BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ – Not quite two years after approaching the council about re-zoning an area of Connell Park, Connell Corporation Executive Vice President Shane Connell returned, this time with conceptual plans for a high-end mixed-use development.

The presentation to the council was made at the Aug. 15 meeting and included a slide presentation and a history lesson on the changes at the site since Connell's presentation in November 2015. The area under discussion encompasses 12 acres of the 180-acre corporate park.  

After re-zoning, the finished product would be a “vibrant mixed-use center with the energy and the vibe of an urban” setting, said Randy Martin an architect with HKS. That company, an internationally known architecture firm, is collaborating with Gensler, another internationally recognized architecture firm, to come up with a first-class design for the site.

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Currently, that area is zoned for an office building with 260,000 square feet of space and a parking garage. However, in New Jersey and around the country, office buildings are seeing increasing number of vacancies and corporate parks are starting to lose tenants, as millennials move out of state or into areas with more urban amenities.

The solution to that has been to rebrand and reconfigure office parks and turn them into places attractive to employees and employers alike, because of the “vibe” of the site. The entire corporate park becomes a place where employees, employers and community members “can work, shop, play and exercise,” said Connell, and the out of date park turns into a “long term generationally viable site.”

The rebranding of the park began years ago, when Lifetime Fitness was added to the mix, followed by “the everlasting hotel construction,” and the addition of Starbucks, said Connell. Each of the office buildings on the site are being renovated, to the tune of a budgeted $10 million per building. Those changes will include new exteriors, including windows, new roofs, lobbies, café-like dining areas, and gyms.

Connell said there would be between 312 and 328 mixed-use high-end residential rental units in the development, with between 50,000 and 85,000 square feet of retail space. This would obligate Connell to build about 35 affordable housing units, some of which might be located off site, but those on site would conform to the same architectural standards as those used on site, he said. The number of affordable housing units required would be 11.5% of the number of market-rate housing units in the development, lower than the 15% required because of previous regional contributions made by Connell Corporation. If the number of market-rate units were higher than 328, then additional units would need to be calculated at 15%, Councilman Marc Faecher said.

Feelers have gone out to see which high-end retailers might be interested in locating at Connell Park, including a specialty grocer, “as concierge for our tenants,” said Connell.

The development would be unique for this area, and, he said, he hopes it will be like Giralda Farms in Madison, where the walking track around the office park attracts people from all over the area to walk, push baby carriages and run. Connell Park is getting ready to break ground on a three-mile trail, which will be open to the public.

It also has The Grove, an “outdoor, stacked park,” which is open to residents. Connell Park has WiFi throughout the site, including the Grove, which is an outdoor work space that people can use. “They can just come to our park and work there … We want activity, we are designing so people can do that.” he said.

As for the concerns of neighboring Watchung, “The indications are this has a lower impact than offices” on traffic in and out of the site, he said. The park offers a shuttle service to the train station; the hotel, when it opens will offer shuttle service to the airport and, he has heard, “driverless cars are ten years away, not twenty,” so maybe people will call for a “car and never have to drive a car again,” Connell said.