FRAMINGHAM — Framingham citizens worried about plans for an 80-bed treatment center for clients with eating and mood disorders in a residential neighborhood crowded a Zoning Board public hearing Tuesday night.
Walden Behavioral Care LLC wants to move its corporate headquarters and much of its treatment facility from Waltham to the former Marist Retreat Center at 518 Pleasant St. Walden has signed a purchase-and-sale agreement to acquire the sprawling property from the Marist Fathers of Boston, pending approval of its plans. It would continue to offer some psychiatric services in Waltham.
The meeting was over capacity, with town residents sitting on the floor or listening from the corridors. Most were in opposition of Walden’s proposal. According to Zoning Board Chairman Philip R. Ottaviani Jr, two letters had been written to the board in favor of the proposal, and about 25 in opposition.
Residents Paula and David Jacobs presented a petition signed by 350 neighbors who oppose Walden’s plans.
On Wednesday, Paula Jacobs said that many fear that Walden President and CEO Stuart Koman will change his business model, either turning Walden’s operation into a nonprofit -- and therefore tax exempt -- enterprise, or deciding to treat patients with more dangerous disorders.
David Jacobs said Wednesday that town resources may be strained by emergency calls to Walden, which does not have emergency medical facilities of its own.
On Tuesday, Koman reiterated that the Framingham facility would treat patients with eating disorders as well as depression and other mood disorders. He also said Walden does not, and will not, treat anyone with a history of violence, sexual offenses, cruelty to animals, a tendency to set fires, or a primary diagnosis of substance abuse. Walden does not offer emergency services and clients are pre-screened.
However, Paula and David Jacobs said the primary concern is that a for-profit hospital is not in keeping with the neighborhood’s character. They would prefer to see a housing development.
“It’s a residential zone, and not in harmony with the neighborhood,” Pauls Jacobs said on Wednesday. “A psychiatric hospital does not fit here, in a residential neighborhood.”
The Marist property is in a residential zone, and as a result, Walden would need to obtain a special permit from Framingham’s Zoning Board of Appeals to open its clinic there.
The proposal calls for the two buildings on the religious order’s property, owned by the Marists since 1937, to be renovated and new structures to be added. The 45,000-square-foot Marist House would be redone to provide 24 beds for those suffering eating disorders, and 24 beds for those with mood disorders. There would also be office space for 20 staff members.
The for-profit company’s plan also calls for the adjacent Bishop’s Hall to be converted into offices, and three new buildings: a 16-bed, 12,000-square-foot residential facility to treat obese adults; a 16-bed, 6,000-square-foot facility for adolescents; and a 10,000-square-foot space for offices, and intake and aftercare services.
Walden has been looking for a new facility for two years.
On Tuesday, Pleasant Street resident and Town Meeting Member Kevin P. Crotty said he shared residents concerns regarding the property, “but you have to be realistic,” because Marist was “going to sell the property to someone, and that someone might be a worse someone than these people here.”
Crotty warned against building a subdivision on the Marist property, because it will make more use of taxpayer services, including schools, police, water, sewer, and public works.
“I don’t think they’re [Walden] are as bad as a lot of you people think they are,” Crotty said.
Koman said Walden would do everything it can to maintain the character of the property, while creating a center that, he said, “will rival any in the nation.”
According to Koman, 110 jobs will be relocated from Waltham to Framingham, and 25 new jobs created. As a for-profit company, Walden is expected to pay six-figure property taxes each year.
Walden’s traffic consultant, Robert J. Michaud, has stated that the Walden facility would increase vehicle traffic by 5 percent in the vicinity of the property, which sits between Pleasant Street (Route 30) and the Mass. Turnpike on the north side of town.
Koman said that increase would be “far less than most other uses contemplated” for that sites, and would be about the same as a 40-unit housing project.
However, many residents are worried about adding to the already chaotic traffic load at the intersection of Temple Street and Route 9, less than a mile away.
“Traffic seems to be on everybody’s mind,” said resident Robert Cohen, who stated that roads in the area are already overtaxed.
“If you want to get onto Pleasant Street off Thomas Drive during rush hour, bring a book,” Cohen said. “Bring two books.”
Cohen said the facility is better suited to a commercial zone, in order to not “forever change the character of this neighborhood.”
Resident, town meeting member, and former Zoning Board of Appeals member Richard E. Paul differed in his opinion.
“It is the best use of the property,” Paul said, and noted that the proposed use is not industrial, that there is adequate water and sewage, and that the increase in traffic will occur with any use of the property. Paul suggested that, if the board approves Walden’s request, that a traffic study be conducted in five years.
In June, Marist Fathers CFO John Harhager endorsed Walden’s plan, writing to the ZBA, in part, "we would encourage the Town and the neighborhood to give Walden a full and fair opportunity to explain their program. We hope that in doing so, the community will conclude that Walden’s proposed use is not only beneficial for society, but also for the Town, and that Walden’s proposed program would be harmonious with the neighborhood."
Tuesday’s hearing will continue on Aug. 20, where Ottaviani said Walden will be the only agenda item. Meanwhile, Ottaviani said his board will consult with police, and will plan a visit to Walden’s Waltham facility.