CRANFORD — The Cranford mayor and township committee voted Tuesday to approve on first reading a new township ordinance that would seek to designate a portion of the downtown community as one in need of redevelopment.
The ordinance, designated 2022-11, was introduced based on the recommendations of the township’s planning board and a redevelopment study completed by Topology, the same community development firm that is leading the charge on similar Westfield redevelopment projects.
Township Commissioners Jason Gareis, Brian Andrews and Mary O’Connor and Mayor Kathleen Miller Prunty voted to approve the introduction. Commissioner Gina Black, who was elected to the committee in 2021, voted no.
“First off, let me be very clear — we all recognize and are very cognizant of the need to avoid builders [who may want to] threaten us with lawsuits,” Commissioner Black said of her decision. “But I also feel that working under such a threat from these courts shows how badly our system is broken. This is not something we’ll be able to fix at the local level. What we have now is a system that forces [municipalities like Cranford] to throw away their Master Plans out of fear for these lawsuits.”
Commissioner O’Connor, meanwhile, said that while she was prepared to offer her tentative approval to the designation, an included provision for eminent domain was still weighing heavily upon her decision.
“I don’t think it’s representative of the way we do business in Cranford,” Commissioner O’Connor said. “I hear a lot about discussions with the business owners. I have not been included in them. I don’t believe Commissioner Black has been included. I would like to sit across the table from them and hear what they have to say.”
The redevelopment area, better known locally as the North Avenue Gateway project, consists of six adjacent properties (Block 193, Lots 6.01, 10, 11, 12, 13 and 14) located immediately southwest of the township’s municipal building.
Though the township has yet to designate a redeveloper for the project, communications provided by Cranford Township Attorney Ryan Cooper indicate that plans for the site will likely include a residential building comprised of a maximum of 40 units (eight of which would need to be designated as affordable housing in line with the township’s COAH obligations) with 1.4 parking spaces per unit. Other defined project limitations include the fact that the building must face North Avenue, may not exceed three residential stories or four mixed-use ones and must stay in line with the established character of the neighboring community. A gazebo located at the intersection of North Avenue and Springfield Avenue and the Cranford Fire Department building also will need to be preserved as a condition of the redevelopment.
According to information provided in the Topology report, the buildings currently located in the redevelopment area were built between 1920 and 1960. The report goes on to note that, “the surrounding area is walkable, dense, and mixed-use, creating a highly-desirable well-loved downtown.”
The Topology report additionally outlines a number of goals and objectives for the site, including economic development, the creation of expanded and appropriate housing, the eradication of blight and the implementation of environmentally-friendly and sustainable practices.
The report also calls for a comprehensive traffic study to be completed at multiple nearby intersections that could be impacted by the project. To date the list includes, but is not limited to, sections of North Avenue East, Riverside Drive, Alden Street and Forest, Centennial and North Union Avenues. Any traffic studies done at the site will be conducted at the expense of the redeveloper.
Several local residents, many of whom chose to cite an upcoming state-mandated deadline that would negate the opportunity to move forward with redevelopment, spoke out in favor of the designation during the public-comment section of Tuesday night’s regular meeting.
“I’m speaking tonight not only as a resident but as the chair of the Downtown Management Corporation,” said Kristen Mider, who urged committee members to put their personal feelings aside in making their determinations. “I am here tonight to specifically express my support of [the redevelopment designation]. I do not think this decision is, or should be, political. It is the understanding of the DMC that all of the property owners affected by this development are in full support of the decision to move forward. Moreover, there are legal protections to these property owners and the businesses who rent from them. They all have legal rights, which of course should and will be honored.”
Resident Steve Oliveira said he hoped that the redevelopment designation would give the township better control over any proposed construction at the site.
“I am a big proponent of positive change for the community, and I feel that this North Avenue redevelopment is the right thing to do. We are living in a time when these affordable-housing mandates are just breathing down our necks, and corporate developers with deep pockets can use these mandates to change the landscape of our wonderful community in ways that could cause irrevocable damage for generations to come,” Mr. Oliveira said.
The commissioners announced the creation of a redevelopment review subcommittee on Tuesday, which will be tasked with monitoring the project as it progresses.
“I would like to see each commissioner have the opportunity to sit in on it as this moves forward because we all have something to bring to the table and I think all of our voices need to be heard,” Commissioner O’Connor said of the group.
The ordinance is scheduled to be presented for its final reading at a public hearing on Wednesday, April 27.
In other township news, the commissioners voted by resolution on Tuesday to allow the Downtown Management Corporation to re-establish and maintain a number of small “parklets,” or temporary public spaces, in designated areas around the community beginning on Sunday, May 1.