Apartment/retail complex unveiled for old Merck site

Photo by Jenny Goldberg
An artist’s rendering of plans for the old Merck building at 1011 Morris Ave. was presented by Russo Development at the Aug. 24 Union Planning Board meeting.

UNION, NJ — Developers envision a 462-apartment complex, with a 40,000-square-foot retail center, pool, parking deck, basketball court and dog park for the 42-acre site on Morris Avenue that was formerly home to the Merck pharmaceutical headquarters, according to plans presented at the Aug. 24 Union Planning Board meeting.

The meeting to discuss the preliminary concept for 1011 Morris Ave. was stopped short due to time, delaying some witnesses’ testimony. The final witnesses will be followed by public commentary and vote by the board Sept. 14.
After years of litigation that started in 2014 between Kean University, Union and Russo Development of Carlstadt, a settlement split the former Merck property and generated Union’s acquisition of 42 acres.

Plans with bike racks, courtyards, fitness facilities and a parking deck with 446 parking spaces also were unveiled at the meeting. Of the approximate 462 residential units, eight are designated “affordable” to satisfy the Mount Laurel housing requirements negotiated between Union and the Fair Share Housing Center of
Cherry Hill.

Russo Development, which is designing the site plans, foresees multiple tenants for its retail center, with one or two possible destination restaurants and high-end retailers.

“We have some interest from very well known national chains, that are I think are very excited about the prospect of being located there, obviously in proximity to Kean University, and the promise of being part of a new development that really extends the boulevard into this otherwise industrial site,” Christopher Minks, general counsel for Russo, said.

Russo chief engineer Doug G. Bartels noted his presentation may include minor deviations, but no major significant departures from the designated redevelopment plan.

Due to the proximity of the train station, the area is considered a “transit-oriented” development site, meant to attract singles and young couples expected to take advantage of the rail and bus links, Minks said.

While the location offers its advantages, the former industrial site does have considerable environmental contamination. During the public comment portion, Bartels said the site suffers from both groundwater and soil contamination.

Minks noted that the site is the subject of ongoing mitigation efforts started by Merck years ago, and said Russo is working closely with the state Department of Environmental Protection to maintain the uninterrupted operation in reducing the contamination.

“There are a number of a constituent contaminants that are being addressed,” Minks said.
Despite it being an environmentally sensitive area, myriad issues were raised by the public, specifically regarding traffic, taxes, the school district, parking and pedestrian crossings.

Russo officials declined to answer a question from Union Board of Education President Ronald McDowell, who inquired about the impact the project would have on the school district.

The planning board, in an Aug. 15 letter, also did not address McDowell’s inquiry about the issue, saying only, “Unfortunately, the municipal land law does not require potential applicants to provide studies and/or certifications regarding the impact projects will have on our school system.”

In addition to the impact studies, community members inquired about taxes and traffic.
Union Township Committee candidate Jason Krychiw was concerned with the tax exemption granted to the developers, and passed unanimously, at a March township committee meeting.

In an Aug. 24 interview with LocalSource, Krychiw said his anxiety was with regard to what he described as an ambiguous tax exemption.

“My concern, as well as the concern of many others that I have spoken to, is that the tax exemption ordinance is extremely generic,” he said. “It doesn’t say how long it is in effect, if it is a flat exemption or one that would slowly expire with more taxes being paid each year, or really anything specific about how they arrived at this exemption.”
Union business owner and resident Manny Rebimbas was troubled by the traffic and what he believes will be a shortage of parking. In an interview with LocalSource on Aug. 26, Rebimbas said the traffic is on Morris Avenue is already heavy, even without the complex.