WESTFIELD — After months of public debate and discussion, the Westfield Planning Board voted Monday to conditionally approve an application to build a 162-unit residential complex at the current site of Williams Nursery.
The decision to approve came late Monday night after several hours of testimony by experts, traffic engineers and developers.
Once completed, the project, which will include 34 affordable units, will help the town get one step closer to meeting its agreed-upon housing obligations with the Fair Share Housing Center.
The town agreed to increase the number of allowable units on the property in June of last year in order to transfer some of the town’s affordable-housing obligation from the Handler building (the future site of RedCom’s vertical farm) to the Williams Nursery site, located at 524 Springfield Avenue.
“The Williams Nursery site was one of the first properties to be included in Westfield’s Affordable Housing plan back in 1991, which was reaffirmed in 2013, and then amended in 2017 to increase the density as part of an updated settlement. Like all properties in the affordable-housing plan, if the owners choose to sell their property to a residential developer, the affordable-housing mandate for the property applies and it cannot be used for any other purpose other than an affordable-housing residential development,” Mayor Shelley Brindle said of the project via public statement in June.
Board Chair Michael Ash said the planning board will continue to monitor the project’s development in order to find the most appropriate balance between the needs of new or incoming residents and those of the existing community.
“This zoning has been in place for over 30 years, and the proposal for multi-residential construction on this site does not come as a surprise, but we would like to hear more about what could be done to go above and beyond to protect this critical environmentally-sensitive area,” Mr. Ash said.
The project as presented will consist of three separate, four-story buildings comprised of one-, two- and three-bedroom units, indoor and outdoor parking facilities (for a total of 341 proposed spaces), landscaping improvements and a clubhouse that will provide office space plus several other community amenities.
The facility also will include two underground water-detention basins designed to help mitigate the potential for flooding in the area.
“We know there is some flooding in the area, especially downstream from the facility, so we went above and beyond the required peak [runoff] reductions,” said civil engineer Rob Espasa, who noted that the plans as presented call for higher levels of mediation than would normally be mandated by state or local laws.
Still, several local residents expressed concerns that the development could lead to further storm-water management challenges for neighboring residents.
Cranford Mayor Kathleen Miller Prunty, who was unable to attend Monday night’s virtual meeting due to a scheduling conflict, said via written statement that while she could certainly appreciate the challenges of “meeting these housing obligations while minimizing the impact to our community,” she hoped that Westfield would “ask the developer to do more on storm-water management and flood mitigation than just replicating how the site currently functions.”
Monday night’s presentation also included several hours of testimony by traffic engineer Gary Dean, who conducted multiple peak-hour impact studies of the area in April 2019.
“The report sets forth the standard components of a traffic study and it includes traffic counts that we obtained along Springfield Avenue near the site,” said Mr. Dean, who noted that he was fortunate to be able to complete his study before the Covid-19 pandemic “changed the way that people commute.”
According to Mr. Dean’s report, which can be found in its entirety on the town’s website, peak-hour activity (defined as occurring between 7 and 8 a.m. on weekday mornings and 5 to 6 p.m. in the evenings) associated with the development is expected to be low.
Mr. Dean’s predictions for the site, which were based off of guidelines presented by the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE), indicate that approximately 17 cars per hour are expected to enter the facility’s driveway during the morning rush, while 58 are expected to exit. Evening projections are reversed, with 57 cars per hour expected to enter the development and 35 expected to leave.
“Given that some businesses will continue to promote work-from-home environments (with many companies choosing to either not renew office leases or reduce their footprint), it is likely to be several (or more) years before roadway volumes again reach those levels that existed pre-pandemic. As such, the use of the 2019 NJDOT traffic-volume data for this analysis can be considered conservative,” Mr. Dean said in his report.
The study goes on to note that “the proposed development will not have a negative or perceptible impact on operating conditions at surrounding intersections and that the driveways can operate safely and efficiently for the proposed use. Site traffic will be able to enter and exit during all hours safely and efficiently.”
Several nearby residents, however, argued that while the traffic-impact numbers may look good on paper, the day-to-day commute can still be a daunting one.
“It seems like there might be a bit too much consideration given to the residents of this location and how they are going to get in and out versus the rest of the people who live in Westfield,” said David Saltzman.
Ultimately, the board opted to grant its approval to the project with the conditions that the applicant, Westfield Park Partners, LLC, adhere to local design standards by reducing the size of the project’s external signage and using lighting fixtures that will be more compatible with the surrounding community. The board also stipulated that the applicant will need to reduce the number of parking spaces for the site from 341 to 338, increase its storm-water discharge storage by 5 percent and, on further review from Town Engineer David Battaglia, discuss the potential for more pervious pavement areas to help prevent flooding.
A second application that would seek to remove an existing home located at 873 New England Drive (Block 5301, Lot 17) in order to subdivide the property into two conforming lots was tabled due to time constraints.
The next meeting of the Westfield Planning Board will be held virtually on Monday, March 7.