May 8, 2014 at 6:30 AM
BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ—An eight-story, 174-room Embassy Suites Hotel will rise within two years in the Connell Office Park thanks to approval of the hotel on Wednesday by the Berkeley Heights Planning Board.
Preliminary and final site plan approval has actually been an odyssey of about seven years for a hotel on the site. The Westin chain, according to Connell attorney Douglas J. Janacek, sought and received approval for a hotel on the same site, adjacent to the Connell business facilities, in 2007, amending its application in 2009. That plan never came to fruition, however, due to the downturn in the national economy.
The plan presented to the township planning board on Wednesday was similar to the Westin proposal, according to Janacek, but on a smaller scale. In addition, the new proposal included applications for three signage variances.
However, due to the minimum 70-foot height of a proposed pylon sign that would advertise the location of the Embassy Suites Hotel to motorists along Route 78, Connell was forced to withdraw that portion of its application for resubmission of a redesigned sign in that location at a later date.
Board members objected to the height of the sign and the fact that it might be visible too high above the highway or possibly to residents on streets within proximity of the Connell complex.
Wednesday’s approval did, however, allow for two signs to be located on the hotel building itself—a 179 square-foot sign on the westerly side of the hotel and a sign of approximately 247 square feet on the southerly side of the structure. Variances were required for the signs because the maximum permitted square footage for each sign is 170 square feet.
In addition, the original application, with the pylon sign included, would have exceed the 800-square-foot total measurement of signs in the township sign ordinance. Withdrawal of the pylon sign brought the total under the 800-square-foot maximum.
Connell is expected to submit a revised application for a freestanding sign alone at a later time.
In addition to the sign variances, the board on Wednesday also approved a waiver of buffer requirements for the loading dock that will be attached to the hotel.
Janacek said construction probably would begin this summer and the hotel would open in about 18 months.
Despite assurances from Connell planner and civil engineer Joseph Venezia that the proposed pylon sign would appear as about the same height as the hotel on the interstate highway, that it would be modest, to identify the location of the hotel, and that it would be unobtrusive, many of the board members remained unconvinced.
Board member Craig Johnson and Mayor Joseph Bruno suggested that, perhaps, the hotel company, which is a division of the Hilton chain, could locate a small directional sign on Route 78 itself indicating a hotel in the area, just as there are on other areas of Route 78.
Venezia replied, however, that he didn’t know if permission for such a sign could be obtained or if it could accomplish the identifying aims for the hotel.
Phillip Miller, who is with Davidson and Associates, which will operate the hotel, said, since many of the hotel’s potential guests would be approaching it at night, the larger sign was necessary so that could safely get to the hotel.
A few board members, however, believed that if the larger sign was approved for the hotel, Lifetime Fitness, which also has a facility in the area, would seek approval for a similar sign.
Board member Rick Beal disputed Janacek’s contention that a sign for the hotel was needed to help people find it, whereas the clientele of a fitness facility would already be familiar with its location. He said in both instances the signage was directed at letting potential customers know that a facility existed and, thus, Lifetime Fitness possibly could make an argument for a similar large sign.
Bruno, however, was concerned that if the sign was not located in an area close enough to Exit 41 of the highway motorists would miss it and have to go all the way to Watchung to turn around, potentially not finding their way back to the hotel.
Janacek also said studies had shown that signage was an important component in the viability of a hotel.
When Janacek decided to withdraw the pylon sign from the initial application, however, board member Joseph Graziano, who supported the sign, said withdrawing it was a mistake. He said the sign would not be located near a residential area and there were larger signs closer to the township’s central business district that were much more visible.
Venezia, outlining other features of the proposed complex, said it would contain a Starbucks Coffee Shop, a restaurant, a conference center and a ballroom that could be used for wedding receptions with 200 to 500 guests.
He noted the current proposal was only eight stories, compared to the Westin proposal for a nine-story structure; the site would contain less impermeable surface than the proposal of seven years ago and the plan provided for 291 parking stalls, with 30 spaces shared with an adjacent lot in the Connell complex.
He added the water retention basin already on the property was “overbuilt” and could handle the extra runoff from the new facility and the Embassy Suites proposal would cause to 20 to 30 percent less runoff than the Westin proposal.
The planner also said runoff from the hotel site would be retained so that it did not interfere with stormwater runoff from other areas of the complex.
Other features of the site, he said, included outdoor seating and a picnic area for the restaurant, outdoor seating for the conference are and an outdoor reception area adjacent to the ballroom.
Although Miller said the major clientele of the hotel probably would be business travellers, he added the complex would be seeking customers from other corporate entities in the township and would. of course, welcome wedding receptions in the ballroom.
Connell architect Clarence Vinson said the hotel, featuring L-shaped towers, would include stone materials on a brick base.
Kitchenettes would be included in the suites, he added.
The restaurant, to be operated by the hotel staff, would include an outdoor terrace, to give the effect of an indoor-outdoor dining area, and the Starbucks would have its own entrance and parking area.
The ballroom also would have an outdoor patio and terrace, he noted.
Board attorney William J. Willard, responding to board concerns that the hotel possibly could bring in a car rental business with extra vehicles parked and serviced on the site, said that would be considered an accessory use and would require a separate application to the planning board or the township zoning board.
Board member Elaine Perna, a former township councilwoman, said she had never seen car rental businesses as permitted uses in any township ordinance.