Cranford downtown redevelopment plan draws fire

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CRANFORD, NJ — Wayne Hayes, a 30-year resident, frequently has his hair cut at Carlito’s Barber Shop, enjoys fresh shellfish from Marino’s Seafood Market and Restaurant and gets his car repaired at Carmen’s Foreign Car Repair.

All three businesses, located on North Avenue East on the eastern edge of the downtown business district, are staples in Hayes’ routine, but were recently slated for condemnation in a township-commissioned “in need of redevelopment” study.

The study investigated the two blocks for designation as in need of redevelopment. The area is bounded by North Union Avenue to the northwest, Springfield Avenue to the northeast, and the NJ Transit Raritan Valley Rail Line to the south, comprising 18 lots and approximately 3.95 acres. Essentially, the study area includes all property from the fire station parking lot at 7 Springfield Ave., to the corner gas station, which fronts North Avenue East and Springfield Avenue. From the gas station, the study area spans to the intersection of North Avenue East and Alden Street, ending with a two-story building that has multiple occupants.

The study area continues onto the opposite side of North Avenue East from The Dive to Bar Americana. The report was made to the Cranford Planning Board in draft form Jan. 10, by Michael Mistretta of Harbor Consultants, a Cranford engineering firm.
Hayes spoke out against Mistretta’s presentation and was not alone in doing so.

Opposition began building in the hours and days prior to the Jan. 10 meeting, when the draft appeared online and included The Riverside Inn, a popular bar also known as the “The Dive.” Within minutes, a community petition was active online, garnering more than 2,000 signatures to “save The Dive,” and urged residents to attend the meeting and speak out against plans making sweeping changes to the area.

While an outpouring of support was generated for The Dive, the structure never should have been included in the study, Mayor Tom Hannen apologetically told the packed room.

“When the resolution for the township committee was originally adopted last April, the commissioners specifically wanted block 195, lot 10, The Dive, excluded from the study area,” he said. “Unfortunately, an oversight resulted in it being included.”

“I take responsibility as mayor for not going over each block and lot number to make sure that that was not included, but I intend to offer a resolution to the township committee to make sure that that particular property is taken out of the study.”

The building sits at the eastern edge of the downtown area and takes it name from from the Rahway River, which runs alongside it — and which flooded the building during Hurricane Irene.

After Mistretta’s presentation, Commissioner Ann Dooley asked what would happen to the many other viable, healthy businesses.
“Listen to them,” Mistretta responded. “This is the first time anyone has seen this draft report, so gain feedback from them, but I don’t think we are prepared to start that conversation tonight.”

Judy Swick, manager of Chapman Brothers Plumbing on North Ave. East, told the board she didn’t know about the study until two days before the meeting, when the draft was uploaded to the township’s website. The building housing Chapman Brothers is within the condemned area. According to Swick, none of the business owners within this area were notified about the preliminary study, which commenced in April.
“Every owner named in that study should have been notified,” she said. “I found out from Ralph Brunette, owner of block 193, lot 15, and I went and told The Dive, and everybody I could get in contact with. We got this feeling it was very shady,” she said.

“At least notify the owners. We pay taxes here,” Swick told the board.
Michael Tears, who owns Marino’s Seafood, asked what will happen to his business, which has existed at 34 North Ave. East in middle of the proposed redevelopment area since 1945.

“A developer will come in and raise the rent; we will be out of business,” Tears said.
Residents highlighted a lack of transparency on the part of the planning board for not notifying local business owners of the study.
“We could always do better in communication,” the mayor told LocalSource in a Jan. 11 phone interview. “However, the meeting was not to take any formal action,” he said. “Last night’s meeting was set up as only informational, a first step for which the planning board would hear feedback from the town.”

According to Hannen, the next steps are to bring the report to the Cranford Downtown Management Corporation, involve property owners and have public hearings on the report.
Despite residents and business owners recently hearing of this study, redeveloping Cranford’s Downtown District has been topic discussed for more than 30 years.

According to Mistrettas’s study, the township commissioned Wallace, Roberts, and Todd, a planning and design firm, in 1985 to write an “improvement implementation plan” for the central business district.

Last year, similar goals, objectives, observations and recommendations by the Cranford Downtown Management Corporation repeated many of the ideas identified in the 1985 report, the most recent study indicated. In previous planning board minutes obtained by LocalSource, similar goals were discussed at a meeting two years ago in January.

The subject of redeveloping the building formerly housing Swan Cleaners and the vacant MDTV Realty building, both also located within the Mistretta’s study area, were the subject of a planning board meeting on Jan. 20, 2016. The minutes from that meeting noted that members discussed a renovation and rehabilitation opportunity for the buildings.

The MDTV building was purchased by the township in 2015. The Swan Cleaners building is still privately owned by Macrietta Realty Co. Stauber Alan, according to the study.

LocalSource asked Commissioner Mary O’Connor, who was on the planning board in 2016, if discussions with developers have occurred regarding those two buildings, but did not receive a response before press time this week.

Former Cranford Planning Board Secretary Ann Steinbach, whose term ended in 2017, submitted a letter to the editor that was published in The Westfield Leader alluding to the board’s active discussions with developers at several workshop sessions. In it, she said the Democratic majority on the planning board has formulated plans to raze the downtown area along North and Springfield avenues to erect a four-story apartment building with street-level retail and commercial offices.

Steinbach did not respond to questions from LocalSource regarding her letter.
Hannen vehemently denied Steinbach’s claims, asserting that no one as part of a Democratic majority is planning to tear down part of Cranford.
“The comments in her letter do not reflect the good work that she and the planning board accomplished while she served as a member,” Hannen told LocalSource on Jan. 11. “All actions of the board, of which she participated in, were done under the law and was guided by the direction of the planning board attorney.”

Hannen added this was the first time he had heard that Steinbach objected to meetings in which she participated. He said that the April 2017 township committee resolution asking the planning board to look at North Avenue was approved by all five members, three Democrats and two Republicans.

“Our intentions were clear. We wanted to do a study,” the mayor said.