Deal paves way for $300 million Westwood, Audubon reuse plan in Amherst

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UBMD Amherst Audubon redevelopment

Amherst officials and owners of the former Westwood Country Club tentatively have agreed to financial terms on a land swap that could launch $300 million in proposed private and public development.

After years of negotiations, the sides have established how much the town will pay Mensch Capital Partners for the 170-acre former golf club and, in turn, how much the Mensch group will pay for 38 acres of town-owned sports fields that include a portion of the Audubon Golf Course.

The town would pay $45,161 per acre for the Westwood land, or $7.7 million in total, while Mensch would pay $221,052 per acre, or $8.4 million in all, for the more-valuable land owned by Amherst, according to the agreement. The Town Board could vote on it Monday.

“It’s a remarkable scenario to get to this complicated of a transaction and have all the parts start to fill in,” Amherst Supervisor Brian J. Kulpa said Wednesday.

The financial deal concludes nine years of often-heated public debate and legal maneuverings over the future of the Westwood site, once targeted for dense, mixed-use development that sparked fierce opposition from neighbors who said the area’s roads and sanitary sewers couldn’t support a project of that scope.

Under concept plans released last summer, the town would transform the Westwood site into a nature park with a theater arts building for MusicalFare Theatre and convert its 18-hole Audubon course to an updated nine-hole course with a virtual reality golf center and fields and courts for baseball, cricket, pickleball and other sports. The town’s portion of the project could cost $94 million over 15 years.

Mensch, for its part, plans to construct restaurants, apartments, senior housing, a hotel and other development on the land it would acquire. This work could cost at least $200 million and take a decade to complete, said Mark E. Hamister, chairman and CEO of the Hamister Group and Mensch’s managing partner.

“We met in the middle, in a way in which neither one of us got everything we wanted, but we both got something that’s going to be exciting at the end,” Hamister said in an interview.

‘Very creative plan’

The monetary terms in the deal are based on the appraised value of the town- and Mensch-owned properties.

Three Westwood appraisals ranged from $12,609 per acre to $271,864 per acre, depending on the zoning classification for the 170-acre property. Two Audubon appraisals put the value at $221,052 or $271,864. The town said that the mid-range value for the Westwood land, $45,161 per acre, and the lower value for the Audubon property presented the fairest bargain for both sides.

The agreement requires Mensch to remediate both properties and acknowledges that the partners intend to seek state brownfield tax credits to offset the cost of cleaning up pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals used on the golf courses. Kulpa said Mensch would clean up Westwood before transferring ownership to the town, a key consideration in calculating a fair value for the property. 

“We had to get past the impasse of value,” Kulpa said.

The town agreed to accept $717,000 in in-kind professional development services from the Mensch team and to hire Mensch and its partners to provide professional services for all large-scale public development on the Westwood and Audubon properties.

And Amherst plans to put in place a trust fund of sorts to collect money from the sale of town land, increased property tax revenue generated by private development at the Audubon site and lease payments from entities such as MusicalFare Theatre to pay for future public improvements at the site. 

“I would say that it is a very creative plan,” Councilwoman Debbie Bruch Bucki said.

The Town Board still must approve the formal purchase and sale contract. 

Hamister said that cleanup of the Westwood site could begin in spring 2022 at a cost of up to $3 million. Mensch could break ground at Audubon next year once site plans are approved and permits are granted.

Mensch would build an indoor sports fieldhouse on eight of its acres, land Amherst would buy back once the building is finished. The Mensch work would include 200 to 300 units of senior housing, 140 hotel rooms and up to 1,000 apartments, totaling $200 million to $250 million over eight to 10 years, Hamister said.

“We’ve put a lot of effort into this project, probably more than any project I’ve ever worked on in my entire career,” he said. “That’ll be a good day when we can cut the ribbon to open those buildings.”

The town’s improvements include $4.5 million to construct a Northwest Amherst Community Center in partnership with the Sweet Home School District and the cost of a possible fifth rink at Amherst’s Northtown Center ice complex.

Fitting pieces together

Amherst officials, town residents and Westwood’s owners had wrangled over what to do with the the country club since 2012, the year Mensch Capital Partners purchased the site.

The group included Hamister and partners Paul F. Ciminelli, Paul J. Kolkmeyer and Andrew J. Shaevel, who later was bought out by his fellow members.

Neighbors objected to a sweeping proposal to build housing for 1,700 people, retail and other elements on the property, and the plan stalled. The dispute went to court before both sides agreed to stand down.

Since taking office in 2018, Kulpa has tried to fit the Westwood project within a wider Amherst Central Park development linking the former country club to the University at Buffalo North Campus.

Kulpa and Hamister negotiated a deal that would see the town turn over to Mensch and another group a combined 53 acres of sports fields just east of the Northtown Center, including the three westernmost holes on the Audubon Golf Course.

This agreement pushes the development desired by Mensch’s partners away from the Westwood site and onto the Audubon sports compound, which is set off more from nearby homes.

The first phase calls for a two-story, 195,000-square-foot medical and surgery center for practices connected to UBMD and Kaleida Health that would go on 15 acres of sports fields to the east of the town’s skating complex.

The group behind this project last summer agreed to pay $3 million for its 15 acres. The $200,000 per acre is lower than the $221,000 per acre Mensch is paying because zoning on the smaller site further restricts construction there, Kulpa said.

This $3 million is seed money for the Amherst Central Park trust fund, Kulpa added.

Published by The Buffalo News

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