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Regis complex drawing more fire

Neighbors unite vs. housing plan

A neighborhood group led by a lively cast of vocal residents -- including a broadcaster who once filled in at the anchor desk for Walter Cronkite and the former general manager of the Four Seasons hotel in Boston -- has declared war on a Regis College proposal to build a 356-unit retirement village.

The group, Stop Regis Overdevelopment, hopes to rally support at tomorrow night's Zoning Board of Appeals hearing, which will focus on the college's application for exemption from zoning limits on building height and density.

The residents group has launched a fund-raising and publicity offensive designed to derail the project, named Regis East, which they say is massively out of scale for the neighborhood. The proposed 767,000-square-foot complex calls for eight buildings -- some as tall as 10 and 11 stories -- and 600 parking spaces.

The small, 80-year-old Catholic women's college has said it needs the retirement complex to survive. The project would be a boon to older Weston residents, who could enjoy an intellectually stimulating retirement, and to undergraduate nursing and social work students, who would get hands-on training with the elderly, college officials say.

But neighbors contend that Regis is using its educational mission as a smoke screen to push through a luxury housing development that would overwhelm already congested Wellesley Street, a main thoroughfare, and strain police and fire services while generating no new property tax revenue.

''This is going to destroy our quality of life," organizer Robin Brown told the crowd of around 70 residents who attended an informational meeting Tuesday at Weston Middle School.

Brown, who managed the Four Seasons in Boston for 14 years, criticized Regis for not consulting with neighbors when it drew up plans for Regis East. He contrasted the college's approach with that of a project he is helping develop on Boylston Street in Boston, the luxury hotel and condo Residences at Mandarin Oriental Boston. He said he has listened to comments from two dozen Boston neighborhood groups. Regis, Brown said, ''has shut us out."

He derided the design for the main part of Regis East -- four 100-foot-tall buildings connected by a causeway -- as resembling an airport terminal. ''It's LaGuardia," he said.

Arnold Zenker, a Regis neighbor who gained brief national attention when he filled in on the CBS anchor desk during a 10-day strike in 1967, questioned whether the financially struggling school could complete a project costing $200 million and possibly much more. Zenker, now a media consultant, was briefly employed as an instructor at Regis, but said he resigned to avoid a conflict of interest when he joined the residents group.

''The numbers have never made any sense to us, and we don't know who's driving this or why," Zenker said.

Mary Adams, project manger for Regis East, said residents have got it wrong when they dismiss the project as simply a revenue generator for a cash-poor college. ''We are trying to take the concept of lifelong learning and aging in place further than anyone has before. We want to fully integrate our two campuses." Young people training for jobs in social services would benefit as much as older residents who need extra care, said Adams, a 1967 Regis alumna. ''We will be training emerging leaders."

In response to a barrage of questions from town officials at a hearing last month, Regis filed a nearly two-inch thick package -- filled with charts and maps -- addressing concerns about traffic, wetlands, and public safety.

''The hope is that this will help the various [town] departments have their questions answered and their concerns put to rest," said Marjorie Arons-Barron, a spokeswoman for the school.

Arons-Barron said that residents' questions about financing are off base.

''It's quite clear that if this is not grounded solidly, it's not going to go forward. They've looked at the potential market very carefully," she said. ''They won't commit to a construction project until they receive acceptance in the marketplace and from lenders."

The college's latest traffic study, performed by Watertown-based engineering consultants Vanasse Hangen Brustlin Inc., estimated that Regis East would generate 85 new vehicle trips per hour during weekday morning rush hours and 135 in evening peak hours. That would be at most a 2 percent increase in traffic at the intersections where Wellesley Street meets routes 20 and 30, the report said.

''The project will not have a significant effect on area traffic operations," it says. ''These small changes in traffic volume due to the project will not be noticeable to typical drivers on the roadways."

Regis has suggested that it might train its own public safety officers to cope with medical and security emergencies to avoid burdening the town. The college is also considering building a tunnel under Wellesley Street for cars and pedestrians traveling between campuses.

Members of Stop Regis Overdevelopment are marshalling their own experts. ''We've got financial professionals, we've got attorneys, real estate experts. Weston's probably the who's who of resident experts in our area, and we're trying to take advantage of that and get everyone involved," said organizer Charles Abrams.

The group has also been talking with other citizens' groups, including one in Newton that unsuccessfully fought Lasell Village, a retirement village at Lasell College whose residents are offered lifelong learning opportunities.

If rebuffed by the zoning board, Regis could attempt to build Regis East under the Dover Amendment, a state law that allows educational and religious institutions to bypass local rules. If that happens, opponents say, they are prepared for a protracted court battle.

The anti-Regis group estimates it would need $100,000 for its legal campaign and has raised nearly one-third of that amount, Abrams said last week.

Arons-Barron, the Regis spokeswoman, said she was not surprised by resistance Regis East had received from locals.

''This was the town that rejected a bike path, where people mounted a whole campaign about how a bike path was going to affect their property values," she said, speaking of the Wayside Rail Trail that was defeated at Weston Town Meeting in 1997. ''This is a classic case of Weston's resistance to change, any change."

Erica Noonan can be reached at Stephanie Siek can be reached at

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