Morris Avenue complex slated for 1,528 apartments

Photos by Rebecca Panico
The Vermella Union development, under construction and located at 1011 Morris Ave., is slated to open next year and will include retail space and residential units.

UNION, NJ — Township officials expect little to no effect on local school enrollment after the first phase of a potential 1,528-unit, mixed-use apartment complex and retail space is completed along Morris Avenue.

The residential buildout for Vermella Union at 1011 Morris Avenue is expected to include 39,997 square feet of retail and restaurant space, according to a March resolution compliance letter by the Union’s engineer obtained by Local Source.

The first phase of the development, which has been approved by the Union Planning Board, will feature 449 units, a clubhouse and other amenities. Included will be 130 studio apartments, 228 one-bedroom apartments, 65 two-bedroom apartments and 26 three-bedroom units, township spokeswoman Natalie Pineiro said.

“Statistics show that there will be little to no effect on” the school district, Pineiro said of the project’s first phase.
Pineiro would only speak to the 449 units that have been approved at the 42-acre site, not the 1,528 for which Russo Development, which is based in Carlstadt, had applied.

“We have not discussed, and have no intention of approving 1,528 units,” Pineiro said. “Although this is a multi-phase project, each phase needs to be re-evaluated for negative impact and approved by the planning board.”

While the March letter from the township engineer states that the developer’s full buildout is 1,528 units, according to Russo Development’s website, 1,264 units will be built.

Russo Development Property Management President Adam Pasternack could not clarify the discrepancy when reached for comment.
“We own the land,” Pasternack said when asked about the township indicating it wouldn’t approve additional units for future phases of the project. “It’s hard to say if we’d be okay with it.”

He later added: “We’re definitely excited about the project the first phase has been approved and it’s under construction now.”
The local school district is facing up to 200 staff and faculty cuts due to a $7.5 million budget deficit, Superintendent Gregory Tatum previously said. These layoffs were first announced in April, when many teachers attended school board meetings to learn of their fate.

Rich D’Avanzo, the vice president of the local teachers union, raised concerns about the “overdevelopment” of the town and how it might impact the school budget in future years.

“The township of Union … and the board of education are pretty much on different paths,” D’Avanzo said at an April 24 school board meeting. “There’s not too much conversation on these developments and how it impacts schools in particular.”

There were 7,179 students enrolled in the local school district during the 2017-2018 school year, 880 fewer than in 2002, Pineiro said. She said school enrollment decreased between 2002 and 2017 despite the construction of several new residential developments in town, including Hickory Manor, Autumn Ridge, Cara Loft Apartments, AVE apartments and Avalon Bay.

An August 2017 traffic study prepared by Stonefield Engineering & Design showed that Morris Avenue and surrounding roads at that time operated at or below capacity during peak operating hours, such as weekdays from 7 to 9 a.m. and 4 to 7 p.m. The study found that the development could be expected to cause delays at the signaled intersection of Morris and North avenues in the eastbound left turn and westbound right turn from Morris, and the northbound left turn from North Avenue during the weekday morning and evening peak hours.

The study also expected residents to use the nearby train station and bus routes, cutting back on car usage.
The property was bought from Merck & Co. by Russo for $6.25 million in 2017, county records show. The purchase came after years of litigation between Kean University, the township and Russo.

The Union Township Committee approved a payment in lieu of taxes, or PILOT, with Russo last year. The developer will pay 10 percent of the annual gross revenue from the property for 30 years, the agreement states.

Once all phases of the project are completed, the PILOT agreement is estimated to generate more than $3 million for the township annually, or $100 million during the 30-year tax exemption period, the agreement states.

Russo will also pay the town a 2 percent administration fee on its annual payment. The township, meanwhile, will remit 5 percent of the developer’s annual payment to the county, the agreement states.

The PILOT agreement only exempts the developer from paying taxes on improvements, not the land. The property tax assessment for the site of the development was $1.875 million in 2017, the agreement shows.

A portion of the former Merck property also belongs to Kean University and is currently being utilized as a student parking lot, although the 2017 traffic study accounts for 192 graduate housing units.

A spokeswoman for Kean did not confirm on May 25 any future plans for the area.