By FRED T. ROSSI
For The Leader/Times
SCOTCH PLAINS — Four and a half years after its establishment, the downtown redevelopment committee last week presented its vision for some of the public properties in the central business district, while also unveiling initial ideas for new first-responder headquarters on Plainfield Avenue.
At what Mayor Joshua Losardo described as an “important and historic” meeting on August 11, the committee presented the most comprehensive blueprint for downtown redevelopment after several decades of studies, task forces and other efforts that never were fully realized. The mayor and other redevelopment officials urged members of the public to remain engaged as the process moves forward. “This is not the end of the discussions,” redevelopment coordinator Thomas Strowe said, but “the beginning.”
The committee and the public will further discuss the redevelopment plan at the committee’s Wednesday, September 8 meeting before the township council formally adopts the plan and then seeks out developers to implement that plan.
Last Wednesday, township planner Michael Mistretta spent an hour reviewing some details of the redevelopment plans. The township’s affordable-housing obligations — codified in a court-backed settlement with builders in 2018 — are being used as a mechanism to revive the downtown through a mix of residential apartments and new commercial space along with some new public open spaces.
Mr. Mistretta said that a maximum of 350 residential units, with certain set-asides for affordable units, will be situated in new, five-story developments where the municipal building and adjacent parking lot are now located, as well as where the municipal parking lot in front of the library now exists. A minimum of 15,000 square feet of first-floor commercial space will be included in those new buildings. A new, 27,000-square-foot, two-story library will be built where the current library sits, and 16,000 square feet of municipal government offices will be located on the third floor of that same building.
The plans also call for development of two sizable public plazas — an 8,000-square-foot plaza on Park Avenue on the town hall property and a 5,500-square-foot plaza between the library and a new, mixed-use building on Bartle Avenue. These plazas, Mr. Mistretta said, could be used for various township events, most significantly the Saturday Farmers Market. In addition, the main parcel of open space in the downtown, the Alan Augustine Village Green at the corner of Park Avenue and Front Street, will remain.
The new buildings, five stories high except for any located on Forest Road, will be designed to avoid what Mr. Mistretta described as a “canyon appearance.” The third, fourth and fifth floors of the buildings will be set back from the lower floors of the buildings so that they are less visible from the street. He also said the plans will mandate that new buildings be constructed using high-quality materials on all sides. Conceptual renderings of what the new buildings might look like show a resemblance to buildings in downtown Princeton, which was the committee’s aim following a design survey it conducted a few years ago. The existing public parking lots in the downtown, encompassing some 400 parking spaces, will be redistributed — ideally within some of the new buildings — along with new parking options to serve the new development.
Mr. Mistretta also addressed the site on Plainfield Avenue that looks to be the eventual new home for the police and fire departments and the rescue squad. A rough sketch was shown of how the property, with a 54,500-square-foot, two-story building housing all three entities, might look, with the police and fire departments occupying a combined 41,000 square feet; the rescue squad, 7,500 square feet; the office of emergency management, 2,500 square feet, and, if necessary, 3,500 square feet for the municipal court. Discussions are underway with several neighboring towns about a possible shared-court system, which, if successful, would negate the need for space for a courtroom and offices and, Mr. Mistretta noted, reduce the size of the new Plainfield Avenue building and the size of its parking lot.
Several redevelopment committee members spoke about the plan, with Steve Goldberg describing himself as “really gung ho.” Referring to the renderings shown, he said he would be “proud to live in a town that looked like that.” Dauna Jendrek said she was “excited” by the plan, calling it “something our town needs.” Colleen Gialanella urged that an effort be made to ensure that youth arts and performance spaces are included in the plans. Zoning Officer Robert LaCosta said efforts should be made to bury underground all utilities presently strung between or hung on poles in the downtown.
Remarks from the dozen residents who commented about the plans were generally favorable, with several urging township officials to, in the words of former Mayor Alexander Smith, “get on with this” after several years of planning. He said that, “I like what I saw,” but added that if the committee continues delaying the start of the actual redevelopment, “it will never get going.” Mr. Smith, who played a large role in the committee’s efforts during his four years in office, said delays are causing the loss of millions of dollars in tax revenues and the loss of opportunities to attract businesses.
He said separating municipal offices from the emergency-management office made no sense to him. Instead, he favored a shared-services deal for the Department of Public Works (DPW), which would then free up the DPW’s Plainfield Avenue headquarters that Mr. Smith said could then be developed into a new municipal building.
Speaking of the plans, Lisa Magnotta, a local realtor, told the committee that “we need this desperately,” pointing out that other towns have done similar things to revive their once-moribund downtowns, including Summit, Cranford and Madison. “It can be done,” she added, saying it was important to entice people to move into the downtown and then patronize neighborhood restaurants and businesses. Others urged that strategies be formulated to attract new businesses to the downtown as redevelopment goes forward.
Several residents pointed out that the Plainfield Avenue site needed to be resolved and built before anything could be done with the existing municipal building, which houses the police department, and the adjacent firehouse. Mayor Losardo said he expects the planning board to consider the feasibility of the Plainfield Avenue site in the “very, very near future.”
For the past few years, residents living near the Plainfield Avenue site have protested the possible relocation of emergency services, saying the area is unsafe for pedestrians and drivers due to speeding vehicles and large trucks. Cynthia Newman, a Westfield Avenue resident who heads the Scotch Plains Neighborhood Alliance — a group of residents living on Westfield Avenue and Westfield Road — told the committee, as she did a week earlier at a separate meeting about the Plainfield Avenue site, that she did not want the first responders to be headquartered in her neighborhood due mainly to police and other emergency vehicles racing down Westfield Avenue. As they did at that earlier meeting, Deputy Fire Chief Skip Paal and Police Chief Ted Conley noted that their drivers operate vehicles safely and do not speed except when absolutely necessary.
Vanessa Cole, a Westfield Avenue resident, asked why the emergency services needed to be moved out of the downtown, pointing to towns like Westfield and Cranford that house their first responders near to their downtowns. Mr. Paal said the north-side firehouse is too old and too small to accommodate his department’s larger pieces of equipment.
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