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Building proposal cools once-warm town-college ties

Regis says growth is key to its future

For 80 years, Weston and Regis College had the ideal town-gown relationship. Regis, a small Catholic women's school training the next generation of nurses, social workers, and teachers, was a respectful neighbor with a bucolic campus, enriching cultural events, and a charming postage stamp museum.

As once-rural Weston evolved into one of the state's ritziest bedroom communities, Regis retained its low and pleasant profile, focused on the mission of social good set forth in 1927 by its founders, the Congregation of the Sisters of Saint Joseph.

But now the warm relationship between Regis and its neighbors has turned chilly.

The college, while land rich, is cash poor. It says the only way it can survive is to grow, and its future rests with Regis East, a proposed 356-unit luxury retirement village that has been met with a torrent of criticism from townspeople and local officials.

Foes say the 767,000-square-foot project, with four buildings of eight stories or more, is massively out of scale. They fear it would overwhelm already busy Wellesley Street, a main town thoroughfare, with traffic from as many as 1,000 new residents and employees.

''We've been here for eight decades, and we're embarking on our next eight decades. This is not a real estate development project, it is part of a very long-term project to position us for the next century," said Thomas Pistorino, vice president for finance at the school.

In its tax filing for the year ended June 30, 2004, Regis reported a $5 million deficit. Lacking a high-powered alumni base of wealthy graduates, the college has a modest endowment of $19 million.

Regis officials tout the intergenerational aspects of the proposed development -- providing senior citizens with housing and learning opportunities, while training students young enough to be their grandchildren about social work, nursing, and elder care. The college has not spelled out exactly how students would interact with residents, but Pistorino said the plans would fulfill Regis's traditional mission of encouraging social service and Catholic values.

The school's move to capitalize on the lucrative senior housing market takes a page from the playbook of more than 100 other colleges and universities nationwide that have built on-campus retirement villages with adult-education components, including Lasell College in Newton, Springfield College, and Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H.

Mount Holyoke College and Hampshire College in Western Massachusetts also have retirement communities nearby. All cater to wealthy, well-educated retirees who prefer intellectually stimulating campus life to a snowbird-style golf retirement.

Richard Doherty, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts, said the popularity of such developments among suburban colleges is a natural response to demographic changes. Demand for senior housing is soaring while the number of college-age students is projected to plateau.

Financial issues are also a driving force. Massachusetts has seen a 13 percent decline in state aid for college students in the past five years -- one of the largest decreases in the country. This places an additional burden on schools like Regis, which prides itself on disbursing $5 million in scholarship assistance annually.

Regis East residents would likely pay $500,000 to $1 million in entrance fees, along with monthly fees. It could provide the school with upwards of $5 million annually in cash flow, Pistorino said, and the expanded social service programs would draw more students.

Plans submitted by the school call for a cluster of eight buildings and 600 parking spaces. Four of the buildings would be connected by an interior promenade and would stand around 100 feet tall -- one possibly reaching 11 stories. That would be taller than any other building on Regis's hilly campus -- and in the rest of the town.

School officials say they decided on the dense configuration because much of the property is wetlands and to make it easier for less-mobile residents to get around. Some of the buildings would be built into a hillside, so the tallest ones would appear shorter depending on the viewing angle.

The site is in an area zoned for single-family houses no taller than 35 feet. But Regis's attorneys are prepared to argue that the college is exempt from local zoning ordinances under the Dover Amendment, a state law that applies to educational and religious institutions.

The first large-scale public hearing about the proposal last month before the Zoning Board of Appeals degenerated into yelling and booing by angry residents. The hearing was continued until Oct. 17.

''We feel strongly that Regis has been a great neighbor for a very long time," said Charles Abrams, an organizer of the residents group Stop Regis Overdevelopment, which has planned a rallying meeting for Oct. 11. ''The idea is great; the town needs more elderly housing. We are in favor of that. It's just the scope of this project we can't accept."

Regis has said that if the plan is blocked, it will be forced to develop the land -- which the school estimates could sell for $20 million to $30 million -- some other way.

''We don't think for a second the property won't be developed. We aren't naive," Abrams said. ''We just want something that's reasonable and well thought out and well financed."

He said his group has already hired its own consultants to review the plans for Regis East and is willing to go to court to stop the development.

But Chris Tsouras, an attorney for Regis, said opponents of the project have not offered a constructive response that could form the basis of a compromise.

If Regis East is built, he said, the campus skyline would be nearly unchanged for townspeople, except for the dozen or so homeowners abutting the campus.

''Contrary to popular outcry, this is not overbuilding on the site," he said. ''It is appropriate building on that site, consistent with the existing scale of the west campus."

Several local officials have questioned the project's potential burden on police and fire services. As part of Regis College, Regis East would be exempt from local property taxes. Tsouras said Regis was open to the prospect of making annual payments in lieu of taxes to the town on behalf of Regis East, but would not negotiate firm numbers until the project is further underway.

That's not enough information to satisfy the Board of Selectmen.

''One of our primary issues is the financial health of the town," said Selectman Michael Harrity, who said he had received more than 450 e-mails from residents unhappy about Regis East. ''Aside from the tax issue, we are responsible for doing what's best of the town. And many of our residents are saying that putting 11-story buildings and urban-style development in a sylvan setting is not best for the town."

If the school had pitched a significantly smaller project of, say, 150 units, it would have likely enjoyed strong local support, Harrity said. ''There are many Regis grads in town, and people who like having Regis in town and appreciate their mission. But the scale of this has overwhelmed us."

Doherty, of the college association, said that residents should consider Regis East in the context of the college's history of social service and commitment to women's education.

''We should recognize the public benefit a private institution has brought to its community and the state, and appreciate the challenges faced by the trustees of such institution, especially one that has educated generations of local people," he said.

Erica Noonan can be reached at

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