UNION, NJ — Residents of Union’s Green Lane neighborhood are up in arms about the latest construction project under way on the campus of neighboring Kean University.
The neighborhood, which lies between Kean University and the Union Train Station, has been the site of ongoing development of businesses and multi-dwelling units for a number of years. Now, with construction of the university’s new, six-story student residence hall, residents are voicing outrage and saying they have had enough.
According to Margaret McCorry, director of media relations for Kean University, the L-shaped residence hall calls for a total of 104 units in a 112,555-square-foot building facing Kean’s Cougar Walk, the path that winds through the middle of campus.
Demolition of existing buildings is already under way and construction will begin immediately after the site preparation. The new freshman residence hall is expected to be move-in ready for the fall 2018 semester.
Michael and Colleen Zaccaria, who live in the area and have led the charge on trying to preserve the last suburban vestiges in an area besieged by construction, reached out to neighbors after receiving an invitation from Kean to discuss the project at a community meeting last week.
“This proposed community-outreach meeting was referenced by Mayor Suzette Cavadas at both our neighborhood meetings held at The Ave in February and at The Union Senior Center in March,” the Zaccarias wrote in a letter last week to neighbors, referencing previous meetings regarding the proposed Green Lane Development Project. “This current invitation to us, by Kean, is supposedly being made at the town’s request to consider the Kean University neighborhood — all of us — in their massive new construction effort.”
The Green Lane Development Project, a joint effort by the township and Union County, calls for the partial development of what is currently known as the Kennedy Reservation, a 45-acre parcel of undisturbed open space that is part of the Green Lane section of the township.
Although development of the township’s 40-acre portion of the site has been shelved, the county will be forging ahead with the development of 5 acres owned by the county and preserved in 2003 through the Open Space Trust Fund. Development plans for the county section include a playground, walking trails, a restroom facility, parking, outdoor workout equipment and seating. Area residents have expressed concerns about the possibility of increased traffic, litter, noise and crime.
In their letter, the Zaccarias note that, unlike prior Kean construction projects — such as theaters, stadiums, classrooms and administrative buildings — the dormitory building would house students year-round.
“They will not be active only during classroom or sporting event hours,” the letter reads. “This means hundreds of college students moving into our neighborhood within these structures. Realistically, we all know that they will not remain solely within the confines of Kean University property, especially on evenings and weekends. This full-time residential tower will certainly have an impact on our neighborhood.”
The Zaccarias told LocalSource that Kean has never considered the negative impact that its additional structures have had on surrounding blocks and that concerns about the latest project include what they call an “obvious obtrusive nature of the dorm tower visible from our homes, standing tall above our suburban, residential neighborhood and dwellings.”
Other issues cited include parking, litter and drugs.
“Our neighborhood becomes the recreational outposts for these hundreds of university residents,” the letter to residents stated. “Our streets become parking lots for the students, as no additional parking structures are proposed to be built to accommodate dormitory students, who are in fact, permitted to have vehicles while living in these campus residence halls.”
Kean’s May 10 community meeting was attended by Cavadas, Union business Administrator Ron Manzella, as well as several architects and university representatives.
Colleen Zaccaria, who attended Kean’s May 10 community meeting, asked why the residents were asked for input after the fact.
“You don’t give a crap about us,” Zaccaria said at the meeting. “Why are we here? We’re listening to you talk about something as if it’s proposed. It’s a done deal.
Why did you bring us here, for tea and crumpets? I feel like you dropped a bomb and then call the residents to talk about the impact of the bomb that you have already dropped.”
Concerns regarding the alleged recreational activities of some of Kean’s students taking place inside Kennedy Reservation were also voiced at the meeting by residents, including drug huts and a “sex couch,” which was found by residents and carried out of the woods. The couch was allegedly littered with used condoms.
McCorry told LocalSource that the residence hall will be located entirely on university property.
“The buildings do not front on any streets, and trees and various plantings create a natural buffer for the campus site from the neighborhood,” McCorry said in a May 12 email. “Kean University has worked with Mayor Suzette Cavadas and township Administrator Ronald Manzella to learn the concerns of the local residents and address their concerns. The recent meeting held on Kean’s campus was a result of that cooperation.”
Cavadas did not return LocalSource’s request for comment as of press time.
Responding to a query from LocalSource regarding residents’ concerns about crime, traffic, litter and noise, McCorry said that the university has been responsive.
“Kean University is one of the safest campuses in New Jersey, and strives to be a good neighbor and resource for the communities it serves,” McCorry said. “We have been and will continue to be responsive to legitimate concerns raised by neighbors and township officials alike. We look forward to working together to best serve our students, our neighbors and the state of New Jersey in our mission to provide access to a world-class higher education.”
Green Lane area resident David Arminio, a member of the Union Board of Education and vice president of the Union Township Historical Society, told LocalSource that issues with Kean began when the university restructured its athletic area in 2008. In 2014, lighting was added to the complex.
Arminio, who lives directly across from the softball field dugout, called out the university for its lack of transparency.
“The whole restructuring of the athletic field was done with no input from residents,” he said in a May 11 phone interview.
As far as the new dorm facility, Arminio said that the community meeting held by Kean was too little too late.
“It’s a done deal,” Arminio said. “They’re already taking down the building there. Everything was done in secret. The biggest complaint of the residents is that we got notice about this five days before the meeting. What was the purpose of the meeting if it’s a done deal? To tell us what they are doing?”
According to Arminio, Kean has claimed the new dorm will be farther from residences than the building currently being torn down. But, Arminio questioned the need for a new dorm facility in the first place.
“Kean enrollment has declined and here they are building a new dorm,” he said. “There’s an old dorm there not in use. Kean says it’s old. Why don’t they knock it down and rebuild?”
According to a Kean University periodic review dated 2017, enrollment at the school’s Union campus has declined each year since 2013. In 2013, the university reported an enrollment of 13,158 students, while in 2016 it reported a loss of about 1,500 students with an enrollment of 12,656 students.
Michael Zaccaria said the neighborhood has had ongoing issues with an unresponsive police department.
“The police currently do not respond to the calls we place regarding Kean students selling or using drugs in front of our homes or in the reservation, littering all over our streets, erecting structures within the Kennedy Reservation or housing or attending parties with insanely loud music, glass breaking, screaming, yelling well into early morning hours,” Michael Zaccaria told LocalSource in a May 11 phone interview.
“The Kennedy Reservation and the surrounding blocks will be impacted by these towers of full-time campus residents. As homeowners, we already know how and where they choose to recreate and how certain students like to destroy, destruct and vandalize our homes. Kean refuses to address the behavior of their students as it impacts these Union Township homeowners within these blocks.”
Arminio said he hopes Kean ramps up the transparency.
“I hope that in the future they’re a little more open with the residents,” he said.