UNION, NJ — Zoning Board members have approved several variances to advance a proposal that would replace the Garden Buffet restaurant on Morris Avenue with a five-story apartment building and new restaurant at street level.
Board members approved variances for setbacks, parking and paved surface area by a 7-1 vote at their Jan. 23 meeting, leaving American Landmark Development to return with site plans before any construction can begin.
American Landmark, which was involved in the development of Union Center and former Rite Aid properties, returned to the board in January after introducing the idea of replacing the restaurant at the Dec. 12 meeting.
The revised plan for the property, located at 1181 Morris Ave. adjacent to Elizabeth River Park at the intersection of Lehigh Avenue, now features a “boutique” restaurant with more than 2,500 square feet, 35 apartments and covered parking.
Daryl Alvarez, the engineer and architect for the project, said the restaurant will have large doors that can be opened during warmer months. Additionally, the owners are planning an open kitchen. The restaurant also will include outdoor seating to provide a view of the park, which makes the project intriguing, according to attorney Stephen Hehl.
Union “just doesn’t have a restaurant that takes advantage of the park like we will here,” Hehl, who represents the developer, told the board at the January meeting.
Board members, however, were displeased about the amount of parking, and the application was carried over to the January meeting.
The developer proposed 47 parking spaces for the entire project although 30 spaces are required by ordinance for the residential units alone. With the restaurant, ordinances require a total of 106 spaces.
There will be one spot allotted for every unit, according to Landmark traffic engineer Corey Chase, however it won’t be designated for residential parking until 6 p.m.
Chase told the board the developers plan to enter into a shared parking agreement with Omega Financial Services, the business at the adjacent property to the northwest, after regular business hours and on weekends.
Their parking lot at 1185 Morris Ave. will be used for overflow valet parking only, according to Hehl, and provide an additional 46 spaces if needed.
Omega Financial Services President Adel Michael testified that he’s on board with the parking agreement.
A gate between the two properties will be opened when the valet service is needed.
“Some valets park your car on the street, but we’ll have a designated parking area which is always desirable,” Alvarez told the board.
Chase said that, based on data published by the Institute of Transportation Engineers, the peak demand for both the residential and restaurant parking will only reach 90 percent occupancy. Based on the square footage of the restaurant and the hourly demand, at 7 p.m. the restaurant would generate a peak parking demand of 34 cars and that number also includes restaurant employees, he said.
“It’s really in the evening that the demand for parking increases and, fortunate for us, it happens to coincide with when the existing office space will be vacated,” Chase said.
The peak occupancy throughout the day, including for restaurant and residential parking, comes at 5 p.m. with a demand for 42 spots, Chase said. He added that the demand for parking for the restaurant will increase after 5 p.m., but the overall demand for spots will decrease because the valet-only lot becomes available at 6 p.m.
Board member James DiGiovanni suggested that the valet become operational at 5 p.m. in a situation where the overflow comes earlier than 6 p.m.
Chase then referenced statistics, which he also presented at the December meeting, from the U.S. Census Bureau that states, on average, each rental unit in New Jersey has a rate of 0.73 vehicles per unit. He added that the development “is expected to generate less than one parked vehicle per apartment.”
Landmark planner Nicholas Graviano told the board that, due to the building’s close proximity to the Union Train Station — approximately a quarter mile away —his company does not expect all tenants to have vehicles. He had pointed to the same statistics at at the December meeting as well.
Graviano believes the shared parking agreement is beneficial with the addition of a restaurant, telling the board, “This is a perfect scenario where you have a neighboring property owner which is an office use that fully complements the restaurant use.”
Other board members had concerns regarding the building’s height at the Dec. 13 meeting, so Hehl said Landmark will decrease the height by 11 feet at the rear of the building. By doing this, the entire building will be about 50 feet tall from the ground level and the only part of the building that is classified as five stories would be the middle of the building, where the underground parking area is located. And a 60-foot tower in the building will hold an elevator shaft.
Board member Thomas Demovic was the sole board member to vote against approving the variances.
“The project is certainly one that would benefit a blighted area, there’s no doubt about it,” he said. “But quite frankly, the two things that concern me are the overall building height and the parking agreement.”
Demovic stated that he’s concerned because there is no parking agreement in writing so it was difficult to vote on something that he didn’t “have in his hands.”