It’s been a few months, and I hope you are all doing well and staying healthy. As we transition into Phase Two of the Governor’s Plan to reopen New Jersey, Berkeley Heights is a bustle with activity, too. This article is a bit long, but there is a need to communicate a lot of important information to our residents.
But first, I want to acknowledge what our nation is facing in the wake of the horrific murder of George Floyd. We as a society, country and community must do better. Accordingly, the Township is crafting a resolution creating an Advisory Council to the Mayor on Diversity and Race Relations. Members of the Diversity Council, Board of Education and Police Chief will be asked to serve, as well as members of the Township Council of different political parties. This issue is bigger than any one of us, any public entity or any political party. We need to work together to make change.
Moving Berkeley Heights to Phase 2
The Governor announced this week that outdoor dining will begin June 15th. We are working hard with our restaurant community and emergency management team to ensure that our businesses have the tools, approvals and safety mechanisms in place to hit the ground running on that date. I look forward to spending time dining with my neighbors and friends in the coming months. Likewise, the Governor is permitting non-essential retail to also open with 50% capacity, childcare centers and camps. While camps are permitted to open on July 6th, we are also awaiting needed guidance on specific camp information before making a decision on what is right and safe for Berkeley Heights. I know many of our businesses have already begun the work of preparing for our new norm.
Our Economic Development Committee, along with our Recreation Commission, is working with Boxcar to bring residents a drive-in movie, and possibly a series of movies, in the near future. Local businesses will provide concessions such as offering food or flowers for a fun family outing or a much-needed “date night.”
I have been personally been calling our largest commercial landowners asking for their assistance in working with our local businesses for rent abatement and reductions during this critical juncture. With the input of our OEM team and Chief Padovano at the helm, we have been working hand-in-hand with our other businesses to develop a checklist of protocols that should be in place when we move to Phase 2 and 3.
On June 22nd, the Governor will allow organized youth sports to begin conditioning and practicing for non-contact sports. The Township’s Department of Public Works will spend the next three weeks conditioning our local fields to prepare for these gatherings. Note, there has been no guidance to this point if games will be played, or only practices. We await guidance from the Commissioner of Health. But we will take the needed steps to be prepared.
Municipal Complex Negotiations to Get the Project Done
Meanwhile, the Township is in deep discussion with developer EPIC on the completion of our new municipal complex. The project was to be completed by May 1, 2020. The deadline has come and gone, yet the project remains under construction. In late 2018, the developer hit “unsuitable soils,” which means the dirt that could not be used as backfill after excavation – some was contaminated with asbestos and hydrocarbons. This delayed the project, since the site where Town Hall is situated is a small area without much room to piles of dirt. Other delays included addition of a necessary under-slab drainage system, related plumbing and prolonged wet weather conditions in which work on the outside of the building could not be completed as scheduled. Our construction manager, MAST, documented these occurrences to negotiate the allowable delays due to circumstances out of the developer’s control, and those delays that are not excusable.
Unfortunately, it became clear this year amidst the global pandemic that the project would run out of funds due to previous and additional soil issues. Clearly, when the project runs longer, the professional contracts associated with the project run in alignment and also increases costs. This has placed the Town at a crossroads—would we move forward and allocate additional funds, or would we place a pause on Phase 2 until a later date? Luckily, our tax collection rate, which impacts our budget, is up just over 97%. Good news for the Township’s financial health given the pandemic. Negotiations are ongoing.
Currently, we expect the new Town Hall to be completed in the early fall. Phase 2, which is the demolition and repaving of the parking lot – including commuter lot - is expected to be completed by the end of the year. When we transition into our new normal this fall, with proper social distancing, I am eager for our residents to come enjoy recreation programs, senior events and meetings, library, police station and other township services in the new building.
Redevelopment Zone Changes at Connell
Our redevelopment projects, part of our town’s 2017 affordable housing settlement, are also moving forward. The Connell Company is requesting changes to their original zoning and have described the request for a change into one zone (called the MU), versus 4 zones, to improve the efficiency of the park. Let’s break it down:
What’s allowed to be built currently?
- A mid-rise residential building with 328 units, 45 affordable units with 153 one bedrooms, 167 two bedroom, 8 three bedrooms
- 85,000 square feet of retail space
- 1.2 million square feet of office space (no square footage limitations)
What is being proposed by the developer?
- No increase in the number of units in residential building
- Raise retail square footage from 85,000 to 185,000 to allow possible attractions like specialty grocery store, duck pin bowling alley, and/or movie theater
- Reduce office building square footage from 1.2 million square feet to 91,000 square feet
- Increase of open space to a required 5 acres to include a dog park, playground, small restaurant (beer garden and taco stand) and other recreation amenities such as a small turf field and exercise equipment all of which will be open to the public
- Total square footage reduction of 934,000
On May 12th, the Township Council voted to approve a liquor license extension that would also allow the park area restaurant to sell alcohol. The developer, Connell, has explained the need for increased retail because they are actively working to attract a specialty grocer, bowling alley and movie theater. Their desire is to create a work/play entertainment area. For more information and presentation, click here.
While we understand that many of these amenities are beneficial to the Township, the Council and I received feedback that required a need for our professionals to go back to the table and make stricter improvement to the new proposed zoning before our consideration. We hope to have those changes imminently to share with our residents.
Covid-19 Work in Ongoing
I continue to work on the COVID-19 public health crisis, as it has touched all of our residents. Whether it be offering assistance with unemployment claims, help with business loans, DMV renewal problems, job searches, oversight of our older population, opening up more recreation opportunities for our residents and other issues, helping our community get through this is my priority. I work regularly with Congressman Malinowski, Senator Kean, and our legislative delegation, Governor Murphy and the County of Union to resolve these issues. So if you need my help, I am here to assist you wherever I am able, firstname.lastname@example.org
Stay healthy, and as always remember to use safety precautions in public. And I want you to know, I am so proud of you Berkeley Heights—we ARE getting through this together!