July 03, 2008

CRANFORD -- Though the first public presentation of Garden Homes' proposal for the Riverfront Redevelopment Area won't occur until next Tuesday, the plan has already drawn supporters and detractors.

Mayor Bob Puhak said this week that the developer presented a plan that meets the Township Committee's vision for the area and is consistent with recommendations from Cranford's planning consultant. But Dan Aschenbach, a former mayor and current Democratic candidate for Township Committee, called the project's residential component too dense and said it would create a "parking nightmare."

Last week, after hearing four presentations from Tony DiGiovanni, a Cranford resident and the director of development for Garden Commercial Properties, the Township Committee agreed to enter an interim cost agreement with the company for redevelopment of the site at South Avenue and High and Chestnut streets. The 3.5-acre section of the downtown was initially designated as an area in need of redevelopment in December 1998.

The interim cost agreement guarantees that the township will negotiate exclusively with Garden Homes, and the developer will cover the costs of all the research and testing related to the site until a full redevelopment agreement is reached or talks are broken off. This marks the fourth time the township has entered exclusive talks with a developer; the three prior rounds of talks all proved unsuccessful.

Explaining the committee's decision, Puhak said Garden had provided an "informal concept plan that addressed and met many of the issues the Township Committee was talking about," including brownfield remediation, fewer residential units than envisioned in earlier proposals, and a mix of office and retail space. Of equal importance, he said the presentations by DiGiovanni have called for the project's affordable housing obligation to be met on site.

"We wanted to see more green space, [and] this developer is looking to add additional green space," he added, referring to a proposed park on the west bank of the Rahway River.

Additionally, Puhak said, the township and developer have reached a conceptual agreement about what is appropriate at the site that is unparalleled in prior talks with other builders. "In the past, we never got to the point where we were in agreement on residential units."

During negotiations over previous development proposals, "We were told there was no way these things could be done," Puhak said.

"We're excited and we believe we've earned their trust," said DiGiovanni.
In his latest presentation to the committee, DiGiovanni presented a plan that calls for 106 residential units, nearly 20,000 square feet of retail space and about 18,000 square feet of office space. The final proposal from The S.Hekemian Group, with whom the township broke off talks in March, called for 133 residential units, 11,000 square feet of retail space, and a cluster of 17 town homes on what is now Municipal Lot 6.

Some township officials had balked at the height of the buildings in Hekemian's plan, and DiGiovanni said that three of the four buildings in Garden's proposal "unequivocally will be three stories." The fourth, a residential building that would front on county parkland, is proposed at four stories, and DiGiovanni said his company is working to bring it within the 45-foot height limit set by the site's official redevelopment plan. He said he believes the total project is of "appropriate density and appropriate massing" for the site.

One of the main differences between the two proposals relates to parking. While Hekemian had proposed a parking deck, Garden has not, instead calling for surface parking beneath two of the buildings and a reconfiguration of nearby street parking. Though the proposed number of units falls short of what the redevelopment plan calls for, "We believe we have 100 percent adequate parking for our site," DiGiovanni said.

That opinion was supported by the township's planning consultant, Stanley Slachetka of T& M Associates, who said this week that based on a number of factors -- the Transit Village designation, a shared parking approach and a more efficient on-street design -- the parking plan presented by Garden Homes would cover the site's needs.

"Our initial analysis is that the parking proposed by the developer is appropriate," Slachetka said.

Not everyone agrees, however. Aschenbach said this week he believes the proposal would create a "parking nightmare on High Street" and is inconsistent with the redevelopment plan, which was first drafted by the Township Committee in 2000 and amended in 2003. And though Garden's project envisions less density than Hekemian's, he described the proposal as a "poorly-designed high rise housing complex." The township should instead work toward a project with as few as 40 housing units, he said.

Residents will have an opportunity to evaluate the project for themselves next week, when Garden Homes makes a public presentation at 8 p.m. Tuesday, July 8 in council chambers at the municipal building, 8 Springfield Ave. DiGiovanni said residents can expect a detailed conceptual plan at that time.

Leslie Murray is a staff writer for The Chronicle. She can be reached at (732)396-4205 or