Cranford hosts special workshop on 750 Walnut Avenue Redevelopment Plan

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CRANFORD, NJ — Formal action was taken on the 750 Walnut Avenue Redevelopment Plan at a special workshop on Monday, Aug. 23, which residents attended.

Cranford Mayor Kathleen Prunty said the purpose of the meeting was to discuss one particular element of the redevelopment plan, the height of buildings, as the township wanted to cap the structures at four stories and Hartz Mountain Industries, which owns the property, wanted buildings capped at five stories.

“We went into mediation and couldn’t reach an agreement, so the special master, which is a court-appointed judge, allowed us to reach out to the public, which we did,” said Prunty on Monday, Aug. 23. “So we had a survey online, which we publicized all over for residents to weigh in, and residents overwhelmingly wanted four stories, which is what the township committee wanted.

“We voted on that tonight, but tonight was also an opportunity for Cranford residents to ask specific questions about the project,” she continued. “A lot of it has to do with traffic, which is a legitimate concern, and the township certainly does not want to do anything that makes it a more dangerous street. We have a terrific planner, and we’ll be coming back to the public with more details, so they can ask questions about that as well.”

The Township Committee voted unanimously to accept a cap of four stories. Township planner Annie Hindenlang of real estate consulting firm Topology will now begin to work on the draft redevelopment plan, based on four-story buildings.

From the beginning, the township’s position has been four-story buildings, with a portion of the project’s parking underneath the buildings, said Prunty in a press release sent to Union County LocalSource on Monday, Aug. 23. Hartz Mountain had wanted five-story buildings, and, after months of negotiations, the township and Hartz reached an agreement on the design of the buildings.

According to the press release, on Wednesday, Aug. 4, after two days of mediation, it was agreed to have either two four-story buildings, all residential, with parking around the buildings and none underneath, or two five-story buildings, with four stories of residential and one story of parking below. The township then requested an online community survey to get public input regarding the number of stories on Tuesday, Aug. 10, with results in by Monday, Aug. 23.

The survey was publicized on social media, the township website and emailed to residents in the 750 Walnut Avenue neighborhood, according to the press release. The survey received 553 responses, with 392 in favor of a four-story design and 161 in favor of a five-story design.

In attendance at the special meeting via video call were Hindenlang, township attorney Ryan Cooper and Deputy Mayor Brian Andrews. In addition to her work on the draft of the redevelopment plan, which will include more detail about the building’s design, open public park space, parking, landscaping and driveways, Hindenlang said an independent traffic study will assess the impact on Walnut Avenue and surrounding streets. The results of the traffic study will decide where and how Hartz will construct traffic-calming measures in the area, including pedestrian improvements and bike lanes.

Cranford resident Lydia Allen of Walnut Avenue, who was hit by a car five years ago and was in attendance at the meeting on Monday, Aug. 23, asked about the safety of pedestrians crossing Behnert Place and Walnut Avenue in Cranford.

“There’s many interventions that you can do to slow down traffic on Walnut right now. Because they have such a wide road, it naturally encourages people to speed and have more reckless behavior,” Hindenlang told Allen. “Some of the interventions that have conceptually been discussed would prevent issues from happening again, but no improvement would be recommended that wouldn’t make it safer for pedestrians. The goal is to improve the pedestrian environment there.”

Prunty praised the fact that residents had an opportunity to voice their concerns about the redevelopment before it happened.

“I thought this was great,” the mayor said. “Sometimes meetings can be contentious and people are angry. This is exactly what a public meeting should be: people expressing their concerns, their interests, their ideas. This was a productive, constructive public meeting. It was great.”

Township Committee member Jason Gareis said that public input benefits the community.

“I think what led up to this meeting actually helped the community in the way that we had an online survey to figure out whether residents were more in favor of a four-story or five-story building at the 750 Walnut site, so I think the lead-up to this meeting was the important part and making sure that we have public input for that development,” said Gareis on Monday, Aug. 23.

Township administrator Jamie Cryan said public decisions are important, and she also praised the night’s meeting.

“It’s important to have these decisions made in public, and it’s important for the public to attend, and they did, and they expressed some concerns, some suggestions, and I think it went really well,” said Cryan on Monday, Aug. 23.

Another town hall meeting will be scheduled for mid-September, so that residents can view and comment on a draft of the new redevelopment plan.

Photos by EmilyAnn Jackman