BRIDGEWATER, NJ - Despite concerns from residents over the quick speed at which they believed the plan was being put through, the Bridgewater Township Council, by a 3–2 vote, approved a redevelopment ordinance for the former Sanofi Aventis site, now the Center of Excellence, on Route 202/206.
Council president Filipe Pedroso and councilman Howard Norgalis were the votes against the ordinance.
Although a site plan for the property has not yet been submitted, and must go through all approvals from the planning board before any construction can begin, the approved redevelopment ordinance includes plans for 400 rental apartment units, retail, restaurants, offices, a hotel anchoring the property, a health/wellness center, a residential neighborhood of multi-family units and a supermarket.
Residents from all corners of the township turned out to the Feb. 18 council meeting to encourage the council to take a step back before moving forward with the approval of the redevelopment plan ordinance. They emphasized that there are so many unanswered questions about the purpose of the project, and questioned why it has to go through so quickly.
Planner Frank Banisch said he understands it appears like the project came forward quickly, but in fact it has been discussed since 2014, when the planning board was originally directed to look at the property as in need of redevelopment. It was examined through the end of 2014, and the planning board then considered a draft redevelopment plan in November 2015.
In January, it was brought before the township council.
Also, Banisch said, he understands that the biggest concerns are what the impacts of the project will be on traffic and the schools.
“It is not typical for a township to engage a traffic analyst, and we have substantial information now before a vote is even taken that is usually not available until a site plan comes forward,” he said. “But this has been a long and deliberative process.”
As for the schools, Banisch said it has been suggested that this development is one of the lowest pupil generating types of uses for a project. In looking at the district, he said, there were increases in the number of students in grades nine through 12 from 2006 through the 2014–2015 school year, but the trend in the younger grades was for declining enrollment.
“There is lots of room coming, with decreases shown,” he said.
West Foothill Road resident Eileen Reilly-Horch said she is most concerned because the development will send students to one school, Hamilton Primary, not the others around the district. Currently, she said, there are 10 students in Hamilton from the Woodmont Estates apartments, just down the road from the Center of Excellence.
“There are 80 apartments there, so if we do the math, that means there would be 50 additional students at Hamilton for 400 apartments,” she said.
Currently, Reilly-Horch added, there are 476 students at Hamilton, with the most there has ever been at the school being 488 in 2006.
“If we added 50 students to Hamilton, there would be more students than there has ever been, and they won’t fit,” she said.
As for traffic, traffic engineer Joe Fishinger said there are a number of plans by the developer, pending approval by the New Jersey Department of Transportation since Route 202/206 is a state road.
Such improvements include a second southbound lane between the signal at Muirfield Lane and Route 202/206 and the southern end of the property, a traffic signal at Foothill Road and Route 202/206 and improving site lines and full width shoulders in the area.
In addition, Fishinger said, with the change from 500 proposed apartment units on the site to 400, the traffic counts during peak hours in the morning and evening rush hours have been reduced to less than 50 additional trips.
“We are still looking at the same traffic improvements even though there is a drop in units,” he said.
Bluestone Lane resident Bart Blair said the road is already a mess traffic-wise, and it is difficult to just quickly get to the highways from there.
“You can’t get to those roads without a 10-minute detour,” he said. “This is not going to help that.”
Muirfield Lane resident Tony Dinardo said he believes the traffic study was not a quality one.
“It is horrendous trying to make any type of left turn out of Muirfield,” he said. “Traffic going northbound blocks my exit. This is not going to solve the problem.”
Residents said they are not yet convinced that this kind of project would work in Bridgewater, or that it will attract the millennials that have been reported to be valuable to the growth of Bridgewater.
“The proposed rental housing isn’t more affordable than a home,” Holmes Court resident Andrew Leven said. “They are luxury homes for $2,100 per month, which can support a $500,000 home. They say these apartments will attract millennials, except they can’t afford luxury apartments unless they are grossing $100,000 a year.”
“No analysis has been done,” he added.
Many residents questioned why the developer is trying to attract millennials, and whether this development would serve that purpose.
“I have millennial friends who are looking to settle down and they want to come to Bridgewater,” Mount Vernon Road resident Lorrie Whalen said. “But if they can’t find homes they like, they will go to Hillsborough, Branchburg, Bedminster and they are not going to come here. We should build upon the strengths of the community. We are close to amenities, but they are not necessarily sitting in our backyards.”
On top of that, Leven said, the developer has not proven the need for 400 rental apartments in Bridgewater, nor given any market analysis about the need for a six-story hotel and supermarket.
