Density scrutinized by board for 750 Walnut

Photo by Chuck O’Donnell
Keenan Hughes, a planner for Hartz Mountain Industries, testifies during the Cranford Planning Board’s meeting Wednesday, Sept. 5. Hartz Mountain is proposing to build a 905-unit apartment complex on a 30.5-acre triangular tract in the southern portion of the borough

CRANFORD, NJ  — The local Planning Board at its Sept. 5 meeting focused on the issue of density and whether a builder’s plan to construct 30 units per acre at 750 Walnut Ave. would be “consistent and compatible” with other development in the township.

Although density has often been the topic during five months of testimony, board members questioned Hartz Mountain Industries about its application to have a 30.5-acre parcel of land rezoned from office and warehouse to residential usage. In particular, board members wanted to know how Hartz Mountain had arrived at 30-unit-per-acre figure in its proposal to build a 905-unit apartment complex on a tract of land 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 board also pressed Hartz Mountain planner Keenan Hughes to explain how three, five-story buildings and two, four-story buildings would fit in a town that has been called “quaint” by board members and residents during the developer’s application process.

“Are we determining what’s best for the site or are we determining what is the most number of units that this particular site could potentially handle? And we’re trying to struggle with, ‘OK, for the community, what is best for this site in terms of that density perspective,’” Mayor Tom Hannen said. “Is a three-story building more appropriate than a five-story building? So, we’re trying to determine if it’s through their experts or the applicant. What brought us to this point at 30 units per acre, other than that’s what you can fit on a 30-acre property?”

Hughes said he had researched the densities of three multifamily developments in the township: Cranford Crossing and Riverfront at Cranford Station in the downtown area, and Woodmont Station on South Avenue on the town’s eastern border near Roselle, approximately a half mile from the Cranford Train Station. He said those developments have an average of 39 units per acre.

“Although there may be some comparisons to the Woodmont property in particular, nonetheless we felt the lower density was appropriate here so we started to evaluate 30 units per acre when we laid out the site to evaluate a concept plan and the potential impacts of the development,” Hughes said. “It was the opinion of the team that the potential impacts could be mitigated or managed on site, would not rise to the level of being substantially detrimental.”

Board member Peter Taylor said it would have been more accurate to compare the proposed project at 750 Walnut Ave. to the project the board approved in the spring on the Birchwood property near the border with Kenilworth. He said the 225 units in the Birchwood development will cover a little more than 15 acres, so the density will be fewer than 15 units per acre. He added that, like the proposed development at 750 Walnut Ave., the Birchwood project would not be within walking distance of the downtown train station.

“So, I’m having trouble as to how you can come up with 30 units per acre,” Taylor said. “I think everything else about this application in terms of buffering, in terms of open space for the residents of this development, for the traffic, it comes down to how many units were going to have per acre.

“And I think your logic just looking at three downtown developments and trying to make that comparison is irrational and doesn’t really work very well in this instance because this is not a downtown development.”
The 750 Walnut Ave. property is about 1.5 miles from the Cranford Train Station.

Hughes began to reply, saying the traffic engineer has not yet testified for Hartz Mountain and that there’s still more testimony to come about the marketability — or lack thereof — of the site.

“I’m not talking about marketability,” Taylor said.
“May I finish?” Hughes responded.
Hughes said board members are “going to have to sit back and evaluate if 30 units per acre is appropriate for the property and that’s your decision to make. I believe the testimony you will hear from other experts is that there are no impacts here that can’t be managed, and 30 units per acre is something we think is appropriate for the property and we will be satisfying the criteria for rezoning.”

Early in the meeting, Chairwoman Kathleen Murray questioned how the proposal fits into the criteria in the township’s master plan that would allow for the creation of a new ordinance and help pave the way for Hartz Mountain to start building. She pointed to a reference about construction that “is consistent and compatible with the surrounding neighborhood and environment.”

Murray asked Hughes how a 905-unit development is compatible in a town dominated by detached single-family homes.
Located about a half mile down the road from the proposed development is Sunny Acres, a neighborhood built in the 1940s that the Cranford Township Committee recently voted to recognize as the municipality’s first historic district.

Hughes said the project meets the definition because it could be “integrated within the area without creating substantial impacts on those adjacent areas.”

Murray said she understood that it’s “physically possible” to fit the project into the 30.5-acre space, but again asked if it “satisfies the goal and it’s consistent and compatible” with the surrounding neighborhood.

When Hughes responded that he thinks it’s “consistent, compatible with the surrounding neighborhood and environment,” many of the 50 or so residents in attendance began to laugh.

The traffic engineer was scheduled to testify at a special meeting on Sept. 12, and Hughes is expected to present a fiscal impact study at the board’s Oct. 3 meeting.
Hartz Mountain Industries’ plans for Walnut Avenue also include two pools with clubhouses, several courtyards and 1,775 parking spaces. An artist’s rendering gave residents their first glimpse of what the project might look like at the July 18 meeting.

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 building that formerly housed Bank of America offices would be demolished and replaced by two buildings containing 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.

About 15 percent of the 905 units would be designated as “affordable” under Mount Laurel regulations and the rest would be market-rate units.

The current commercial zoning for the site allows for limited uses, including professional offices, healthcare facilities, distribution centers and research laboratories, Rhatican said at the May 16 meeting. He said the existing building is about 420,000 square feet and was an industrial and manufacturing facility constructed in the 1940s by Johnson & Johnson. Hartz bought it in 1988.

According to Rhatican, Bank of America leased about 248,000 square feet of space and vacated the building about 10 years ago, but continued to pay rent until its lease ran out about a year ago.

He said LabCorp occupies about 80,000 square feet in the rear of the building and PSE&G occupies about 22,000 square feet for a call center.

“So, there is a very substantial vacancy in the buildings,” Rhatican said.