Cranford OKs Birchwood plan after decade of lawsuits

Photo by Brian Trusdell
The property along Birchwood Avenue that has been the subject of lawsuits for a decade sits vacant following the demolition of a two-story building that at one time housed an insurance office.

CRANFORD, NJ — A change in developer, a substantial reduction in size and a decade of litigation has resulted in the Cranford Township Committee unanimously approving a redevelopment plan for the Birchwood Avenue housing project at its Tuesday, Nov. 28 meeting.
The 16-acre site will have three, four-story buildings comprised of 225 units, 34 of which have been set aside for the town’s Mount Laurel subsidized housing requirements.

The plan was formally presented over the course of two committee meetings by Michael Mistretta of Harbor Consultants, a planning, engineering and surveying firm in Cranford.

Mistretta said the affordable units will not be segregated, but dispersed through the three buildings.
The site, now an empty lot following the demolition of an abandoned two-story office building, fronts Birchwood Avenue to the northeast. The rear of the property is buffered by vegetation, 150 feet from a residential neighborhood on Wadsworth Terrace. This buffer became a topic of questioning by residents of Wadsworth during the public commentary portion of the meeting.

Mark Smith, a longtime Wadsworth Terrace resident, was one of several who wanted to increase the buffer between the proposed rear building and the rear property lines of the houses on Wadsworth Terrace. Moving this projected building away from the Wadsworth Terrace houses and closer to Birchwood would reduce the impact on residents living behind the apartment complex, he added.
Mistretta said that could be done but would require an amendment to the ordinance. The ordinance was not amended to accommodate the residents.

The public was also concerned about potential flooding. The site, located in a flood zone near Casino Brook and on a contaminated site, will incorporate both a runoff retention basin and remediation program to mitigate those issues.

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection has required the site to undergo a remediation program.
The retention basin will be built within the areas already cleared of trees and previously disturbed sections of the forested wetland. The pond is to be surrounded by a bike and walking path for both active and passive recreation.

Mistretta stated that groundwater and soil testing will be conducted before getting into quantity, volume and size of the basin, which will be detailed and subject to refinement by engineering. All of that will be presented before the Cranford Planning Board, he added.
While Commissioner Anne Dooley acknowledged the concerns of the impact on Wadsworth Terrace, she said residents need to view this project as an integrated whole, after voting to approve the project.

“This particular project was going to have to come together one way or another,” Dooley added. To alleviate potential vehicle congestion, Dooley suggested that a traffic signal may be a solution.

Mayor Tom Hannen mirrored Dooley’s assurances to the public and discussed how the project came to be.
“Please keep in mind, the township committee was making decisions when the whole plan was coming together,” Hannen said. “We have heard from all of you very succinctly over the past couple of years, and tried to make a best situation out of a situation that no one in the community was actually comfortable with.”

The initial proposal for the project came out of a 2007 “builder’s remedy lawsuit,” in which the former developer, Cranford Development Associates, sued the township for not meeting their court-ordered subsidized-housing requirements.

The state Superior Court ruled in favor of the developers and ordered Cranford’s master plan to include 360 units at the Birchwood Avenue site.
The township responded by purchasing the property, later selling it for $18.5 million in order to welcome a developer that would comply with its objectives. This led to a reduction in total units from 360 to 225, and also eliminated a parking garage.

Township officials did not respond by publication time to queries to determine when a site plan application might go before the planning board.
Commissioner Mary O’Connor reminded residents to stay involved and to take part in the process.

“Your voices are what we need to hear because we have our perspective and we need you to be part of the process,” she said. “That’s the best way for it to work.”