BIRCHWOOD AVENUE AGAIN!

CRANFORD'S BIRCHWOOD PROPERTY SOLD; RESIDENTIAL UNITS PROPOSED

The Chronicle
by Leslie Murray
Friday October 03, 2008

CRANFORD -- A group of properties on Birchwood Avenue was sold on Sept. 19 to The S.Hekemian Group, a developer who ended talks with the township over the Riverfront project earlier this year. The properties were previously part of a contentious application for an age-restricted project last year.

A deed transfer, recorded by the Union County Clerk on Sept. 22, shows that Elberon Development Company sold 235 and 215 Birchwood Avenue to The S.Hekemian Group for $6 million. The site currently consists of a pair of office buildings, one of which is completely unoccupied and another that still houses some offices.

This week Mayor Bob Puhak said that he received a letter from The S.Hekemian Group notifying the Township Committee that the developer had purchased the site with the intention of building residential units and an interest in speaking with the committee about plans for the Birchwood Avenue site at the Oct. 7 meeting.

"I can confirm that (the township) did receive a letter from Peter Hekemian indicating their interest in developing residential projects in that area," Puhak said. uoting the letter sent to the township, Puhak said Hekemian wrote of a plan to build 356 market rate units and 63 affordable units at the site. Commenting on the correspondence, Puhak said he was "very surprised by this, especially the proposed density."

A call to The S.Hekemian Group requesting a comment was not returned before press deadline this week.

According to Township Zoning Officer Robert Hudak, the properties are currently in the low density office building district. In order for residential development to be allowed a zone change would have to be made at the site. While there is no recommendation of change in the rewrite of the Master Plan for that area, one had been considered in the early stages of the document to allow for a townhome overlay zone at the site.

The Township Committee would be the body to approve a zoning change.

Both the developer and the site have been part of high-profile proposed projects. Hekemian twice entered exclusive negotiations with the township for the Riverfront Redevelopment Project only to have the talks fall apart both times over issues including density.

On March 11, 2008 the Township Committee terminated an interim cost agreement with Hekemian, which marked the third time since 2006 that talks began only to be later canceled on the project. The S.Hekemian Group was the first developer the township tapped to build at the site, but that round of negotiations ended in 2006.

At the time, Peter Hekemian told The Chronicle that the township's proposal for the project was "unacceptable". The township has since entered talks with Garden Homes and township officials have said that a redevelopment agreement for the project could be in place before year end. The two properties on Birchwood Avenue were part of a highly contentious application by Woodmont Properties to build a 124 unit age-restricted development in 2007. Residents in the area vehemently opposed the project saying that the proposed project was too dense and would negatively impact the quiet residential area.

The Planning Board had been conducting hearings on the project and was preparing to make a recommendation to the Township Committee about whether the zoning in the area should be changed to accommodate the project when Woodmont withdrew the application last September.

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