BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ -- More than a year ago The Connell Company presented a revised plan for a mixed-use development for about 12 acres of property in the Connell Office Park. Tuesday evening, the council reviewed a similar proposal which called for rezoning the bulk of the Connell Park property, except for the land occupied by L’Oreal and Lifetime Fitness, which would remain the same.
Township Planner Keenan Hughes described the current proposal as a mixed-use development with 328 residential units, including 45 on-site affordable housing units, with a maximum of 250,000 square feet of space reserved for retail stores and entertainment venues. The space would be distributed as follows: 125,000 square feet dedicated to onsite retail space, including a grocery store; 60,000 square feet for onsite entertainment venues, such as a bowling alley or movie theater, and 65,000 square feet for conversion of certain existing spaces in the office buildings for publicly accessible retail and entertainment uses, Hughes said.
The new plan would set aside a minimum of five acres of open space during the initial phase of development. Plans show a dog park, walking trails, playground, barbecue venue, and a small athletic field. Those amenities will be part of the first site plan application to the Planning Board, Hughes said.
Mayor Angie Devanney said because the site is a private corporate park, technically residents can’t use the amenities proposed for the site unless the zoning is changed. If the zoning is not changed, the long term viability of the project would be compromised, she said.
The retail, entertainment and housing units will provide a significant boost to the township ratables according to a fiscal impact analysis submitted by The Connell Company. It projects between $350,000 and $450,000 new annual revenues for the municipality and more than $1 million dollars for the school district, said Hughes -- those figures do not include the tax dollars already generated by the property.
A traffic analysis run by The Connell Company indicates traffic during peak hours should decrease, Hughes said, since the developable area of the property has dropped from 3 million square feet to 2.25 million square feet. A traffic signal at Plainfield Avenue and Connell Drive is not currently in the plan, nor are “other off-tract” improvements, but could be negotiated during the site plan review, he said.
The township’s Traffic Engineer Brian Intidola from Neglia, said he went through the traffic report run for The Connell Company and it provided a “fair representation of what 2024 would be like with the project online.” The report included other residential developments which are scheduled to be built in the area. When questions arose about whether a traffic light was recommended for an exit onto Plainfield Avenue, he said his philosophy was “when you have a developer in front of you” who wants to discuss something like a traffic light at Plainfield Avenue, “start the discussion as soon as possible. If the project is a huge success, which I think it’s going to be, you don’t want to say, ‘Why didn’t we build a traffic signal and why is it so annoying to make a left-hand turn out of this site onto Plainfield Ave?’” He suggested the township, as it negotiates, should advocate for itself, specifically for that improvement, to avoid the frustration of “We built a great project, but we can’t get out onto Plainfield when we want to.”
Despite the conclusions of the traffic study, it appears neither Devanney nor other residents are ready to put the issue to bed.
Devanney said she had been talking to state officials about the issues at Bonnie Burn Road, in the “pre-COVID world,” and even had hopes for a joint project with Somerset County to solve problems in that area but, she doesn’t know what will happen in a “post-COVID world.”
Council President Alvaro Medeiros said he was “surprised Twin Falls Road was not included in the study,” especially because it was the closest street to the development and has served as a cut-through to and from Valley Road and Diamond Hill Road. He wondered if it should have been included in the traffic study.
Intidola said if an intersection was missed in the traffic report, that can be addressed. “We may want to have them come back and look at that.” He suggested that it could be addressed either at the Planning Board level or at the developer’s agreement level, “whichever your Redevelopment Counsel feels is best.” Intidola said he could revise a letter to Connell based on the evening’s discussions. He said “There is no better traffic expert than the people who drive the road every day” and wonder why this or that improvement is not done. This is the perfect time to deal with that issue, and it should be moved ahead into the review process, he said.
Margaret Illis, who has lived on Twin Falls Road for almost 30 years, said she is “very concerned about this development and the rezoning of the entire property at Connell.” Illis said the current proposal doesn’t sound much different than the proposal Connell made when it was granted the additional zone at the western end of the property, which gave them the ability to do residential and retail on the site. “I don’t know why they have to rezone 100 and 200 Connell all the way to the back of the property … This new MU zone gives them the opportunity to knock down 100 Connell and build something else, such as more residential units and entertainment centers.”
Illis said the fact that traffic engineers for Connell failed to include Diamond Hill Road, Valley Road, Twin Falls Road, and others is because they understand the traffic will be negatively impacted by the development, so purposely didn’t include them because of the negative impact it will have on the Twin Falls Road neighborhood. She asked, “How can the council possibly consider this rezoning without considering the residents who are directly impacted by this development?”
She pointed to a previous development which impacted the Twin Falls Road neighborhood. When residents complained early in the process, they were told to bring it up at the Planning Board because, at that point, the full studies would be done and if it was going to impact the neighborhood too much the plans would be modified. That didn’t happen.
Hughes said that in 2017 the rezoning was limited to one 12-acre part of the property and, once the developer began to look at the property, they realized to implement the proposal presented in 2019 for the residential, retail, entertainment, recreation and open space areas, they needed a broader approach, which is why The Connell Company came forward with the rezoning request.
He said that given the comments from the council and residents, it would be possible to “take another look” at the traffic study, in particular at the areas mentioned, prior to the introduction of the ordinance.
Other residents raised the same issue about traffic in the area.
Josh Bochner and other residents were concerned about having a second downtown at the Connell site. Bochner said he looked at the Berkeley Heights Master Plan Survey and more than 50 percent of respondents said revitalization of the existing downtown was a priority. The question then became why create a second downtown?
Hughes said the “township thinks there is room for both” and that the Connell development will be a regional destination.
Before any action is taken on the rezoning, the Planning Board needs to do a Master Plan re-examination, after which the Council can introduce an ordinance to rezone the property.
Connell can move ahead with much of what they are planning without the rezoning they are requesting. So, if the rezoning is not approved, many of the amenities and facilities which would benefit the residents, such as the dog park, playground, etc. could not be built.
Find a summary of the rezoning proposal here:
Find detailed information about the rezoning proposal