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Clock ticks on deadline for elusive 'Amherst Central Park' deal

The plan to reshape a large section of central Amherst has gained a key state approval but major stumbling blocks remain among the town, developers and residents.

Amherst officials and the owners of the former Westwood Country Club months ago hashed out the outline of an agreement to create vast new commercial and recreational space in the area. However, they and the site's neighbors remain divided over land values and whether the old golf course is an appropriate location for senior housing.

The parties now face a nine-month deadline to reach a compromise on the long-delayed, hotly debated development in the heart of Erie County's largest suburb.

"The devil was always in the details here," Amherst Supervisor Brian J. Kulpa said in an interview.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo late last week signed a law allowing the swap of public and private property at the heart of this proposed "Amherst Central Park" redevelopment.

Most of the 170-acre former country club would be transformed into a park, with the clubhouse hosting arts and theater programming.

Mensch Capital Partners, Westwood's owner, proposes building senior housing on one corner of the site, along with a medical building and hotel near the town's Northtown Center complex. Additional sports venues and housing also are under consideration, but nothing is settled yet.

Kulpa and Mensch representatives plan to meet Wednesday to continue their talks. But it's unclear whether any deal can satisfy both the property owners who seek a return on their years of investment and the Westwood neighbors who oppose any development on the site.

“This matter has been discussed for many years, all with the goal of creating Amherst Central Park," Councilwoman Deborah Bruch Bucki said. "And I would like to see it happen, and I hope that it does.”

Signs outside the former Westwood Country Club in Amherst. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Long-delayed project

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

Mensch offered a series of ideas for redeveloping the site, most recently proposing a 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 concerns that the area's roads and sanitary sewers couldn't support a development of that size.

Neighbors who objected to Mensch's plans were active in the 2015 and 2017 town elections behind a message of "Keep Westwood Green," and signs carrying that sentiment still are sprinkled around the property.

Kulpa, however, signaled after taking office in January 2018 that he was open to developing at least a portion of the Westwood site, as part of a larger Amherst Central Park section that includes the University at Buffalo and two town-owned golf courses.

Months of discussions with Mensch representatives – including managing partners Mark E. Hamister and his son, Daniel, of the Hamister Group – led to the idea of a land swap.

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

The concept calls for Mensch to turn over to the town most of the Westwood course for use as a park. The former clubhouse could be revived as an arts center and host a theater group. Amherst has talked to MusicalFare Theatre, which must move from its Daemen College home.

Mensch would retain a corner of the Westwood property to build a 200-bed senior living center.

To gain the Westwood parkland, the town would sell or lease land to Mensch to make way for several possible developments near its Northtown Center.

This could require shifting some ball fields around the property, or off the site, as well as making changes to Amherst's 18-hole Audubon course, which is in need of reinvestment.

Mensch or a designated developer would construct a hotel and medical offices for a relocated UBMD Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine near the Northtown Center. The practice has declined comment, although Kulpa said the town is in exclusive negotiations with UBMD for the project.

The town also could gain new sports venues such as an indoor field house, cricket field, pickleball court and virtual reality golf center.

Land swap approved

To move forward, Amherst needed the state's OK to swap town-owned land for the Mensch property. The State Legislature in June approved the measure allowing for up to 93 acres to be exchanged and Cuomo on Thursday signed the bill into law.

However, as requested by the Amherst Town Board, the law includes a provision requiring the parties to agree to the swap within nine months of final state approval or else it expires and new legislation would be needed.

In another development, the Town Board on Monday agreed to hire former Erie County Parks Commissioner Daniel J. Rizzo as a part-time project manager in the town's Finance Office. Kulpa said Rizzo's duties will include overseeing parkland development within the Amherst Central Park project.

State approval removes one project hurdle, but others remain.

One issue is whether neighbors will accept senior housing, or any development at the former country club. Officials previously have said the golf course must be redeveloped in some way in order for Mensch to be eligible for tax credits to offset the expense of the site's environmental cleanup.

Failing that, the town and developer would have to find another location for the senior residence.

Negotiations have dragged on because Mark Hamister is stubbornly insisting on constructing the facility on the golf course grounds, said Judith Ferraro, a leading proponent of preserving Westwood as green space.

"Why do we have to give up part of Westwood to the same group when they're getting so much more to begin with?" asked Ferraro, who favors the town using eminent domain to try to acquire the Westwood site if a deal can't be reached.

Property value debated

Kulpa said the key obstacle is finding common ground on how much the public and private property is worth.

The 170-acre former Westwood site is assessed at $1 million, following a 2017 assessment challenge, according to the town Assessor's Office. By comparison, the town's 18- and 9-hole golf courses on either side of Maple Road are worth more, at $3.15 million for their combined 209 acres.

"More so than who can build what, where, it’s what’s the value of the asset, and how do we value it and how do they value it?" Kulpa said.

Mensch officials declined to respond to specific questions. In a statement released through a spokesman they said, "We understand the governor’s signature sets the deadline for us to complete our agreement with the Town of Amherst. We continue to work collaboratively with the town and look forward to creating a vibrant neighborhood with new community amenities in the town."

Nearly eight years after the investors purchased the golf course, and five years after the country club closed, a fence wraps around the Westwood site and signs warn of the danger of contamination from past use of pesticides for anyone who trespasses.

In the only sign of activity there, Northtown Automotive continues to park cars in the area near the former clubhouse.

Kulpa said he's optimistic the parties can reach an agreement by July but he concedes the project has hit an impasse. And full development of Amherst Central Park remains years away.

"I'm not sure what moves the project along at this point," Kulpa said.

 

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