Vast project revived in Westwood

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

After years of delays, one of the state's largest development projects is getting started Wednesday in the town of Westwood, where contractors will begin to build a miniature city with hundreds of new homes, stores, and offices.

The 130-acre University ÂStation project promises to transform a vast stretch of former industrial property along Interstate 95 into a new destination with a Wegmans supermarket and popular retailers such as Nordstrom Rack.

The project stalled in 2010 during an economic downturn that dried up funding for large-scale real estate development. Its resurrection by a new team of investors is symbolic of a Âresurgent economy and housing market in Massachusetts that are fueling a burst of construction activity statewide.

''This is a great opportunity to turn the tides and start building value," said Nancy Hyde, chairwoman of the Board of ÂSelectmen in Westwood, which has watched its commercial tax base erode with the loss of General Motors and other industrial tenants.

University Station is expected to generate $3 million in Âannual tax revenue and bring more than 400 homes to land around a major Amtrak and MBTA rail station in the next few years. The first wave of residences and stores, including Wegmans and Target, is expected to open in 2015. Later phases will bring 350,000 square feet of office space, a 150-room hotel, and additional residences and stores.

The project, though roughly half the size of a prior version, is still among the biggest in the state. Its mix of commercial and residential buildings is similar to larger-scale projects at Fort Devens and the former naval air station in South Weymouth. Like those developments, University Station is bound to face setbacks and delays due to the cyclical real estate market, but its fortunes are on an upswing now.

''I don't think there is a Âbetter site in the state," said Douglass Karp, a principal with New England Development, the firm leading the project. "Whether it's the offices, or the residences, or the shopping, there's going to be a lot to do here."

A ceremony to mark the start of construction was scheduled for Wednesday, although contractors have been doing preliminary work on the property for some time. Governor Deval Patrick and other state Âofficials were expected to attend the event.

In his remarks, Patrick was expected to announce $5.5 million in grants to help pay for Âlocal road upgrades to manage traffic around the development. Additional funds are under consideration to make improvements along University Avenue.

The state is also planning a broader reconstruction of the traffic-clogged interchange at Interstates 93 and 95. In recent years, the Patrick administration has sought to make transportation improvements in places that would also spur private development, hoping to magnify the economic impact of the investments.

Some of those efforts are now bearing fruit. Developers are building hundreds of residences and stores on a former industrial site at Assembly Square in Somerville. State and federal money helped to build a new access road into the property, and an Orange Line station is also being built at its edge.

Other infrastructure investments have spurred construction of the massive Fan Pier development in the South Boston Innovation District, as well as large-scale projects in Burlington, Lynnfield, and Worcester.

''We're seeing some very nice signs that the economic tide is rising," said Greg Bialecki, Patrick's chief of housing and economic development. "The first projects out of the ground are seeing success, and that is helping other developers make the case 1/8for private financing3/8 as well."

Like other suburban projects in recent years, University Station is designed to function more like a city than a shopping mall. Its residences and offices will be arranged around an outdoor retail core, with several restaurants, retail boutiques, and a large fitness center. The development will also include 18 acres of open space with recreation areas and a village green.

The project is expected to create 1,000 construction jobs and 2,000 permanent jobs over the next several years. Despite its reduced size, public officials say it will provide a significant economic boost to the town and reduce the tax burden on homeowners.

The developers have not yet signed any new office tenants, but the commercial rental market is steadily improving as the economy slowly regains steam. Hyde said the town would consider tax incentives to help lure new companies, though no such assistance has been requested yet.

The first batch of apartments will be mostly one- and two-bedroom units, along with 64 assisted living residences for seniors. Karp declined to provide a price range for the units, but said developers hope the project's retail amenities and proximity to public transportation will command premium rents. "If you work in Boston or Providence, or travel regularly to New York, it's a pretty easy train ride to any of those locations," Karp said.

Those residences will be Âdeveloped by The Hanover Co. and Gables Investment Trust. The project team also includes Eastern Real Estate, National Development, and Clarion Partners LLC. The group came together following the exit of Cabot, Cabot & Forbes, which was delayed by permitting challenges and failed to generate enough funding to proceed with the project.

Even with the region's improving real estate market, it will likely take eight to 10 years to complete construction of the project, depending on the turns of the real estate market. After a decade of community meetings, delays, and revisions, public officials said they are relieved the work is finally getting underway.

''It's really rewarding to be at this point," said Hyde, the selectmen chairwoman. "It's taken a lot of work by a lot of people to get us here."