UNION, NJ — Union residents will soon see dramatic changes as the Union Planning Board recently approved an application from American Landmark Developers to develop 300 linear feet of Stuyvesant Avenue between Terminal Mill Ends and Unity Bank. The development will include new retail and residential spaces, according to township officials.
The move indicates the start of the Stuyvesant Avenue Streetscape Project, a complete overhaul of the street, curbs, sidewalks and street fixtures on the busy thoroughfare in an effort to turn the area, once a hub for entertainment and shopping, into a desired destination for both residents and businesses.
According to township officials, the first phase of the project — spanning Vauxhall Road to Morris Avenue — is currently ongoing, with improvements to include historic granite bands at mid-block crossings, new light poles and new furniture, which will be in place by early fall. Construction will be completed and the street will be repaved in late fall.
The second phase, which spans Morris Avenue to the cannon at the end of Stuyvesant Avenue, is scheduled to begin in spring 2018.
According to Union Mayor Suzette Cavadas, the project is taking place alongside the township’s regular road program, with $215,000 of funding coming from the New Jersey Transportation Trust Fund.
According to township officials, the beautification and upgraded infrastructure are reportedly the first steps in making Union more marketable to new and existing businesses. Recently, several businesses have opened in the Stuyvesant Avenue area, such as a pharmacy, flower shop and an eyewear store. Several others are scheduled to open soon, including a beauty supply store, and a bath and body shop. In addition, a new medical building will open across from Stop & Shop, located near the corner of Stuyvesant Avenue and Vauxhall Road.
The application from American Landmark Developers addresses the lack of foot traffic in the area by creating a built-in community of shoppers with a development model such as Cara Lofts, a mixed-use building that opened in 2014 at the intersection of Morris and Stuyvesant avenues.
The opening of Cara Lofts sparked a second mixed-use development across from Stop & Shop, which broke ground late last year. Both include a mix of retail and residential spaces, with the second project expected to be completed this fall.
The American Landmark Developers Project will utilize the same model with the construction of two buildings; one is a mixed-use building that will front on Stuyvesant Avenue on an interior lot between Johnson and Morris avenues, and the other is a residential structure to be located on Bonnel Court.
According to Landmark Developers, who presented the plans at a June 29 planning board meeting, the new Stuyvesant Avenue building, currently referred to as “Building A,” will include 110,700 square feet of retail space on the ground level, with mostly one-bedroom residential units above that. Demolition of all structures on the interior lot is planned, with construction of both buildings beginning later this year.
According to Township Administrator Ron Manzella, the township committee and administration have been discussing Union’s transformation for a number of years, however some fundamental and costly issues had to be addressed before the redevelopment and beautification could begin.
Some of those issues included upgrades to water and gas lines that, if not done prior to the streetscape project, would have left the road vulnerable to disrepair.
“Immediate plans for Union Center have been in the works for at least two years,” Manzella told LocalSource in a July 7 email. “However, the Center has been a topic of conversation with the administration and the township committee since the last update to our Master Plan back in 2010. At that time, it was recognized that due to the poor economy and changing needs of residents and consumers alike, significant effort would be needed to revitalize the area. Accordingly, we got to work trying to find solutions that were functional and appealing for everyone.”
After several years of infrastructure improvements and engineering studies, said Manzella, there is visible progress and the streetscape is just a single piece of that.
“The long-term plans are primarily economic, which would be to help our Center and all of Union thrive by attracting and bringing in self-sustaining businesses, and adding the necessary foot traffic to support them,” Manzella said. “We’re also hoping that these improvements and beautification efforts will encourage other property owners to follow the trend and upgrade and improve their properties to continue to build a more modern retail experience.”
Union Mayor Suzette Cavadas told LocalSource that the Stuyvesant Avenue Streetscape Project is just one of several improvements to the township.
“When considering the ideas of development and improvements, the Township of Union uses our master plan as a guide which outlines a framework for addressing various issues, one of which, as of our last update, was Union Center,” Cavadas said in a July 7 email.
