Springfield eyes housing, commercial mix for Saks site

Photo by Brian Trusdell
SOON TO GO BYE BYE? — Springfield’s council has authorized a study that could pave the way for the long-abandoned Saks store to be demolished.

SPRINGFIELD, NJ — The township has taken another step toward redeveloping the former Saks Fifth Avenue site on Millburn Avenue that has been vacant since the upscale department store moved out more than 20 years ago.

The Springfield Township Committee voted unanimously at its meeting Tuesday, Sept. 25 to authorize the Planning Board to conduct a redevelopment study of the 9-acre tract of land. According to the resolution, the board will find out if part or all of the area “should be designated a non-condemnation redevelopment area.” The board will also hold a hearing so it “shall hear from all persons who are interested in or would be affected by a determination that the study area is a redevelopment area.” A report will then be prepared and presented to the committee.

A developer’s battle to build a supermarket on the site, which borders Millburn, came to an end in March after 20 years of public meetings and legal battles.
Engineer Sam Mardini said that ARC Springfield, which represented Stop & Shop during its push to build a 69,000-square-foot supermarket on the site after Saks closed its doors, asked the town what can be done with the site. Mardini said town planner Bob Michaels has done a study and recommended the committee authorize a redevelopment study.

Mardini said 6 acres has been zoned as residential and the rest is commercial.
“The township can recommend this probably be a mix of commercial, apartment buildings and townhouses, and that is the direction now the property owner and township are going forward with,” Mardini said. “If that property actually does classify as an area in need of redevelopment, that’s probably where it’s heading, a mix of commercial, apartments and townhouses.

The township’s redevelopment planner, Phillips Preiss Grygiel Leheny Hughes LLC, has been authorized by the committee to help conduct the study.
Years ago, local residents once flocked to the brick building at 90 Millburn Ave. to buy everything from menswear to housewares, but the building has since fallen into disrepair. One of the walls is covered with ivy. What was once the front door has been covered over by a brick wall and the words “no trespassing” have been painted across it. Weeds and grass grow wild in the parking area.

When asked if the town plans to raze the building, Mardini answered, “definitely.”
ARC Springfield’s proposal to build a supermarket on the site was complicated by the fact that 20 square feet in the front of the property is in Millburn. The Springfield Zoning Board of Adjustment rejected a site plan application in 2002 for constructing the proposed supermarket.

Mardini said the town was concerned about truck traffic on Millburn Avenue. A Superior Court judge, however, overturned the board’s decision two years later and the site plan application to build a supermarket on the site was approved in 2006.

In 2014, ARC Springfield’s application for a conditional use variance was rejected by the Millburn Zoning Board of Adjustment. According to the minutes of that meeting, board members repeatedly pointed to traffic safety as a concern. Board member Vanessa Scaglione stated that she was concerned about the “impact on the safety due to the trucks crossing the center line” when turning into the proposed supermarket.

According to the minutes, Scaglione said “the overall aesthetic impact on the Township of Millburn is not being taken into consideration, due to the uninteresting façade that is proposed to front Millburn Avenue. “

ARC Springfield sued Millburn, but the Superior Court dismissed the case in March.
If the land is to be developed, the governing bodies of Springfield and Millburn will have to work together. Mardini said this should not be an issue since the municipalities have cooperated in the past.

“We have a very good relationship with the township of Millburn and we are very concerned about our needs, their needs and we work together on making sure everybody’s needs are met,” he said. “No, I don’t find that to be a hurdle or a problem. We do not do it all the time, but we do do it and it’s usually successful. So, I don’t think it’s a problem.”

Springfield is currently undergoing a facelift, thanks to several downtown redevelopment projects. The Township Committee voted to enter a redevelopment agreement with a developer seeking to build a mixed-used building at the corner of Church Mall and Morris Avenue.
Clara Harelik, an attorney for SPDSAIL LLC. and a former Springfield mayor, said after the meeting on Sept. 25 that the plan is to consolidate two lots near that intersection. One is a parking lot and the other is an empty building that had been a Century 21 Realtor office.

Harelik said the developer was scheduled to appear before the Springfield Planning Board on Oct. 3, “to seek preliminary and final site plan approval as well as for subdivision to take away the property line in between those two lots and merge it as one consolidated lot.”

According to Harelik, the new development will include up to 24 apartments but retail tenants have not yet been identified.
According to Springfield’s website, there has been progress in redeveloping the Gomes property, which encompasses the entire block from Caldwell Place to Center Street. According to the website, the town is “targeting the demolition of the building to take place before the end of this year.”

The largest project, the redevelopment of two properties on Church Mall and two on Blacks Lane, hit a roadblock last year. According to the township website, the original developer approved for this project, Veale Holding LLC, was granted Planning Board approval late last year but decided not to go forward with purchasing the property.

The developer “abandoned the project,” the website said.
Don Rica, who owns the three properties, is negotiating with another developer and expecting to close by the end of this year. If the new developer decides to go forward with the project, as previously approved by the Planning Board, it could start in the spring.

Mardini said Springfield is “always looking to improve any location” and that razing the former Saks building would benefit the town financially and aesthetically.
“This building is obviously an eyesore and it would be beneficial to the township to get this property to be built into a site everybody could be proud of,” he said. “That’s the goal, just as we are doing with the downtown. … So, the benefits are huge.”