By FRED T. ROSSI
For Union County HAWK
SCOTCH PLAINS — Neighborhood residents last week continued to protest the planned relocation of the township’s emergency-services headquarters to Plainfield Avenue, raising concerns, as they have for many months, about pedestrian and vehicle safety in the area and also, in the wake of the September 1 tropical storm, the potential for increased flooding stemming from building a new headquarters.
At last Wednesday’s downtown redevelopment committee meeting, some 15 residents spoke for nearly two hours, with most of their remarks directed at the plan to relocate the police and fire departments and the rescue squad to the site on Plainfield Avenue that presently is used to store leaves and other debris. A rough conceptual sketch that was shown at last month’s meeting depicted how the property might look, with a 54,500-square-foot, two-story building housing all three entities. It envisioned 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.
For more than two years, residents living on Westfield Avenue, Westfield Road, Evergreen Avenue and Henry Street have spoken out against the proposal, with many calling attention to what they say are already-unsafe conditions due to speeding cars and heavy trucks on Westfield Avenue that are dangerous to pedestrians and children walking to school. Adding police and fire trucks and rescue squad vehicles responding to emergencies, the residents say, will only add to the unsafe conditions. Last week, most of those concerns were reiterated, with an Evergreen Avenue resident calling safety “a real big issue” for her and her neighbors.
After the September 1 storm that dumped 10 inches of rain, many at last week’s meeting raised a new concern — an increased possibility of flooding. An Evergreen Avenue resident said his street was heavily flooded and impassible, even by a fire truck, on the night of the downpour. Adding more impervious surfaces at a new first-responder headquarters on Plainfield Avenue would only worsen the potential for serious flooding, a number of residents said. A long-time Westfield Road resident living adjacent to the new subdivision on Taylor Way said last week’s storm had led, for the first time, to flooding on her property and in her basement, and she pointed to that new development of seven houses and a paved street, which replaced two homes, as the culprit.
Westfield Avenue resident Cynthia Newman, representing a group called the Scotch Plains Neighborhood Alliance — a group of residents living on Westfield Avenue and Westfield Road — told the committee the group did not want to be seen as obstructionists. “We want smart growth,” she said, “not just willy-nilly growth.”
When a Henry Street resident asked the committee what the plan is if traffic, environmental and other feasibility studies were to conclude that the Plainfield Avenue site is not viable for a new headquarters, Mayor Joshua Losardo responded that, “we’ll deal with it” at that time. Earlier, the mayor said, to some jeers from those in attendance, that the Plainfield Avenue site “is the right location” for the emergency services to be housed.
It is expected that the redevelopment plan for the downtown public properties will be formally introduced by the township council at its Tuesday, September 21 meeting and then adopted in October, after which developers will be sought. In June, the council terminated its contract with its designated downtown redevelopers over differences in how the redevelopment process should be handled.
The redevelopment plan that will be introduced next week calls for a maximum of 350 residential units, with certain set-asides for affordable units, to be located in new, five-story developments where the municipal building and adjacent parking lot are now situated 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 for 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.
Several expressions of impatience with the pace of the redevelopment committee’s efforts were voiced last week, with former mayor Alexander Smith asking if it was going to take another two or three years for the township to settle on a new developer who will end up presenting township officials with plans that were first put forth several years earlier. “We’re wasting time,” he said. “The longer we wait” to start building, “the longer we’re going to be missing out on significant benefits to the town,” including what Mr. Smith said was an estimated $1.75 million in new annual property tax revenues for the township.
Committee member Paulette Coronato lamented that the committee will have to spend time on a process to secure a new developer and then go through the various steps such as concept plans, etc. She said committee members were mostly kept in the dark prior to the council’s June decision to end the arrangement with the prior redeveloper. “I feel like we’ve been going around in circles,” she said.
Deanna Dell-Bene, a candidate for council in a special election in November, said that development is needed. “But to this extent? I think not,” she stated. She also inquired about amending the township’s affordable-housing mandate that was set as part of a 2019 legal settlement with builders and preparing for the next round of housing mandates in 2025, while also noting that an affordable-housing advisory committee set up a few years back had not met this year.
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