November 18, 2008

Before a crowd of less than a dozen residents, Garden Homes made an updated presentation on the Riverfront Redevelopment Project on Thursday, Nov. 13 that included an expanded onsite parking plan and an endorsement of the developer's financial stability from a township planning consultant.

Making the presentation last week Tony DiGiovanni, director of development for Garden Commercial Properties, a branch of Garden Homes, said at the special meeting of the Township Committee that through a careful and in-depth process which involved township officials, a plan had been tailored to the environmental challenges and location advantages of the Riverfront site.

"These aren't just pretty pictures," DiGiovanni said. "It's very specific (for Cranford)."

During the updated presentation given by Garden Homes on the Riverfront Redevelopment Project last Thursday, they discussed the plan for a three-story residential building fronting on High Street with a 45-foot maximum height, and one four-story residential building at the rear of the property with a 48-foot maximum height, pictured above.

Calling for four buildings on the nearly three-acre site, the proposal from Garden Homes includes: 215 onsite parking spaces, two three-story mix-use buildings with a maximum 45-foot height that front on South Avenue, a three-story residential building fronting on High Street with a 45-foot maximum height, and one four-story residential building at the rear of the property with a 48-foot maximum height.

The project would include 106 residential units, over 20,000 square feet of retail space and nearly 14,000 square feet of office space. The plan also includes two 3,000 square foot plazas, one between the mixed-use buildings and the other along the Rahway River.

In June, the Township Committee agreed to enter an interim cost agreement with the Garden Homes, appointing them as the developer for the site at South Avenue and High and Chestnut streets, later in the summer.

The interim cost agreement, the initial step toward a redevelopment agreement, guarantees that the township will negotiate exclusively with Garden Homes and states that the developer will cover all research and testing related costs until a full redevelopment agreement is reached, or talks are broken off.

The swatch of the downtown was initially designated as an area in need of redevelopment in December 1998. While Garden Homes has progressed further than any other developer in the redevelopment process at Riverfront, this marks the fourth time a developer has signed an interim cost agreement with the township, though a redevelopment plan for the site has yet to be signed.

In September of this year the Township Committee also contracted with Beacon Planning as a consultant to review Garden Homes' financial condition and to work on amendments to the Riverfront Redevelopment Plan.

Speaking about the redevelopment plan for the Riverfront site, which was endorsed by the Planning Board on Wednesday, Nov.12, Andrew Janiw of Beacon Planning said that the plan was one of the most detailed he had seen.

"This is probably one of the tightest redevelopment plans in terms of units and allocations," Janiw said.

What's more, Janiw said that during the course of a financial review of the developer, Garden Homes was highly regarded and could finance such a project.

"Quite frankly, what we discovered is that they don't need (bank financing). They could finance this type of project out of pocket if they wanted to," Janiw said.

Contrasting the Garden Homes proposal to the township's other redevelopment project, Cranford Crossing, DiGiovanni said parking was a major factor.

"The difference (between) our project (and) Cranford Crossing is that we're going to have ground floor parking," DiGiovanni said.

Currently, Garden Homes has signed a contract with all of the commercial property owners in the redevelopment area. However, DiGiovanni said last Thursday that no deal had been struck with Fran and Raymond Mack, whose Chestnut Street home is the only residential property affected by the Riverfront project.

Frank Capece, attorney for the Macks, confirmed that his clients have not reached an agreement with Garden Homes.

"On behalf of the Macks we have formally requested that they be removed from the plan," Capece said Monday.

Capece added that he remains hopeful the Township Committee will agree to remove the Mack's home for the redevelopment zone.

While the proposal received some support from the Township Committee last week, with Commissioner Mark Smith calling the project "really a great proposal", there was mixed commentary from the public.

Nelson Dittmar, chairman of the Cranford Environmental Commission, questioned what he described as "a lack of commitment to green building standards".

Stating that the township passed a green building ordinance that encourages new development to use eco-friendly materials and seek certification from the Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy Efficient Design (LEEDs) program, Dittmar questioned why the developer would not seek LEED certification.

After Garden Homes consultant Laurance Appel stated that the project would meet EnergyStar requirements, Dittmar called the efforts "nominal".

"To not have that (LEED certified) would be very disappointing," Dittmar said.
In a question about the architecture at the site, Philip Morin asked why the largest residential building at the site was designed with a Tudor facade.

"It's a very different look than the buildings you have along South Avenue. I'm just curious why you decided to go with this style," Morin said.

Responding, DiGiovanni said that by having two residential buildings in two different styles--one a Tudor style and the other mirroring the Victorian downtown--Garden Homes took on additional expense, but made the project look more natural and offered a clearly residential look.
"We went with a Tudor because it's more a residential feel," DiGiovanni added.

There was also praise offered of the project.

Jeffery Pistol, who said he appreciated the noticeable changes in the plan since the last public presentation was made this summer, called the proposal "a well designed, first-class project."

Leslie Murray is a staff writer for The Chronicle. She can be reached at (908)464-5214 or