WESTFIELD — Westfield residents will soon get their first looks at design concepts for the Sophia, a four-story, mixed-use redevelopment project slated for the corner of Prospect Street and Ferris Place. On Tuesday, during a regular meeting of the mayor and council, Mayor Shelley Brindle announced that the latest group of artistic renderings, along with an updated list of frequently-asked questions surrounding the project, have all been made available on the town’s website.
“At our last meeting, we heard the detailed results of the traffic-impact study that was done by Stonefield and WSP in order to provide the council with additional information to guide our decision-making process,” Mayor Brindle said. “We have posted a memo from WSP and Stonefield on our website that responds to some of the specific resident questions about the study. I definitely encourage everyone to read it.”
The latest renderings for the project, Town Planner Don Sammet said, “reflect the evolution” of the redevelopment proposal.
“As you can see, there are different façade materials; the building walls are broken up by a series of projections and recesses to add some visual variety so you’re not looking at a single blank wall along either Prospect Street or Ferris,” Mr. Sammet said, noting that the proposed designs also call for gabled roofs intended to fit in more naturally with the character of the surrounding neighborhood. “One of the things that is most striking to me is actually something you don’t see, which is a lot of asphalt, and that’s because all of the parking is hidden. That has enabled the developer to bring the height of the building down while still providing all of the parking that will be necessary.”
“The older renderings will also be left [on the site] so people can track the evolution of the project and see where it started versus where it is today,” Town Administrator Jim Gildea said.
The next step in the process, Mr. Sammet said, will be for the town to enter into an official agreement with redeveloper James Ward.
“The project cannot go to the planning board until there is a redevelopment agreement in place, but the planning board will also conduct its own review for compliance at an open public meeting,” Mr. Sammet explained.
Despite the amended plans and more reassurances from town officials, however, many local residents said Tuesday that they still have a myriad of concerns surrounding the size, use and potential impact of the project.
Residents presented the governing body with a petition bearing more than 800 signatures that calls for a “reduced scale structure with fewer stories, fewer residential units, fewer parking spaces, but more open space and a setback compatible with the surrounding neighborhood.”
The petition, which currently is being circulated around town and online, also calls for an environmental review of the development plans and a “fully transparent and careful third-party review of the developer-commissioned traffic study” that “includes traffic impact due to future development of the nearby seven-acre Lord & Taylor properties” and “reflects the history of traffic-related accidents in the area.”
Phyllis Buchsbaum, a Prospect Street resident, said that while she could certainly attest to the appeal of the neighborhood, she worried that the project could negatively impact pedestrian safety.
“I walk a lot, so I’m very concerned about the traffic,” she said. “I’m in and out of Trader Joe’s on foot, and I see the cars lining up to get in. I know you’re working hard to have some safe solutions. Wouldn’t it be great to know what Trader Joe’s actually plans to do to solve the problems [in the parking lot] before we move ahead with this big building?”
“I’m really just opposed to it because it’s far too big,” said Westfield resident Liz Wolfe. “It’s too big, it’s too tall and it’s too dense. I live in the shadow of the new 30-unit apartment building that was finished last summer on the South Avenue circle. When I sit at my dining room table and look out, I used to see sky and trees…now I just see buildings. As [the Sophia] is proposed, it will dwarf the houses on Prospect Street, and that, to me, is not in keeping with the neighborhood in any way. I think a better plan for this property is possible, but we need to hold the developer to our community standards.”
Former Councilman Jim Boyes, who stepped down from his elected position due to his home’s proximity to the Sophia and another of the town’s proposed redevelopment projects, said that he has often been asked to explain how the proposal can fall in line with the town’s Master Plan when four-story buildings like the Sophia are only specifically permitted in Westfield’s central business district.
“The simple explanation is that this town council does not consider this to be a residential area,” said Mr. Boyes. “The origin of this misrepresentation begins on page 64 of the Master Plan, where the town recommends that Ferris Place be ‘rezoned as it appears one- and two-family uses are in the minority.’ That statement is factually incorrect. There are eight traditional one-family homes on Ferris Place, and only two of them are currently being used as something else.”
Mr. Boyes went on to note that neither the Master Plan nor the recent traffic-impact study had taken into consideration the “dozens of Westfield middle-school students that regularly walk the neighborhood.”
“I implore you to scale back this McMansion of a redevelopment project,” Mr. Boyes said. “I think we can all agree that the redevelopment process is confusing. Therefore, residents should understand that once the redevelopment agreement is adopted, there will be no way for the project to be subsequently downsized. That’s why the upcoming vote on the agreement is so important.”
Mayor Brindle again encouraged residents to visit the town’s website to view the most recent and comprehensive information available pertaining to the project.
“We will also be updating that document as new information becomes available, so it’s worth checking back,” she said, before adding that the town has not yet signed, or even seen, a draft of the upcoming redevelopment agreement. “This is not the end of this process for us, just so everyone is clear,” the mayor stated.
The council also voted Tuesday to appoint Maureen Lawshe as the new Westfield municipal clerk, effective immediately, for a three-year term that will expire on May 10, 2025. Ms. Lawshe, who was appointed to the role of deputy clerk in 2017, began her career with the Town of Westfield as an apprentice before quickly rising through the ranks. Ms. Lawshe will replace Tara Rowley, who has served as the town clerk since 2017.
“Tonight is a bittersweet night for us as we bid a fond farewell to Tara Rowley, who is retiring,” Mayor Brindle said. “Tara has been a valued colleague here in town hall. Her consummate professionalism has made her a key member of our staff. That having been said, we are incredibly fortunate to have someone as capable as Maureen to step into Tara’s shoes.”
The council also granted its unanimous and enthusiastic approval for an Eagle Scout project presented by Westfield eighth grader Grant Ziegler during Tuesday night’s agenda-setting meeting.
Grant, 13, of Westfield Scout Troop 72, said he plans to install a tethered aquatic life ring near the pond at Tamaques Park in order to prevent accidental drownings.
“I have lived near Tamaques Park for 10 years,” he said, “and whenever I walk past it, I see people fishing, playing by the pond and ice skating. It has always made me wonder what would happen if someone were to fall in. I don’t think [neighboring residents] would hear the calls for help, and it would be too late by the time the police were able to arrive.”
Grant, whose project has already been approved by the town’s recreation department, said Tuesday that he also plans to construct a bright red wooden box that would serve to house the life preserver, alert park users to its presence and protect it from the elements.
“I think it’s a great idea,” said Mr. Gildea. “The pond at Tamaques Park is probably only seven or eight feet in the middle, but it’s not really about depth. It hasn’t been dredged in some time, so it’s very murky. It probably wouldn’t be the easiest thing to pull yourself out if you fell in.”
Mr. Gildea said he thought the idea would translate well to the town’s other municipal ponds as well.
Police Chief Christopher Battiloro said that the Westfield Police would be more than happy to donate the ring in order to help Grant meet his goals.
“This has been a concern of mine for a while now,” Chief Battiloro said. “You’re right — I don’t know whether first responders would be able to get there in time, so I think this is a great idea.”