BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ — Who said zoning ordinances can’t lead to some fun?

For the Berkeley Heights Town Council, the introduction of an updated mixed-use zoning ordinance during the Nov. 23 meeting creates new zoning bylaws at Connell Park and the various development sites within the expansive 180-acre site.

If adopted, the ordinance would allow for the construction of new retail space and outdoor amenities like a dog park and athletic field open to the Berkeley Heights community. Within the Connell Company’s current development plan, the site also contains 328 residential units, including 45 on-site affordable housing units.

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Addressing the council Monday night, Township Planner Keenan Hughes said the mixed-use zoning ordinance (MU Ordinance) is a revised version of the ordinance introduced in May.

Adoption of the MU Ordinance would further Connell’s plans to create a more communal setting opposed to a collection of independent office and research space. The Connell Company is in the process of transforming their corporate office park, now rebranded “The Park,” into a mixed-use destination featuring retail, entertainment and residential apartments.

“The purpose of the MU Zone is to facilitate the transition of Connell Park from more of a typical suburban corporate office park environment to a mixed-use destination,” said Hughes. The new mixed-use zoning would turn Connell Park into, “an amenity that can be enjoyed by the entire community,” he said.

The revised MU Ordinance, introduced Monday night, goes before the planning board, before heading back to the town council for its second and final vote before potential adoption into municipal law.

The final vote for adoption is scheduled to occur at the council meeting scheduled for Monday, Dec. 21.

 Revised Ordinance

The updated mixed-use zoning ordinance introduced Monday night contains a reduction in retail space, based on public feedback from residents during the May meeting when the MU Ordinance was unveiled.

The revised MU Ordinance, according to Hughes, will reduce the total amount of retail space from 250,000-square-feet to a maximum of 190,000-square-feet.

Specifically:

• New retail construction for stand alone, or mixed-use properties will be reduced from 185,000-square feet to 155,000-square-feet.

• The conversion of office space to amenity and retail space was originally 65,000-square-feet and will now be reduced to 35,000-square-feet.

Both these reductions add up to the new cap of 190,000-square-feet of retail space outlined in the new MU Ordinance.

The MU Ordinance also adds stipulations for the retail “footprint.” Retailers must now occupy a minimum of 1,200-square-feet.  

Moreover, the revised MU Ordinance also reduces the maximum floor area from 50,000 to 45,000-square-feet.

Office parks have taken a hard hit during the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact on the business community has only added to the necessity of this proposed rezoning.

“I think what we’ve seen in terms of the pandemic environment, has really further highlighted the need for and the potential benefit of the rezoning,” said Hughes. “Large office properties in the suburbs are under more pressure now than they were before the pandemic.”

Hughes noted many businesses are looking to attract a mix-use environment and this trend has only been accelerated by COVID-19.

“Now more than ever you have employers that want to be in a mixed-use environment, and they want to be in places that have access to outdoor space and open space amenities for their employees,” explained Hughes. ”This is a property that is very well positioned in this regard.”

The benefits of outdoor space and amenities will extend to not only employers of the large office spaces, but benefit “restaurants and entertainment retail operators,” said Hughes.

Rezoning will help facilitate the transition, remarked Hughes. This is a “must have” for anyone building new restaurants today.

Community Opportunity

Hughes pointed to a recent community survey for the Town’s Master Plan where residents emphasized “the need for more gathering spaces in the community that are connected with active retail environments. -- It’s hard to pull off in many traditional downtown environments, but here you have an opportunity to do that on this [The Connell] property.”

Hughes was direct in his support for the MU Ordinance that would potentially see much of Connell Park rezoned. He emphasized the importance of attracting new “in demand” retail and entertainment uses that “compliment” rather than “undermine” downtown Berkeley Heights.

The new zoning would balance out the tax-base in the town by adding non-residential development, added Hughes.

“Looking at this through the lens of the Township planner, I do believe the Township should move forward with Connell Park for several reasons,” said Hughes. “One is to make Connell Park, including its trails, dog parks, outdoor gathering spaces an amenity for the entire community, not just the for the office tenant.”

Under the existing zoning, noted Hughes, “these amenities are really just accessories to the existing office users.”

The new Mixed-Use Ordinance, noted Hughes, would open these benefits up to the entire community.