Over 100 Westwood residents filled the cafeteria at the Downey School last night as the Board of Selectmen held a meeting with the main topic of discussion being the University Station development.
With the Planning Board and Finance and Warrant Commission also in attendance, and some residents forced to stand because there were no more chairs, the Selectmen ran the meeting as an open hearing to give residents the opportunity to voice their concerns with the project. 30 people had the chance to speak, with the most often mentioned concerns being traffic and the effects the residential portion of the project would have on the school system.
“I’m glad that other people have the same concerns- housing, schools and traffic,” Pam Peckinpaugh, who lives right next to the proposed development site, said after the meeting.
Board of Selectmen Chairperson Philip Shapiro moderated the meeting and kept it civil despite the number of people in the room who were clearly unhappy with aspects of the project.
“This is for you,” Shapiro said when the University Station portion of the meeting began. “If there are problems you see and ways to fix them we want to hear about them.”
The effect this project will have on the school system was brought up several times. The school department is something everyone in Westwood seems to value very highly, and one resident even mentioned the fact that Westwood High School had been nationally recognized with a Blue Ribbon award, which they just accepted this week in Washington, D.C.
Those facts, coupled with the fact that the developer’s financial expert, Connery Associates, just released their Fiscal Impact Analysis this week, upset several people in attendance as they strongly disagreed with Connery’s method of calculating the financial effect on the Westwood Public Schools, particularly because people don’t feel the school districts they used as comparables to do the calculations are comparable (Superintendent of Schools John Antonucci also expressed those same sentiments in a meeting several weeks ago).
Another issue related to the schools isn’t simply financial, but also a matter of space. Connery estimates that the residential portion of the project, which is currently slated for 650 one and two bedroom units, will bring about 55 additional students to Westwood. Again, many residents found his method “flawed,” specifically noting that the comparables he used don’t have the T access that Westwood does.
“If schools are affected by the number of students, it affects the quality of education,” one woman in the crowd said. “That will then affect the real estate value.”
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The other issue that seemed to be mentioned the most was traffic. Several people mentioned before, during and after the meeting the previous proposed project that failed a few years ago. There were two things they liked about that developer: they were more approachable and willing to talk to them, and they were willing to pay for the traffic mitigation.
“I was involved in traffic mitigation 4-5 years ago,” resident Robert Ross said. “The new developer is not amenable to traffic mitigation. We should make them do it.”
The Selectmen were mostly neutral throughout the night, not giving their own opinions of the project, but simply listening to the people who came to the meeting. One person asked them their opinion, so each did say a little, although they seemed like they haven’t made up their mind at this point.
Selectman Nancy Hyde said it’s how you look at each thing, and she thinks it’s a matter of the overall picture.
“I have a different approach,” Shapiro said. “It’s important to know how many condos, how many one bedrooms and how many two bedrooms.”
“I’m troubled that there are some rental units,” Selectman Patrick Ahearn said. “I’m troubled that the numbers move every time we talk to the developers.”
Possibly compounding the issue for many people is they feel New England Development won’t talk to them. One woman asked near the end of the meeting if the developer would come to a meeting like this to answer the public’s questions. Residents pointed out that several members of New England Development have attended all the other meetings related to University Station except for this one, when the public had the opportunity to ask questions for nearly two hours.
“New England Development wants to push it through,” resident John Harding said. “They don’t talk to us. There’s no one here from them tonight. They basically have a strip mall with apartments at the end… The schools are undervalued. I don’t think anyone is willing to see the quality of the Westwood schools decline just to get this developer in.”
The date that is still being mentioned for the Special Town Meeting is February 28. With that date approaching quicker each day, many in attendance last night seemed concerned.
Jack Wiggin, the Chairperson of the Planning Board didn’t seem concerned after the meeting. He said that many of the concerns that were brought up he was aware of, and that some of the things can’t be done yet until a final design has been completed. This is includes the noise study, as where the buildings are and how they’re designed will change how the noise travels.
Wiggin also said that, while it’s a slow process, it’s not over in terms of negotiations. On Tuesday the Planning Board will receive a presentation from Connery on the Fiscal Impact Analysis. In addition, Westwood hired their own expert, BETA, who will make a presentation with their Fiscal Impact Analysis on Tuesday night as well. BETA’s report won’t be available ahead of time as part of their job is to rebut, if necessary, things they disagree on with Connery.