July 11, 2008

CRANFORD -- A representative from Garden Homes laid out the company's proposal for the Riverfront Redevelopment Area at a televised special meeting Tuesday night, and though the presentation drew a smaller crowd than turned out for previous redevelopment discussions, the night included both words of praise and some sharply pointed criticism.

At the end of June, 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. For several years after that point local officials were preoccupied with the nearby Cranford Crossing site, and more recently three rounds of Riverfront talks with other builders have proved fruitless.

The interim cost agreement guarantees that the township will negotiate exclusively with Garden Homes, and that 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.

As his presentation got underway Tuesday night, DiGiovanni flashed through photos of the current site -- a service station and other run-down buildings that he said are "not reflective of our community." In addition to an aesthetic improvement, the proposal would boost the site's tax yield to "almost 10 times [more] than what it is currently," he told the crowd of about 35 people.

Garden's proposal has been praised by Mayor Bob Puhak but criticized by former Mayor Dan Aschenbach, who is also a Democratic nominee for local office in the fall election. "The truth is this is not a dense project. This is not a high-rise project. This is not going to create a parking problem," DiGiovanni said. DiGiovanni said the plan is designed with the existing community in mind, with massing appropriate for the location and more green space than any developer has previously proposed. Garden Homes also now has each of the eight properties at the site under contract, he said.

With two mixed-use buildings fronting on South Avenue and two purely residential buildings on High and Chestnut streets, the proposal calls for 106 residential units, including 16 affordable units, along with 17,575 net square feet of retail and 14,250 net square feet of office space. (The project would include about 38,000 total square feet of commercial space, but some existing commercial space would be demolished.) Of the 90 market rate units, which DiGiovanni called "condominiums or luxury apartments," about 75 would be two-bedroom while the remaining 15 would be one-bedroom.

On the topic of parking, DiGiovanni said there would be 197 spaces on site, while redesigned on-street parking would offer another 11 spots. Though that is substantially fewer spaces than is called for under the site's redevelopment plan, the overall approach has won the endorsement of township planning consultant Stanley Slachetka, and it complies with guidelines for designated "Transit Villages."

"This project has more than its fair share of adequate parking," DiGiovanni said. During public comment period, Michael Ricciardelli, a property owner within the redevelopment area, compared the township's fractured handling of the site over the last 10 years to a couple "bickering in Home Depot about what tile to put in their kitchen."

But the Garden Homes plan, he said, would be a benefit to the township. "Mr. DiGiovanni sat down with me, me the property owner, and negotiated," Ricciardelli said.

The discussion became more heated when Edwin Rodriguez asked if Garden Homes was the same company that had been investigated for violations of the Fair Housing Act. Interjecting, DiGiovanni said Rodriguez was his neighbor, and his comments were motivated by a personal dispute. He added that he is not a part of every project that Garden Homes builds in the state. But Rodriguez continued, saying he did not believe Cranford would want to "sully our reputation as a town where everyone can live by going into business with people who don't rent fairly."

The project drew an endorsement by Planning Board member Rita LaBrutto, though she said she remained concerned about the parking plan, and Zoning Board of Adjustment member Jeffery Pistol, who supported larger, high quality retail spaces for the downtown.

Offering his take, George McDonough, a former commissioner, said the project seemed like a good one. But questioning the residential units on the acreage, McDonough said it seemed to be a different standard than that applied to 555 South Avenue East, where another developer has filed a builder's remedy lawsuit against the township. Based on the figures presented for Riverfront, 555 South should have been allowed 176 residential units, he said.

"I'm a little curious about the logic, or do you guys come up with the numbers based on the mood of the night?" McDonough asked.

DiGiovanni responded, saying the projects were vastly different and should not be compared. Acting Township Attorney Ray Fisher said that because of the pending litigation, the members of the Township Committee could not address the question.

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