BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - The Connell Company let the Township Council know that it wants to change the zoning of some of its property at its township office park.

Executive Vice President Shane Connell gave a slide presentation to the council and residents at the Nov. 10 council meeting. Development of the property, which is nestled between Route 78, Plainfield Avenue and Valley Road and is home to Lifetime Fitness, AIG, Celgene, The Connell Corporate Center and other businesses, was originally planned to take part in four phases.

Phase one is done; construction has started on Phase 2; plans for Phase 3 were submitted to the Planning Board on Tuesday, Nov. 10 and Phase 4 involves re-zoning the property, said Connell.

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Phase 2 includes a hotel, with a restaurant [Grain & Cane, 184 seats], and a Starbucks, all of which should open in 2016. Construction is already underway on the eight-story, 174-room Embassy Suites Hotel that was approved by the Planning Board in May 2014. But even that was a long time coming, as a previous applicant withdrew its plans for a hotel at the office park following the economic downturn in 2008.

That downturn has led to a population loss in the state, especially in the 25- to 35-year age group and has left many office parks with severe levels of vacancies. There is "77-million-square-feet" of open office space - which would take "45 years" to fill, Connell said. It's so bad in New Jersey that many empty buildings are being sold off for the value of the land itself.

Throughout his presentation, Connell talked about the various slides which illustrated the many different effects of the downturn in the economy -- from the state's ranking in a variety of areas, to the decline of rents and those large corporations which are seeking to have their corporate parks or office complexes rezoned. Check out the slide show.

Connell's presentation continued with showing renderings of future plans for the second phase of Phase 2,  Phase 3 and Phase 4 -- to complete their rebranded "Connell Center." 

The second phase of Phase 2 will include fitness stations and a running trail that will loop around the entire park [open to the public], said Connell.

Phase 3 is a two and a half acre park with a tiered waterfall with steps and outdoor seating areas and benches. This space will be designed as an urban outdoor work space with charging stations. 

Phase 4 would require approval to rezone portions of the property for "high-end" rental units with one and two bedrooms.

The renderings of Phase 4 showed the development of a "high end" apartment complex, "designed to fit within the characteristics of the park," said Connell. The renderings showed  two buildings with a courtyard that includes a pool and an internal parking deck. The site plan showed further images of a gym and large lobby space. These apartments will be in close proximity to the hotel, Starbucks and the restaurant.

Connell's goal is to create a long lasting vibrant urban location that will include the necessary affordable housing component and provide entry level housing in Berkeley Heights for 30 to 35 year-olds.

In answer to a question from Councilman Marc Fraecher, Connell said there should be a "negligible impact on the schools" because the units are not family-oriented. In answer to another question on traffic, Connell said apartments tend to generate less traffic than office buildings.

The council agreed with the concept of changing the zoning and suggested Connell "continue this discussion with (Township Planner) Mike Mistretta and (Township Engineer) Robert Bocchino," said Mayor Robert Woodruff.