Cranford gets glimpse of 750 Walnut housing project

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CRANFORD — A design concept unveiled at the local planning board meeting on Wednesday, July 18, gave residents their first glimpse of the proposed 905-unit apartment project at 750 Walnut Ave.

A series of architect’s renderings depicted three, five-story buildings and two, four-story buildings on the 30.5-acre tract located on the Clark border at the corner of Walnut Avenue and Raritan Road, with a freight rail line bordering to the northwest and Hyatt Hills Golf Complex to the southwest.

The designs, which included two pools with clubhouses, several courtyards and 1,775 parking spaces, were unveiled to a crowd of about 70 residents at the meeting as Hartz Mountain Industries continued in its application process to have the site rezoned.

Hartz wants to eliminate the office and warehouse uses in favor of multifamily residential use, and is attempting to leverage the New Jersey Supreme Court’s Mount Laurel housing mandates in an effort to gain that approval from township officials.

James Rhatican, vice president of land use and development for Hartz, said at the July 18 meeting that the plan would be to develop the site in two stages.

In the first phase, the former Bank of America building would be demolished and replaced by two buildings housing 433 units. In the second phase, the warehouse currently standing on the property would be razed, and three more buildings with a total of 472 units would be constructed.

Several residents, who repeatedly described their town as “quaint” at the meeting, reacted negatively to the designs drafted by Hartz architect Bruce Englebaugh, saying the modern apartment buildings with their light grey, and red and orange brick facades would clash with the Cranford’s small-town charm.

“I think given what we’ve seen tonight is dissident with most architecture in Cranford and its location is obviously less than ideal,” resident Joe Colangelo said. “This would not fit Cranford. … What we really would have expected to see — if they were really interest in wooing this board — is an homage to Cranford. You know, building this around what Cranford is and what we represent. We’ve seen exactly the opposite of that.”

Some Cranford Planning Board members agreed.

Deputy Mayor Ann Dooley asked Englebaugh if he had ever heard of Sunny Acres, the section of Cranford where the Hartz property sits, referencing 172 nearby Cape Cod and Colonial Revival houses constructed by Sears, Roebuck & Co. during World War II.

Board member Julie Didzbalis responded to Englebaugh after he said he’d driven around Cranford to get a sense of the town before he made his designs, and that he wanted the plans to architecturally complement the town.

“You felt that this would be a draw for people who lived in the town for many years who wanted to downsize. This would create a community for them,” Didzbalis said. “But, if you drove around town, what attracts people and keeps people in Cranford I don’t really see in the design of your buildings.

“These are much more modern. They’re attractive, I’m not saying they’re unattractive. But, people are drawn to Cranford for the architectural feel of it. They’ve lived here for many, many years and they want to stay in the same area. Do you feel that would be a draw for them, to move into a building that looks like something like these that you have designed? Did you think about that?”

Englebaugh several times said his only task was to create a design that proved a 30-units-per-acre plan could work. He said several times that the building could be changed to look “more traditional,” and that he came up with the look of the apartments based on what is popular in the housing market.

Rhatican also reminded residents and board members that it was a design concept being shown, not a site plan, which would show the details of such issues as parking, traffic and drainage.

Englebaugh’s concept showed that there would be 28 one-bedroom, 82 two-bedroom and 29 three-bedroom units classified as Mount Laurel housing.

A Superior Court judge ruled Cranford has until Dec. 31 to satisfy its Mount Laurel housing obligations.

The 1975 N.J. Supreme Court’s Mount Laurel decision required all municipalities in the state to zone for a “fair share” of housing to all “economic strata, including low and moderate income.” It later created the “builder’s remedy” to coerce the towns into meeting the court’s demand.

The Council on Affordable Housing was then created by the state Legislature to determine quotas and identify techniques municipalities could use to comply with affordable housing obligations, determined within set time periods referred to as “rounds.”

Lawsuits and disputes on COAH quotas for the last round led to a disbandment in 2010, and the courts re-inserted themselves into the issue last year.

The first round of quotas included the years 1987 through 1993; the second was 1993 through 1999, and third is 1999 through 2018. For each round, municipalities were to project housing needs, account for the court’s “affordable” housing mandate, and zone accordingly.

Cranford was deemed as failing to meet its early round obligations, resulting in years of litigation surrounding property on Birchwood Avenue near the Kenilworth border. In 2008, the township was sued by Cranford Development Associates under the builder’s remedy provision as it sought to construct apartments with affordable units on Birchwood.

Nearly five years later in 2013, Judge Lisa Chrystal granted CDA the right to construct a 360-unit complex and also granted Cranford immunity from further Mount Laurel lawsuits until Dec. 31.

Since 2013, circumstances have changed as Cranford successfully reduced the Birchwood development to 225 units. While Cranford has a little more than a year until its immunity from builder’s remedy lawsuits expires, it asked the court in July 2017 to consider the new circumstances and extend the immunity for rounds two and three from 2018 to July 15, 2025.

However, in her Sept. 19 ruling Kenny pointed to the reduced density at Birchwood, saying Cranford had not satisfied its second round obligations — being 20 units short — and ordered the township to address those requirements before proceeding to the third round.
Since Kenny refused to consider Cranford’s proposed changes to third round obligations, it also negated Hartz’s attempt to intervene and force the town to include 750 Walnut Ave. in those quotas.

Hartz began the process to have the 750 Walnut Ave. site rezoned for “inclusionary residential development” at the Cranford Planning Board’s May 16 meeting. The proposed site of the apartment units is currently zoned commercial and allows for uses such as professional offices, health care facilities, distribution centers and research laboratories.

At the July 18 meeting, Matt McDonough, a commercial real estate broker, testified on Hartz Mountain Industries’ behalf that the current office building is unlikely to attract new tenants in the future. He said the building is antiquated by today’s standards and was constructed with limited window space, among other issues.

McDonough said many businesses are setting up offices in urban settings such as Hoboken and Jersey City, which are more appealing to prospective employees.

Several board members and residents asked McDonough if the space at 750 Walnut Ave. would be more attractive if amenities such as gyms or cafeterias were installed.

“You have the chicken or the egg,” he answered. “How do you get the amenities in there and keep them running before the tenants are there? Even when you have that going, you need a whole lot of people to keep food services, gyms, things like that, really moving. If you have a cafeteria … I think the rule of thumb is you need 300,000 square feet of occupied office space in order to get any kind of food service functioning because otherwise you don’t get enough traffic, the operator isn’t making any money, the food’s not turning over, it’s just a downward cycle.”

At the Aug. 1 planning board meeting, Hartz is scheduled to have its civic and traffic engineers testify.

Photos by Chuck O’Donnell