Although there is no set number of mixed-use buildings planned for Union Center, said Cavadas, it’s clear that this is the trend.
“Research shows that America’s changing population is creating demand for new types of homes, offices, and retail outlets and better solutions are needed to address the challenges created by changing demographics,” she said. “The majority of the feedback from locals and business owners has been favorable, to say the least. I think people are nostalgic for the bustling Center of years past and recognize that revitalization is good for everyone.
Studies have shown that introducing these types of projects into communities will actually increase that community’s revenue without significantly increasing the infrastructure and public service burdens. They also show that blending apartments into low-density communities can help pay for schools without drastic increases in the number of students.”
In response to LocalSource’s July 7 social media query to gauge residents’ sentiments about the township’s redevelopment plans, residents expressed mixed feelings, with some stating that additional apartments would cause further congestion, while others noted that new, higher-end residences would attract those who will spark a demand for better and higher-end retail stores.
Many residents seem to believe that having the right kinds of businesses moving into the area is important and said Union should end the trend of nail and hair salons, convenience stores and banks. Residents also expressed an interest in new restaurants and upscale specialty shops and boutiques.
In a June 20 letter to the Union Planning Board and the Union Township Committee, local business owners expressed support for the new changes.
“As business owners in Union Center, we would like to collectively express our support for the American Landmark Developers Project that will span 300 linear feet from Terminal Mill Ends towards Unity Bank,” stated the letter from business owners.
Robert Perara, owner of Van Gogh’s Ear, a cafe located on Stuyvesant Avenue, lauded the ongoing improvements.
“I think it, along with the landlords doing building upgrades, will be good for businesses,” Perara said. “It was totally necessary. It’s been 20 years since there was any significant work done on the Union Center streetscape. I’m excited for what’s to come in Union Center.”
Union native and community activist Jason Krychiw told LocalSource that a structural makeover in the area has been needed for years.
“I think the upgrade will help the area feel more welcoming and that the addition of things like extra benches and planters will improve the atmosphere,” Krychiw said in a July 7 email. “However, this project is only one piece of the puzzle. No one is going to come out and shop more solely because of the aesthetics. We need to be aggressive in filling the empty storefronts with businesses that will not just continue to bring out more Union residents, but also draw people from out of town to shop and spend time here. I am born and raised in Union, so I have been here long enough to remember the last beautification project in the Center years ago. With the exception of longtime staples of the Center, businesses came and went and that upgrade alone did not last. I don’t want to see that happen again.”
Union Committeewoman Michele Delisfort told LocalSource that the streetscape project will transform the area into a pedestrian‐oriented destination corridor with mixed, retail, entertainment, residential, office and civic land uses.
“Our intent is to make the area more pedestrian friendly, draw people from the township and neighboring municipalities to our downtown, and enhance aesthetics of Stuyvesant Avenue,” Delisfort said in a July 7 email. “Expected economic benefits of the streetscape project include increase sales and business revenues and new employment opportunities.”
According to Delisfort, the proposed mixed-use development project, to be located at the former Terminal Mill Ends site, coupled with the streetscape project and diverse retail experience, are expected to create an environment to which new residents, college students and patrons will be drawn.
“Another added benefit of the streetscape project is that it ensures the development of a unique public space in our downtown and has a multitude of benefits to our health, safety, economy and environment,” Delisfort said. “Essentially, the streetscape project is expected to create a safe, pleasant, attractive and comfortable place to live, shop and linger.”
Krychiw said that the streetscape project, combined with a push for unique businesses to draw people to town as well as an infrastructural upgrade in parking to support new customers, are necessary for long-term success.
“I hope that as this portion is being completed, work is already under way on the other two so we can truly make Union the example to all of the other towns around us,” he said.
Cavadas said that the improvements will be a game changer.
“Diversifying housing options and adding amenities like shops and offices close by will improve the quality of life and attract businesses and people that will strengthen the community’s economic stability,” the mayor said.