Westfield Planning Board Green Lights Sofia Application

By KATIE MOEN
For The Westfield Leader

WESTFIELD — After more than five hours of expert testimony, public debate and plenty of questions from local residents and elected officials alike, the Westfield Planning Board voted Monday to grant its unanimous approval to a site-plan application for the Prospect and Ferris Redevelopment Plan.

The approved plans call for the installation of a four-story, mixed-use apartment complex called the Sofia. The project will ultimately be comprised of 60 residential units (nine of which will be designated as affordable), 96 underground parking spaces, a 500-square-foot retail space, a pool, a rooftop terrace and a small clubhouse, among other amenities.

Monday night’s approval came on the heels of what Planning Board Attorney Alan Tremulak described as a lengthy legislative process between numerous governing bodies, members of the public and redeveloper James Ward. Mr. Ward is known locally as the developer of the Savannah on Prospect Street and owner of the James Ward Mansion. Because of the redevelopment agreement with the town, no variances were required for the application.

“There have been a substantial number of hearings and a lot of input and consideration given to this project,” Mr. Tremulak said, adding that the application as presented Monday met all of the stipulated requirements of consistency with the town’s adopted Redevelopment Plan.

As part of the approval process, Mr. Ward agreed to a number of conditions, including indoor trash removal (so as not to disturb neighboring residents); modifications to the roof, landscaping and access points; safety and equipment oversight by the fire department; and slight modifications to the layout of the underground parking garage.

Monday night’s meeting, which wrapped up sometime after midnight, consisted of testimony by two expert witnesses — project architect Bruce Stieve of Marchetto Higgins Stieve and engineer Matthew Seckler of Stonefield Engineering — and several question-and-answer sections that allowed residents to share their feelings about the project.

Since its inception in 2021, the Prospect and Ferris Redevelopment Plan has generated a fair amount public opposition from local residents who say the project does not fit in with the residential nature of the surrounding neighborhood.

“I’ve never accepted the premise that these several parcels constitute an area in need of rehabilitation. In reality, these parcels can best be described as areas in need of responsible ownership,” former councilman Jim Boyes said Monday. “Since the moment that they were acquired by the applicant, they have systematically fallen into disrepair all in the plain view of the town and all to the dismay of the surrounding neighborhood. Even if one were to take this as a legitimate proposal, which I do not, the project falls short in a number of key areas.”

Mr. Boyes, who stepped down from his position on the council in April due in part to the fact that the proximity of his home would have precluded him from voting on anything to do with the project, said he and many of his neighbors felt that the project as a whole was too dense, too likely to cause traffic challenges for the already-congested area, too improperly set back from the street and “far too massive” for the .96-acre lot.

“There was plenty of middle ground to be found on this project, but in the end, save for a few minor tweaks, the developer got his wish list,” Mr. Boyes said. “I think this sends the wrong message to developers who already have their sights on Westfield, and I know that this will make the public understandably wary as the town considers future redevelopment proposals.”

Though cognizant of the lingering public objection, Mr. Ward’s representing attorney, Richard Skolnick, said Monday that the development team behind the Sofia had already demonstrated a clear willingness to work with both town officials and local residents to find a solid middle ground.

“I’m very happy to report that the plans fully comply with the redevelopment plan that has been enacted by the governing body,” Mr. Skolnick said, “and, of course, we have the redevelopment agreement that has been executed between the town and my client, which further guides how the project will be developed. We have also agreed to all of the requirements set forth by [Westfield Planner Don Sammet].”

As part of the redevelopment agreement — reached as the result of a 5-to-3 vote of the Westfield mayor and council on May 24 — Mr. Ward also has agreed to preserve and restore an 18th-century homestead located on the property.

The historically-designated structure, known locally as the Mills-Ferris-Pearsall House, is slated to be converted into an educational and cultural facility. Though details of the conversion process have not yet been fully finalized, representatives from the Westfield Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) said Monday that plans to temporarily relocate the house during construction of the Sofia will need to be handled with the utmost care.

As things currently stand, the home will be temporarily lifted from its foundation and relocated to another spot on the property while construction of the Sofia’s underground parking garage gets underway. Once construction is complete, Mr. Stieve said, the structure will be moved to its final moorings on top of the underground structure.

“Ideally, the house should not be moved at all,” said HPC board member Jennifer Jaruzelski. “HPC consultant Barton Ross [a preservation architect and city planner who volunteers his time to the commission] has provided alternate building modifications to [allow the home] to remain in its current location while keeping the amenities and square footage of the proposed residential building design.”

Mr. Stieve said that he and the rest of the project team had looked at a number of alternative solutions. They determined that adhering to Mr. Barton’s suggestion that the house be left in its current location would cause “considerable issues with regard to the configuration of the foundation of that building.”

Since the house will ultimately be configured as a publicly-accessible space, it will need to be brought up to ADA compliance standards. By moving the house to its new location, Mr. Stieve said, Mr. Ward and his team would be able to install a wheelchair ramp at the back of the structure without compromising the historic front façade.

Despite the assurances outlined both by Monday night’s expert testimony and in a 20-page Protection Plan included in the redevelopment agreement, Town Historian Carol Tener said the current proposal and its as-of-yet unrealized promises feels a bit too familiar.

“We had an agreement like this for the Bagger House, and we all know how that ended,” Ms. Tener said. The Bagger House was a 1785 cottage-style home that was purchased, left vacant and ultimately demolished in 2010 in spite of promises by developer Michael Mahoney to preserve it.

“That’s because we didn’t have a redevelopment plan back then,” Mayor Shelley Brindle said. “We didn’t have the oversight that we do now. One of the things that I am most proud of is this administration’s legacy of historic preservation. I don’t think anyone can deny how much we’ve prioritized that. All of these doubts, these worries, these concerns about what is going to happen with this house…nobody is more vested in the successful preservation of this home than me.”

Still, said Mr. Boyes, Mr. Ward’s decision to designate and preserve the house had less to do with community altruism than it did with an amendment to a local ordinance passed in 2020 that prohibits the demolition of any Westfield home built before 1930 without the express consent of the HPC.

“While the neighborhood appreciates the preservation of the home at 112 Ferris Place, let’s be clear about the redeveloper’s commitment to historic preservation. Were it not for [the amendment to the ordinance], this house would have been demolished years ago,” Mr. Boyes said. “[Mr. Ward] was actually making preparations for such an event by cutting power lines and removing fixtures from the home prior to the ordinance update. The developer has never shown the slightest inclination to maintain, let alone preserve, the historic property.”

Regardless of the project’s history [or that of its redeveloper], however, Planning Board Chair Michael Ash said Monday that he had “high hopes” for the Sofia as a positive addition to the downtown Westfield area.

“I’m satisfied based on the conditions that were agreed to tonight that we’re going to get a quality project with some of the materials they have shown us, and that we’ll have the ability through our current professionals to hold them accountable, or they don’t get their certificate of occupancy,” Mr. Ash said.

The full scope of documentation for the Sofia can be found at westfield.gov/redevelopment.

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