By Megan K. Scott, Correspondent
GARWOOD, NJ — A developer has unveiled preliminary plans to turn the largely dormant Garwood Paperboard industrial site on North Avenue into a 124-unit apartment complex, the second major multiunit housing project for the borough of 4,200 people in less than three years.
“Our objective is to knock down the structure,” said developer Tony DiGiovanni, of Garden Homes, at an informational town hall-type meeting in July at Lincoln Franklin Elementary School. “Our desire was to keep the factory, but it became evident that the structure was beyond repair. The way the design was framed, the beams are not supported by brick structure.”
Fifteen percent, or 18, of the units would be marketed as “affordable” to satisfy the borough’s court-ordered Mount Laurel obligation. Of those, four will be three-bedroom units, in accordance with affordable housing rules. However, there will be no three-bedroom apartments offered at market rate to avoid overburdening the school system with children.
The Mount Laurel requirement stems from a 1975 Supreme Court ruling that declared every town in the state was obligated to zone for its “fair share” of “affordable housing.” A subsequent ruling in 1983 gave developers the leverage of a “builders’ remedy” lawsuit, coercing towns to approve high-density housing or risk losing almost all control of its zoning process.
The Paperboard property is only the latest in a number of high-density projects, driven by Mount Laurel requirements, to be approved or proposed with a few miles of one another.
On the other side of Garwood, the abandoned industrial properties of Casale Sheet Metal and Petro Plastics on South Avenue have been approved for a 298-unit apartment complex. The developer, Russo, is now considering options for the opposite side of that street for either 52 townhomes or 73 apartments.
In neighboring Cranford, Hartz Mountain Industries is seeking to build 905 units on the Clark border at the corner of Walnut Avenue and Raritan Road, a proposal that has drawn opposition from nearby residents. And the Westfield Planning Board recently approved an application for a three-story, mixed-use development on South Avenue across from the train station.
The Circle Plaza of Westfield development includes 30 apartments on the upper floors, with retail or commercial use on the first floor. Five of those units are designated as affordable housing.
Cranford has announced plans to establish a committee to examine how the Garwood projects will impact the township.
The Paperboard project will include a 4,000-square-foot community room for residents, sidewalk upgrades and revitalize the neighborhood, borough redevelopment attorney William Northgrave said. The plans include retaining a “castle” section from the existing facade, which served as the main entrance to the plant.
“Our hope is to go before the planning board before the year’s end, and have construction start in the spring,” DiGiovanni said. “If we start 2019, it would be finished in 2021.”
Demolition would take about three to four months and involves recycling 90 percent of the structure, such as all the large timber beams. The bricks would be removed, sold, or crushed for reuse on site, and the paperboard machinery would be repurposed, DiGiovanni said.
Demolition of the corrugated metal section at the east end of the building already has begun. A letter from Garwood Developers LLC dated July 20 and placed in residents’ mailboxes said all asbestos had been removed and that a demolition permit had been issued by the borough. The letter was a “courtesy,” it said, and came following complaints from residents at the July town hall meeting that they had been unaware that asbestos abatement was either finished or ongoing. The demolition of the brick sections of the building will be done floor by floor, according to the letter.
The Paperboard site was originally owned by the Aeolian Company, an organ and piano manufacturer founded by New York City piano maker William B. Tremaine in 1887. A purpose-built factory was constructed on the site in 1900; a 1905 postcard depicts two large buildings on both sides of the railroad tracks. The factory had its own boiler power plant and a water tower, which was removed in 2009.
The property was later owned by the Garwood Paperboard and used for producing and recycling paper products. The most recent owner, Millen Industries, still used the property for paper-related production but most of the site was decrepit.
In 2013, the Garwood Council passed a resolution authorizing the planning board to investigate whether the Paperboard site should be designated an Area in Need of Redevelopment. A 2015 preliminary investigation report described the Paperboard plant as a 200,000 square-foot “imposing multi-story industrial structure,” with windows that were broken or damaged or boarded up with wood.
According to the report, most of the buildings are “derelict” or in “disrepair.” The warehouse structure on the eastern end was covered in rust and the brick structure on the western end was “severely eroded and degraded.” One caption on a photo reads: “Each section of the building is a different color and material, designed in a mismatching way, which makes it severely unappealing to any onlookers.”
In making his case, DiGiovanni pointed out that the proposed development will be “significantly smaller,” or 60 percent less dense, than the Russo properties on South Avenue, even though the site is “very significant” in comparable size.
The plans have received a mixed reaction from residents and local officials, including Garwood Borough Council members Sara Todisco and Ileen Cuccaro, who are both candidates for mayor in the November election.
“There are a number of positive aspects of the proposed Paperboard redevelopment plan,” Todisco, the Democratic candidate, said in an email to LocalSource. She listed features such as the preservation of the historic “castle” and the 4,000 square feet of indoor space for Garwood residents.
“It also includes greater setbacks from North Avenue than there are currently, top-notch building materials, namely brick, and no market rate three-bedroom units.”
Cuccaro said she didn’t oppose the Paperboard plans, but the overall decisions regarding the approval of new development.
“I would have actually voted for this concept of 125 units if we did not get rolled on the South Avenue one,” Cuccaro, a Republican, said in an email referring to the Casale and Petro project, adding that the Paperboard officials, “said they could not figure how South Avenue was approved for so many units when their property is almost exactly the same size as Paperboard.”
Garden Homes is responsible for several other developments, including Woodcrest at Clark and Riverfront at Cranford Station.