“All we have is an uninformed guess,” he said. “Maybe the data supports the project, but let’s get it. There is no plausible reason to rush, but we are looking at the majority of the council rushing headlong into this.”
And some questioned whether there are just too many options for consumers, between these potential apartments, plus other luxury ones already being built in Somerville, Raritan and Hillsborough.
Another resident pointed out that it is OK to look at the traffic impacts of one project, but this one is being placed right near several others already planned, namely the mosque and the expansion of the Hindu temple at Brown Road. The cumulative effects of all the projects should be considered, he said.
Goldfinch Drive resident Michael Amorese said he was particularly concerned with how quickly this project moved forward.
“We have not been given time to give appropriate feedback to the town council and developer, and we have seen very little visibility of this project,” he said. “I see a high degree of lack of awareness regarding this project.”
Presidents Drive resident Tom Genova spoke in favor of the project, saying that it is forward thinking for the township.
“We are a developed community and things change,” he said. “People aren’t buying houses, they are buying apartments, and they want amenities close.”
“It services young and old, and we don’t have that anymore,” he added. “We should be celebrating this.”
Somerset County Business Partnership President Mike Kerwin agreed.
“This is a big deal, and I think this site was an economic engine not only for Bridgewater, but for the entire region,” he said. “I view this as a great opportunity.”
Valley View Road resident Doris Zampella said she would actually be interested in moving in to the apartments.
“I don’t think this was railroaded in, but I think the emphasis on millennials is kind of off,” she said. “I would like to stay in Bridgewater, but I don’t want to stay on an acre property five years down the road. I think the town council should be commended.”
Jeff Lehrer, attorney for the redeveloper, encouraged everyone to remember that the approval at the meeting was not for an actual site plan, but simply for a land use development ordinance for the developer to submit a redevelopment site plan to the planning board.
“This is a framework, and the public will have ample opportunity to be part of that,” he said. “We’re not taking a green field, this is not open farmland, this is a site that has 1.2 million square feet of office space. The client is demolishing 300,00 square feet of that, but not taking farmland and turning it into something different.”
“We are taking a fully developed site and turning it into something special,” he added.
Council members were divided on the topic, particularly with regard to the speed at which this project moved forward.
“One thing I would like to remind us all is that what is before us is an ordinance change, and it provides the framework,” councilwoman Christine Henderson Rose said. “There is a significant amount of time being put into the project going forward.”
Councilman Allen Kurdyla said he believes this project will be positive for the township.
“We are going to refurbish a property that was once a cornerstone of our township,” he said. “We have the opportunity to take that property and ratable base and bump it up, it will benefit us as far as the values of our homes.”
Moench agreed, and said the council is obligated to do something with these vacant buildings.
“We have the obligation to create jobs in the community and create opportunities for residential properties,” he said. “This project is a unique one. There is no other one in the state like it, and we have the opportunity to do something special here.”
“There’s a high burden that we will have to meet because traffic is a big issue on that road,” he added. “But right now we have vacant buildings, so if we do nothing but improve the buildings, there would still be traffic on the road. I understand the concerns, but ultimately I think this is a very beneficial project for Bridgewater.”
Norgalis said he was surprised how quickly everything took shape.
“I was surprised that this plan zipped through the planning board in two meetings,” he said.
But, Norgalis said, he cannot support the potential of 400 rental units.
“I still think 400 is too intrusive,” he said. “I support the idea that this property is in need of redevelopment, but based on the current structure and size of the plan, I will not support it.”
Pedroso also expressed concerns about the speed of the project, and the fact that it was introduced at a previous council meeting when it was simply listed as a discussion item.
“The public sees that and doesn’t anticipate we will move on something so quickly,” he said. “The issue doesn’t go away now because if the public is not given any notice at any point, the process fails.”
Pedroso said he also doesn’t support having apartments in this area of Bridgewater.
“Some say things change, but they can change for better or worse, and we don’t have to accept worse,” he said. “I think this has a serious impact to the future of Bridgewater Township.”
Pedroso said it is a matter of whether they are looking at Bridgewater as a community that instills family life and encourages people to own homes, or if they are looking for the town to be more like Somerville with a lot more apartments and rental units. He said he would support retail and offices on the site, and possibly even a supermarket, but he is not in favor of adding apartments.
“To me, this is a step backwards, and less of a community than I had envisioned where we encourage people to own homes and have a piece of property,” he said.
Now that the ordinance has been approved, the next step is for the developer to submit a site plan for the redevelopment to the planning board.