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Westborough officials to pitch hospital purchase to residents

Posted by John Swinconeck  August 22, 2013 07:32 PM

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Westborough is inching closer toward finalizing a $2.2 million deal to purchase the former Westborough State Hospital from the state.

Residents will meet Aug. 27 at 6 p.m. at Westborough High School as part of a series of information sessions on the future of the hospital and the land on which it sits. Another informational meeting is set for Sept 17.

Residents are to vote whether to approve acquisition of the property at an Oct. 21 Town Meeting.

Should citizens vote to buy the property, the Legislature must then approve the sale, according to Westborough Town Planner Jim Robbins.

Earlier this month, the town reached an agreement with the state to acquire 95 acres of land and buildings on Lyman Street. Under the terms of the agreement, Westborough will purchase the property from the state for $2.2 million, financed at zero interest over 10 years.

The town and state will split evenly the amount the town makes through resale or redevelopment of the property. Under the agreement, there are additional incentives that allow Westbourgh to retain up to 70 percent of the re-sale, according to the Town Manager’s office.

There are no restrictions as to the use of the property under the terms of sale, which was the “overarching goal” of the the town, said Selectman Chairman Ian Johnson.

It is still too early to enter in negotiations with developers, but if the deal with the state is approved, Westborough may choose to sell the land to one developer, or divide it and sell to multiple buyers, said Johnson.

“We’ve negotiated the best deal possible with the state,” said Selectman Vice Chairman George Barrette. “Two-million for 10 years with no interest is a pretty good deal for 95 acres of prime real estate. … The town gets control of what goes on there and when, and continue to use recreation facilities.”

The Aug. 27 and Sept. 17 forums are being held in order to hear the public's opinion on how the property should be used, Barrette said.

According to a statement released by Town Manager Jim Malloy, government officials would like to keep soccer and recreation fields located at the property, and then seek developers or businesses interested in purchasing the remaining 80 acres.

The hospital closed in 2010, at which time the state created the Westborough State Hospital Re-Use Commission. In a 2011 report, the commission cited a study by Sasaki Associates that determined that it could make the most money by selling the land to a developer that would build 500 housing units.

Selectmen and other town officials have rebuffed that idea, because the cost of providing services to that many units would be “astronomical,” said Johnson.

“We want to get them paying taxes, not using taxes,” Barrette said. “That many homes would add a number of kids to the school department It would be enough so that we would have to build another elementary school, which we have no interest in doing.”

Barrette said he’d like to see a mix of over-55 housing and tax-generating businesses.

The site is 125 acres, with 92 acres of usable land. The rest consists of steep slopes and wetlands. There are more than 40 structures on the property, the largest of which is the administration building. Many buildings are in such bad condition that they’re unusable.

The area is zoned for mixed use, which would allow a wide range of developments, including offices, retail, residential, hotels, and recreation, and there is the potential for 1 million square feet of taxable commercial development on the site.

Under the deal with the state, the town will officially own the six soccer fields it had built on the land it currently leases from the state for $1 a year. Officials said they won’t be selling those fields off to a developer, because replacing the fields elsewhere would run $4.4 million.

The town has hired a firm that is now assessing the property for any environmental hazards, which Robbins said is standard when the town acquires property. Robbins said he does not expect any hazards to be uncovered, other than those associated with older buildings such as asbestos.

“That’s part of our due diligence,” Robbins said.

It is too soon to say to whom who the town will sell the property, which overlooks Lake Chauncy and is adjacent to hiking trails and swimming and boating access, from the town, Robbins said.

However, Robbins said the town has already been approached by third-party brokers, and venture capitalist Anton Nel he is still interested in building a “media hub” at the site that would include a small movie sound stage.

Nel said he was undeterred by plans underway to build a similar studio in Devens, and said a Westborough studio would compliment one he is planning on building in Worcester.

Nel also has plans for office space for “younger, upstart” businesses as well as at least one restaurant, “boutique” retail, and a high-end hotel.

“The whole idea is to make it a destination,” Nel said. “I spent time driving through Westborough. There are 86 multinational companies in a 15 mile radius, but no three-plus star hotels. There’s got to be something where Julia Roberts can feel love. She doesn’t feel love at Motel 6.”

Nel also wants to keep as many existing buildings for reuse as possible, but cautioned the town against dividing the land into parcels.

“I don’t think a site like that would add value to the town or be successful if it is piecemealed,” Nel said. “I don’t want a boutique hotel next to a gas station or a Kentucky Fried Chicken.”

Nel insisted that he’s serious in developing the property, and has been working with Waterman Design Associates, Inc. of Westborough and meeting with potential developers.

“He’s done his homework,” Robbins said, regarding Nel.

Contact John Swinconeck at johnswinc@gmail.com. Follow @johnswinc on Twitter.

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