Friday, November 30, 2007
By LESLIE MURRAY
CRANFORD -- More than 60 residents turned out Wednesday night, exhibiting plenty of curiosity and a touch of criticism, as the Downtown Management Corporation hosted a public forum on planned construction at the Riverfront Redevelopment Area.
The proposal from the S. Hekemian Group calls for a multi-building mixed-use project with 11,500 square feet of retail space, 149 apartment flats, 17 town homes -- and, in a recent development, a section of retail space set aside for the Cranford Arts Center.
Under the plan, the retail would be located in one building at the corner of South Avenue and High Street; the flats would be located in the upper floors of that building, which would measure 49 feet tall, and in an adjacent 45-foot building. Also included would be a smaller apartment building at the intersection of Chestnut and High streets, the town home cluster at the southern end of the project, and a screened parking garage.
No representatives from Hekemian attended Wednesday's forum, but on hand were Andrew Janiw of Beacon Financial Planning, who performed the financial analysis, and David Milder of Danth Inc., who performed a retail marketing analysis. Janiw and Milder were selected by the township but have been paid by Hekemian under the terms of an interim cost agreement.
Welcoming the crowd, DMC Chairman Paul LaCorte offered an abbreviated history of the Riverfront project, emphasizing both the challenges and opportunities it presents.
"The site, which is roughly three to four times the size of Cranford Crossing, is a site which has been under township review for over four decades," he said. "The site has environmental issues. The site has building issues. The site has flooding issues. The site neighbors three houses of worship. The site has business and owners some of us have known for years. The site is in need of investment dollars, and the site needs to embrace a vision repeatedly confirmed by elected officials of both parties," LaCorte said.
Explaining his market research study, Milder said there were some challenges in identifying target retailers. A number of high-end chain stores, which he referred to a "trophy retailers," already exist in nearby Westfield, effectively eliminating them from consideration. There is also the requirement that new retailers complement, rather than compete with, existing businesses.
"Retail (at Riverfront) has to be in such a way that it would help stimulate other retail downtown," Milder said.
Milder said he could see the planned Cranford Arts Center as a successful entertainment destination, and it could be paired with a medium-sized quality supermarket, a gourmet market, a high-quality sit-down restaurant, a non-alcoholic beverage bar such as Starbucks, or an independent apparel shop.
Milder added his reports suggested the retail area could easily be expanded from around 11,500 square feet to 15,000 square feet. What the development must attract, he said, is "quality of life-type elements." "What's really important for Cranford to get is quality, not just quantity," Milder said.
Janiw said he was charged to study if the Riverfront project would be viable, after accounting for the cost of acquisition, cleanup and construction. "The bottom line is that we're satisfied that (Hekemian) is on the right track," Janiw said. The density being sought by the developer, which has been questioned in some quarters, is justifiable, he said.
In a question-and-answer period, some residents said they view the latest plan as an improvement, while others said the project was simply wrong for Cranford.
Resident Jeff Pistol asked if the retail space would be better oriented along the length of South Avenue. Moving the arts center into the building closer to the Rahway River could make that building a destination, he said.
But Milder said that hiding the arts center further from the highest traffic point at South and High was counterproductive. What's more, he said, the proposed retail area was substantial. "Something like 15,000 square feet is not a negligible amount of space," Milder said.
Carolyn Youngs said the proposal "provided a better layout" than previous versions, though she added the plan seemed to disregard the potential for views of the Rahway River. In response, DMC Director Kathleen Miller Prunty said that keeping the building envelope within environmental regulations would effectively eliminate river views.
The harshest criticism came from residents Rita LaBrutto and Tony DiGiovanni, both of whom were also vocal opponents of a discarded development plan on Birchwood Avenue.
Hekemian is slated to pay $600,000 for a new sewer line down High Street, and LaBrutto said the cost should be higher, considering the amount of units proposed. But Township Engineer Rick Marsden said the payment would cover the new sewer line, which should help alleviate flooding problems at the intersection.
LaBrutto also said the plan was a departure from earlier versions because it did not include an office component, which she said would bring shoppers downtown. She also criticized the amount of residential space, especially the two and three-bedroom units. "I just don't think this fits the spirit of the redevelopment plan," LaBrutto said. "I don't think this is the project for us."
But Milder said that view is outdated. Market research has shown that residential use in a downtown area is more effective at increasing patronage to retailers, he said.
DiGiovanni said the project would do too little to bolster the downtown, adding he could not see Cranford benefiting from another coffee shop. "I think we're coffee'd out in this town," he said, gaining a laugh from the audience.
Like LaBrutto, DiGiovanni said the proposed residential development was too great. "One hundred forty-nine units is an insult to our intelligence," he said.
But strong support came from the principal property owners in the redevelopment area, who have threatened legal action against the township if something does not happen at the site.
Michael Holt of E.O. Hat, Inc., the majority property owner at the Riverfront, said, "I like your plan. You should build it."
While much negotiating remains before the township strikes a deal with Hekemian, Mayor Michael Plick said the meeting was a good start. "There were some valid points made," Plick said. "I think it's a project of interest for the residents of the area, but I think people are more interested in learning the facts and dispelling the rumors that are out there on this."