Movie studio proposed for mixed-use development at former Westborough state hospital
Westborough – For nearly two years, the fate of the state-owned Westborough State Hospital, which abruptly closed in 2010, has been on the minds of local officials and residents alike. But if developer Anton Nel can navigate through the complex myriad state and local regulations, as well as finalize a financing plan, Westborough may one day be known as a film-making mecca.
Nel presented the first draft of his proposal to the Westborough Economic Development Committee (EDC) at its Dec. 4 meeting. And although he and town officials stressed that the plan is still in the very early stages, all are cautiously optimistic that a proposed multi-use development that would feature a 96,000-square-foot film studio could be a strong fit for the 108-acre site.
The proposal would be a “destination” mixed-use development that would incorporate the film studio, high-end residential units, retail stores and start-up businesses, Nel told the EDC. The plan would also respect the town's desires for open space, and recreational aspects. Part of that would be building an outdoor amphitheater, enhancing an existing walkway and building a garden around the property's historic homes. But certainly what makes this proposal different was the concept of the film studio, he said. That building would be a “back lot,” he noted, where temporary background scenes for movies could be filmed.
Nel has worked on similar projects around the world, he said. As part of his due process on the project, he has reached out to agencies in Los Angeles, where he said the reception to a Massachusetts-based studio was positive.
He has also met with other Massachusetts companies and the organization MassChallenge, a global startup competition and accelerator program. “Incubator” companies could potentially start out at the former hospital site, Nel said, and then perhaps move to other available office buildings in Westborough as they grew.
There are a number of significant issues to bear in mind, town officials said. Most notably – the state still owns the property. And many of the buildings are under the auspices of Mass. Historical Society guidelines that restrict how the structures can be renovated.
There are also three Division of Youth Services buildings on the property, one of which is right in the middle of the complex. Town Planner Jim Robbins said the state is receptive to listening to ideas of where that facility could be relocated.
“They know that no high-end developer would be interested in doing anything if that facility were left there,” he said.
Lester Hensley, the chair of the EDC, noted that although similar projects had been considered in the communities of Plymouth and Devens, the difference was that the proposed Westborough project was a “much bigger concept.”
“It's so diverse that, if the economy falters, we wouldn's completely go into the red,” Nel said.
This was the first time Nel had presented his proposal in a public forum; he will next meet with the Westborough Planning Board at its Thursday, Dec. 13 meeting. Although a small portion of the property lies in Northborough, he had not yet met with officials there, he noted.
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