A town is rarely given an opportunity to greatly improve upon a redevelopment project by getting more for our community - and being able to push for a smarter and financially stable long-term revenue stream to help with our property taxes. Connell’s proposed rezoning can do just that and I’m going to work to get the best possible outcome for our residents.
I recently participated in a Zoom meeting, on April, 20th, with Mayor Devanney and the residents most impacted by the proposed project to listen to their concerns. At the May 6 Planning Board meeting, I fought to address many of those issues. Of course, traffic is the number one issue. This rezoning will allow us to implement and explore options that were never executed in 2017. We have a new opportunity to explore with our residents which improvements will be most effective and put them in place. Also, at that Planning Board meeting, we received clarification that there will not be an additional helipad as many had feared. I have insisted that the educational component and the prohibition on “big box” retail will be further defined and limited in size to ensure a quality development that is appropriate for Berkeley Heights.
Through the years, Connell has been a great community partner, generously donating to many community causes. They have continuously donated to our first responders, our fire department, helping our open space projects, PTOs, BH Education Foundation and so many other organizations. Most recently, they pledged a matching grant of $25,000 to our downtown business community to help our local businesses in this time of need.
With their proposed rezoning, as Connell adds amenities that will enhance the livability of our town, we will also work to create synergies that will compliment - not compete - with our downtown area. I will be seeking a commitment from Connell that they will work to attract businesses we do not already have in Berkeley Heights. This will benefit both our downtown businesses and our residents. In addition, one new feature will be an app developed by Connell for those new residents who will reside in the housing portion of the project. The app will encourage and promote our current downtown businesses when residents are in need of services or dining options. One could call this a symbiotic relationship.
In order for Berkeley Heights to emerge from this global pandemic poised for a strong economic recovery, we need to be creative and on the leading edge of the future marketplace. The current suburban office market continues to undergo a drastic shift away from isolated single-user buildings and campuses into more walkable mixed-use centers. By amending the existing development standards to reduce the allowable square footage of future office space and create a more balanced and desirable mix of land uses, we will lessen the overall impact of traffic, provide open spaces consisting of walking trails, parks, dog parks, publicly-accessible plazas for seating and events, playgrounds, a small turfed sports field and other fitness areas open to all residents of Berkeley Heights. I know how important it is to our residents that we have more field space; Connell has committed to allowing the Township to use this field for programming of practices and games for smaller children. This is what I mean when I say “smarter” redevelopment – getting what we need for our residents through these projects.
Financially, when Connell’s project is complete, Berkeley Heights will see over $350,000 in new tax revenue while the Board of Education will receive over $1 million a year.
Let’s not forget that under their 2017 approvals, Connell can build most of their desired improvements. But what they could not build would be some of the amenities that the Township would most benefit from – dog park, BBQ venue, playground, field and walking/fitness trails.
The proposed rezoning creates a vibrant Live-Work-Play-Stay destination unique to our area while being financially viable for the foreseeable future. Additionally, we can now fight for traffic and site amenities which will benefit our residents directly impacted by the development. This is an opportunity for a win-win.
The Planning Board’s unanimous vote to move forward on the rezoning of the Connell area was just step one in a long process. Further details will emerge as we move forward with the traffic engineering, additional Planning Board approvals and negotiations with the developer. This could be viewed as the first step to help Berkeley Heights come back from the devastation of the current health pandemic. It will generate new tax revenue, create new job opportunities and additional recreational open space, while transforming a traditional office park into a commercially viable, integrated multi-use facility that all residents can enjoy for years to come. During each and every succeeding step, I will continue to push for improvements and enhancements for the surrounding community and look forward to a development which all residents of Berkeley Heights can be proud.