CLARK — Clark Commons is on its way to becoming reality. Last week Krame Development went before the township Planning Board to explain how the proposed town center retail development at the old US Gypsum property on Raritan Road will change the landscape of the 28-acre vacant property bordering Cranford.
For decades the Gypsum plant and the General Motors Hyatt Roller Bearing plant across Raritan Road were thriving industries that provided a continual and reliable source of revenue for the township. These industrial sites also employed a considerable number of residents from the township as well as surrounding towns until Hyatt closed its door in the 1990s and the Gypsum plant ceased operations in 2006.
The closing of these two huge sources of revenue was a serious hit to township coffers until the Hyatt property was developed in the early 2000s and turned into a state of the art golf course that certainly improved the area, but generated no additional revenue for the municipalities of Cranford and Clark.
The Gypsum property was vacant until this year when William Krame of Krame Development in Paramus saw merit in the acreage, suggesting the township change the zoning. In March the Zoning Board approved that move, although residents did object to using the site for retail development. Many thought the township had too much retail development, while others felt the site could be used for more environmentally friendly development.
But from the start, Mayor Sal Bonaccorso thought a development like Clark Commons was an answer to a prayer. Not only would the abandoned land be developed but the township would gain close to $1 million in revenue annually which would go a long way to reducing the tax burden on residents.
With elected officials solidly behind the move, the zoning board approved a master plan revision and quickly rezoned to light commercial industrial. From that point, the wheels were in motion. The vision of a new environmentally friendly commercial center with retail businesses in a park-like setting seemed not only possible, but quite probable. On Aug. 1 that plan became more of a reality when Krame outlined this vision for the former industrial site where paper was once manufactured.
The developer, in the real estate development business for 31 years, explained he does not work for third parties and extensively develops properties one at a time. Some of the projects he has built include Oak Park Commons Shopping Center in South Plainfield and the exclusive Hillsborough and Bridgewater Promenades. Other projects include Doubletree Hilton Hotel in fort Lee and Hilton Inn in Bridgewater.
Krame, who took the microphone to explain his own project to the board, explained that his company only produced high quality projects.
“We take great pride in our work. This will be a community shopping center primarily for the residents of Clark,” he said adding that their intention is not to take retail customers away from businesses already in Clark. Although Krame said he did not have any commitments yet from retailers, he did promise there would not be any “big box” stores, nail salons or dry cleaners at Clark Commons.
“We are looking at retailers who need 5,000 to 15,000 square feet,” he pointed out, noting this would attract businesses that are larger, but not huge. Also planned were four restaurants on “pads,” or separate from the retail store buildings. As for the style of the buildings, the developer explained the center would be brick and stone and “very visually appealing.”
“I would say it is going to be by far the nicest project in Union County,” Krame said, but did not have any illusions about the pitfalls, including the possibility of adding to the congestion problems on Raritan Road and nearby Central Avenue.
“I work on projects where traffic is always a problem,” Krame said bluntly, adding “we don’t think people should have to deal with a worse traffic situation.”
As for any possible environmental issues lingering from the manufacturing plant, the developer assured this aspect of the project had been dealt with beyond what is called for by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.
“We have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on testing that site and it is clean,” he said, but did note there were a few “hot spots.”
“Everything was done by USG, but we weren’t convinced so we tested it again and found there were no environmental issues,” Krame told the board, adding “we are eliminating any question of contaminants.”
The “hot spots” Krame referred to were located in one of the buildings on the site and while there are requirements by the DEP to mitigate those spots, Krame explained that his company is going beyond that by meeting national regulations. One board member had a problem with possible leeching of contaminants from the former Hyatt plant across the street, but Krame said those wells continue to be tested, noting PCB’s had been found in the sub basement and were removed.
“We’re not trying to fluff over any environmental issues. You can bet our bankers would insist it be corrected,” the developer stressed.
Although 40 percent of the 28-acre’s is currently covered by buildings or impervious surface, Krame explained that when everything is demolished and the 241,000 square-foot Clark Commons constructed, only 18 percent of the site will be used for the 15 buildings. The new zoning, however, permits 25 percent coverage of the site.
The entrance to the center will be on Raritan Road, but there will be a traffic signal to ease congestion, with another entrance on Walnut Avenue. However, the Walnut Avenue entrance will have a right turn only exit.
According to Krame, the buildings will form a semi-circle around 1,279 parking spaces fronting the town center that will be lined with trees, annual and perennial plants and decorative lighting. In comparison, the Target on Central Avenue has 889 parking spaces fronting it.
Close to the juncture of Raritan Road and Walnut Avenue, a detention basin, or pond, will be constructed to capture runoff and provide a central location for people to meet socially.
The “pond,” will be 110 by 80 feet and designed to accommodate a 100-year storm. According to the project engineer, who spoke extensively at the meeting about the development, the pond was put in that particular location because water naturally gravitated to that area.
“It would not be advantageous to place the pond in an area where runoff would have to go up,” she added.
Although only approximately 35 members of the public filled the massive Arthur L. Johnson High School auditorium, a few stepped to the podium during the public portion of the meeting to express concerns about the detention pond and removal of 40-foot trees along the Walnut Avenue side of the site. Tyler Bigelow questioned the removal of the trees, suggesting that if they did not interfere with construction, why remove them in lieu of saplings.
The engineer explained that the trees currently on the lot extend too far to the road and interfered with the construction of a low wall that will be used to build a landscape to shield the project from the houses on Walnut Avenue.
Sylvia Collins of Georgia Street brought up that since certain areas of the 29-acres are wetlands and wildlife are present there throughout the year, it could present a problem. Another resident had concerns about possible noise and light coming from the pond area that will abut the Walnut Avenue and Raritan Road corner of the site, since this area was designed to attract residents in the evening hours. Krame’s engineer pointed out that while the area was planned to be open and inviting, arrangements could be made to ensure lights went out later in the evening.
After residents expressed their concerns, the mayor interjected to clarify that the detention basin or pond was supposed to add an aesthetic value to what normally would just be a retail site.
“If the applicant did not have a desire to beautify it, what would it look like? Choose what you want to look at, a hole with rocks or something nice,” Bonaccorso said.
Although it was expected the board might vote on the plan that night, because all testimony was not heard on the application, there will be another hearing Aug. 22 at 7 p.m. in the Arthur L. Johnson High School auditorium.