Friday, March 14, 2008
By LESLIE MURRAY
CRANFORD -- In a split vote, the Township Committee terminated its interim cost agreement with The S.Hekemian Group this week, breaking off negotiations with the developer about the Riverfront Redevelopment Area.
The action, taken at the committee's official meeting Tuesday night, was not unexpected. The two sides were well past a self-imposed deadline to reach a permanent agreement, and last week both Peter Hekemian, a principal for the developer, and Cranford Mayor Bob Puhak said the talks had reached an impasse.
But not every member of the Township Committee agreed with the move. Puhak, Martha Garcia and Mark Smith voted to dissolve the interim agreement, but Michael Plick and Deputy Mayor David Robinson dissented.
"I do want to make it clear we did not have a meeting of the minds of all five commissioners," Plick said. He also said he was "in disagreement with some of (his) colleagues for potential next steps."
The move marks the third time the township has broken off talks with a developer about the site, and the second time with The S.Hekemian Group. After designating the area for redevelopment -- a step that gives the municipality the authority to take the lead role in guiding construction -- the township first tapped Hekemian to build at the site, but that round of negotiations ended in 2006. The township subsequently opened talks with a different consortium known as Cranford VTS, but those negotiations also failed. Cranford and Hekemian returned to the table in September 2007, but now have again come away empty-handed.
While Puhak declined to elaborate during the meeting, he said in a subsequent interview that the talks had been derailed by the residential density proposed by the developer. Other stumbling blocks, according to Puhak, included a retail component that was smaller than the township had expected; a plan to offer the residences as rentals, not for-sale units; and the fact that the developer's plan did not address the full affordable housing obligation on site. Overall, Puhak said, the plan was "inconsistent with township goals."
"I take them at their word regarding the parameters they can work within. However, that being said, our responsibility is to make sure we stay within parameters that are in the best interest of the Cranford community," Puhak said.
Peter Hekemian was not present at Tuesday's meeting and could not be reached prior to press time Thursday.
Because the negotiations took place in closed session, it is not known each side offered. But during a public meeting in November 2007, the developer presented a plan for a multi-building, mixed-use project with 11,500 square feet of retail space, 149 apartment flats and 17 town homes. The biggest buildings were four stories and measured 45 or 49 feet tall (By comparison, the Cranford Crossing buildings are both taller than 50 feet, and one is taller than 60 feet; the pre-existing zoning at the Riverfront site permitted office buildings up to 50 feet tall).
The committee is now considering its options for the 3.5-acre site, which lies at the corner of South Avenue and High Street along the Rahway River. Puhak said a closed-door discussion is likely at the March 24 meeting.
The site's future may be affected by the fact that the Holt family, the majority property owner within the zone, has recently moved to sell its portion of the land to Garden Commercial Properties, a subsidiary of the Wilf real estate empire.
Tony DiGiovanni, a development partner with Garden Properties and a Cranford resident, said this week that the land sale is under contact but no closing date has been set. DiGiovanni added that there was "no conspiracy" surrounding his company's role in the project, saying he began working on the project in January.
Prior history does not indicate that the township will automatically open talks with Garden Properties. In 2005, the Holt family had an arrangement with K. Hovnanian, another major player in New Jersey real estate. But at the time, the township chose to issue a Request for Proposals from all interested developers. Hovnanian submitted a proposal, but local officials liked Hekemian's plan better -- though, it now seems, they didn't like it enough.
No members of the current Township Committee were in office in 2005, and it is not clear whether the current officials will feel bound by the prior precedent. Another option available to the committee is to remove the redevelopment designation altogether and allow development to proceed under the previous zoning regulations. The township recently took a similar action by rescinding a rehabilitation designation on North Avenue.
Leslie Murray is a staff writer for the Chronicle. She can be reached at (732) 396-4205 or firstname.lastname@example.org.