Berkeley Heights Begins Redvelopment Plan Process; First Workshop was on Park Avenue Site

Municipal complex refined "Plan C" was presented at Tuesday's Township Council Meeting. Credits: Barbara Rybolt
Credits: Barbara Rybolt
Township Planner Mike Mistretta will be on hand to answer questions on Saturday, Aug. 5 and Thursday, Aug. 10, during a public Master Plan Review Meeting at Town Hall, 29 Park Ave. Credits: Barbara Rybolt
Credits: Barbara Rybolt
Credits: Barbara Rybolt

BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - A new version of the proposed Municipal Complex was unveiled Tuesday, Oct. 20, at the Township Committee meeting, just before a workshop on the redevelopment plan for the property was held.

The workshop was listed under the "Conference Session" portion of the agenda as "Park Avenue Redevelopment Discussion," but the audience soon learned the discussion was designed to get public input on the complex.

Township Planner Mike Mistretta presented the new plan, a refined "Plan C," which is similar to one approved, in principal, by the council in August.  

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The main differences are: the three buildings are arranged in a staggered, linear fashion; the loop road between the municipal building and the NJ Transit property has been eliminated, which results in the building being pushed closer to the property, and there is more distance between the front of the building, which will face Park Avenue, and the five homes on Park Avenue. See the drawings in the photo gallery.

Mistretta said the new plan has a few more parking places than the previous plan, provides green space around the building and the "middle building would be the main entry way," through a plaza area, with benches.

Option C will be further refined, and will become part of the final Redevelopment Plan, he said.  He congratulated the architect for this new version, "I think it addresses the major concerns of the residents," he said.  He put a 3D rendering of the site on an easel and said he wants to add at least two more architectural elevations to the plan.

The workshop was the first of what will be at least three workshops on properties which were approved to be "in need of non-condemnation redevelopment."  The next workshop will be on Nov. 10, on the Library, and the third will be on the Hamilton Avenue Property on Nov. 24.

The council's goal is to have all the workshops and work on the Redevelopment Plan done so the Planning Board can get the council's recommended plan in January. After getting the plan, the board will have, but doesn't need to use, 45 days to issue a report on the plan. The council will then be able to approve or reject any changes recommended by the board, after which an ordinance on the Redevelopment Plan can be introduced. Following a public hearing, the council will vote on the plan. At the moment, the hearing is expected to be held in February. If the plan is adopted, the actual work on the redevelopment of the Park Avenue property can begin.

As the "workshop" ended, it seemed to some that another one would be needed, but no dates were set. While the workshops are designed to get public input on the planned Municipal Complex, it is unclear how much detail is needed. Councilman Kevin Hall tried to get a sense of what input was needed. Conceding he might be "in the weeds" with his questions, he asked about the "siding on buildings, do we give you guidance on this tonight?"

 Mistretta said, "No."

Before the discussion started on the plan, Mistretta handed out two checklists to the council members and audience.

The first, "Redevelopment Plan & Redevelopment Process Checklist" is a checklist detailing what must be done before the appropriate authority can start executing the redevelopment plan. It begins with the Township Council directing and authorizing the Planning Board to "undertake a preliminary investigation of the properties in question," and, when that is done, adopting a resolution recommending the property be designated as "an area in need of redevelopment."  This step has been completed.

All the other steps, including: meeting certain statutory requirements; setting goals; changing zoning; sending the final plan to the planning board, for its approval and/or recommendations; revision of the plan, if necessary, by the Township Council; introduction of an ordinance, public hearing and adoption of the ordinance, must be completed before the actual redevelopment plan can be executed.

The second checklist was the "Municipal Complex (Park Avenue) Redevelopment Plan Checklist," which was two pages long and covered such areas as the "purpose of the redevelopment plan;" existing conditions on the property; commuter parking spots; improving the streetscape along Park Avenue and Plainfield Avenue to the train station and other items.  Some are very detailed, such as the item on the location and use of the proposed buildings -- which has 15 subcategories; others had only one, such as "Signage," which listed "Wayfinding Signage."

The last item on the checklist was "Comments from October 20th Presentation."  Few if any comments were made on the plan.

Resident Stephen Yellin referenced the Memorandum of Understanding with Little Flower Church on the purchase of the Hamilton Avenue Property by the township and sale of the Library to the church. The Memorandum of Understanding must be executed by Nov. 30 and Yellin wanted to know "if there will be decisions made on the Memorandum of Understanding" before that date.

Councilman Kevin Hall said "These are work sessions, distinct from the contract."  He added lawyers from both sides are working on the contract and as soon as they have "a contract to bring to the public, they will let us know."  The contract can be executed by passing a resolution, which only takes one meeting.

Questions were asked confirming that the ring road was eliminated, whether this new plan had more or less parking places and the accessibility to the police department and DPW from Berkeley Avenue.

Resident Dr. Thomas Foreger checked that the Planning Board has 45 days to prepare a report before the February hearing and was assured the board does.

Councilwoman Jeanne Kingsley asked, "What else do you need from us to go forward?"

Mistretta said, "Council, at the end of the day, makes the decision."

The council then voted unanimously to give Mistretta the authority to move forward with the Municipal Complex Redevelopment Plan using the new Plan C. That vote may eliminate the need for another workshop meeting on the Municipal Complex plan.

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