millersport Highway.

A section of the Town of Amherst eyed for future development.

That's where Mensch is considering constructing a hotel and office building with a new location for UBMD's sports medicine practice, now at 4949 Sheridan Drive, Kulpa said. The hotel would serve patients of the practice, among other guests, and this development would fit with the town's sports complex there, he said.

"We like those complementary uses," Kulpa said.

UBMD spokeswoman Allison Camp said the sports medicine practice is looking for a new location in the Northtowns but she declined comment on whether the Northtown Center site is one of the options under consideration.

"It's pretty preliminary," Camp said.

Back on the Westwood site itself, Mensch would build a 200-bed senior housing complex at the northern end of the site, near the town's nine-hole Audubon Par 3 golf course.

But about 80 percent of the Westwood property would be turned into a town park, including the golf course's former clubhouse, Kulpa said. This could serve as an arts center for Amherst, including a new MusicalFare Theatre.

MusicalFare Executive Director Randy Kramer confirmed the company is looking at the Westwood property as one of a number of potential new locations.

The theater has occupied space on Daemen's Main Street campus since the early 1990s, with several expansions. But Kramer said Daemen's president informed him that MusicalFare's lease won't be renewed when it expires in May 2025.

"We want to stay in Amherst," Kramer said.

Kulpa previously said Mensch is eyeing townhouse-style housing on land along the western edge of the Audubon Golf Course, across Maple Road from the former Westwood course.

To gain the Westwood parkland, the town would give up some recreational and park land near its Northtown Center.

This could require shifting some ball fields around the property, or off site, as well as making changes to Amherst's 18-hole Audubon course that officials concede badly needs reinvestment.

Kulpa said the town could keep the course's 18 holes, but reconfigure some of them, or shrink the course to nine or even six holes.

There are other sports venues the town has high demand for: an indoor soccer and track field house, swimming pool, pickleball court, cricket field and other uses, he said – even the kind of virtual golf center operated by TopGolf. Kulpa emphasized the town won't cut back on any sports venues.

"I know we need all of what we have plus, frankly, more than what we have. We don't have enough now," Kulpa said.

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

The Town Board is set to vote to hold a public hearing on May 20 to begin that process, known as alienation.

But this is a different form of alienation, town officials said, because instead of seeking approval for a specific exchange of one piece of town-owned land for another owned by the developer the town is asking the state to preemptively alienate its entire Audubon recreational complex.

"What we're saying is, look, let's alienate, and then figure out where everything wants to be," Kulpa said.

The entire area, including the Westwood property, the Northtown Center complex and ball fields and the 18- and nine-hole golf courses is 435 acres, said Maggie Hamilton Winship, the town's director of community development.

The town is seeking to alienate about 240 acres, she said. Any future exchanges will reflect the fact that the town's property is worth more per acre than the Westwood property, Winship said.

Kulpa said he's been talking to state lawmakers about the alienation but said he's not sure a bill can win approval before the end of the State Legislature's term next month.

A Mensch spokesman declined to discuss the status of the group's talks with the town in detail.

“We continue to have discussions with the town regarding Amherst Central Park. There has been progress, but there is no agreement at this time," Mensch said in a statement Friday.

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