BRIDGEWATER, NJ - The Center of Excellence redevelopment case that could have a major impact on Bridgewater Township if approved will have to wait at least another month to be finished.
The Bridgewater Township Planning Board listened Monday to some three hours of testimony and questioning before an overflow crowd of more than 100 spectators, before adjourning the application to Oct. 28.
Overflow members of the crowd, which rendered the council chambers to standing room only, were directed to television monitors mounted outside the chambers or in an adjoining room, both of which carried a feed of the meeting.
The council approved a redevelopment ordinance several years ago for the Center of Excellence, on Route 202/206, which includes plans for 400 rental apartment units, plus on-site amenities such as retail shops and restaurants, along with a hotel and a supermarket. Residents have appeared before the board and township council several times to voice their fears that the center project would increase traffic congestion in that area to unbelievable levels, while also being very out of character for the area and adding to the overcrowding of schools and more.
Applicant attorney Kevin Coakley said the area to the south of the boulevard of the Center property will be commercial in nature, while also housing 26 residential units. North of the boulevard will have 374 rental units, plus requested parking variances.
Coakley also said a traffic signal waiver has been obtained, and that a lawsuit regarding the Avalon Bay group and the construction of the housing units has been resolved. That lawsuit and other problems have delayed the application, which was last before the planning board at the beginning of the year.
“They have no interest in the project, going forward,” said Coakley.
He explained that there are 47 acres of property to the rear of the development, with two condominium units and 1,190 parking spaces on that part of the site. He added that after the redevelopment goes forward, with changes to be made in the entranceway and with a loop path, there will be 1,160 spaces left, and that a variance for parking is being requested.
The 47 acres are now owned by Thor Equities out of New York City, which purchased that lot from its previous buyer, Advance Realty, for $152 million recently, according to cpexecutive.com.
Civil engineer Craig Hermann said the parking modifications will be made in the northwest corner of the site, with Interstate 287 situated to the west and Route 202/206 to the east. He explained there are currently 10 buildings on the site, with Condominiums II and III owned by Thor.
“(We) plan to maintain it as it is now,” said Hermann, for office and laboratory usage.
That part of the property has the 1,190 parking stalls, which are spread out and which also include 668 spots in a multi-story parking garage to the southwest of the buildings. The entranceway will be realigned, and the facility will be realigned into the research and development zone.
By town ordinance, a total of 2,183 spaces is required, which applicant attorney Nicole Dory pointed out several times is based upon the site’s square footage, and not by building population or the number of employees. The variance is requested for the 1,168 spaces in all that will be provided, with almost two dozen spaces near the cooling towers to be lost to the realignment.
“At the end of the day, it’s 22 less spaces,” said Hermann.
He said there is the possibility of additional parking on Lot 9 and in the back of the garage.
Dory reiterated several times that the required parking variance is based solely on the 1,168 spaces, which she said at one point is “more than adequate,” and that the plan at present is not to add additional parking. She also said that if such a change were to occur, the applicant will have to go back before the planning board for approval.
Bridgewater Township Council President Matthew Moench asked during public portion what the impact would be on the application if the planning board does not grant the parking waiver, and Hermann said there would be “a number of things to deal with” if those areas were in fact to be utilized, including environmental constraints that would involve the Department of Environmental Protection.
Resident Diane Mine said those areas are wetlands that are already under duress.
Traffic engineer Gary Dean has done a parking variance study of the site, and said the west side is both gate and guard-controlled, as research is occurring on the site.
“The site is fully developed today, and by and large fully occupied,” he said.
He said he did parking studies both last year and this year to see how many spaces are generally occupied, with peak periods occurring at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Drones were utilized in the study, along with people on the ground, although the drones could not be used inside the parking garage, where vehicles were counted manually.
The first count was conducted in early to mid June 2018, about five days in all, with parking sampled twice a day in that span. The second study came on a single day in July 2019, with nearly a dozen snapshots taken of the parking situation.
“The findings were virtually identical,” said Dean, with 483 spaces found occupied in July 2019.
He said the maximum usage was 529 parking spaces out of 1,190, ostensibly in June 2018, with 93 percent of the campus occupied and over 600 stalls empty. The township’s ordinance requirement of over 2,100 parking spaces, he said, is therefore four times more than what the site needs, and Dean said the ordinance is also the basis of the variance request.
He called adding more impervious coverage on the site for parking “a waste,” and also environmentally unsound.
“It’s sufficient justification to grant the variance,” said Dean of the study, even if there is an employment increase. He later said that “formal approval of the deficiency” is being sought through the variance.
When questioned by the board, Dean said he is confident in his data. He also responded to concerns from the public about using June as a testing and study month, with the explanation that early June is not actually summer, with schools still in session and most people not on vacation, and fewer weather changes.
Dean added that July 2019 was used as a follow-up, in anticipation of the current planning board meeting, and also because documents had to be filed. He also said that a previous variance approval in 2008 had been included in the submission that was made last month.
Many questioned what the parking situation would be like in the future. Dean said he couldn’t predict what would happen in the next five to 10 years, but said there would be sufficient parking if the usage as much as doubled.
Dean added the market will dictate matters.
No alterations, such as building demolition, is expected to be done on this part of the site, except for the loss of the 22 parking spaces. Demolition is expected to occur in the front zone, according to Coakley, but not the rear.
Coakley also mentioned the two condos, and said they represent “just a form of ownership.” Concerning the 10 buildings already on that part of the site, he said different entities own different parts of the zone, all of which are unified as Thor.
Corporate real estate broker Dan Loughlin said he has been involved with the site since Sanofi sold the property to Advance Realty several years ago. He called the site unique, nearly 800,000 square feet in all and primarily designed as laboratory and research space, not office space.
Loughlin also said he was involved in leasing space to tenants in the whole R&D zone, with 150,000 square feet leased in the last year.
Current on-site tenants include Nestlé, Ashland Chemical, Clinical Genomics and PTC Therapeutics.
“It’s roughly 90 percent,” said Loughlin of current site occupancy, with one floor of about 40,000 square feet remaining in one building.
In response to a question from the board, he said that converting lab space to offices is not really a feasible endeavor.
“They’re well–equipped with what Sanofi left behind,” he said of the lab and research facilities.
Moench questioned the value of Loughlin’s testimony, and Coakley said Loughlin is an expert in commercial brokerages, particularly lab facilities. Loughlin added that he had been involved in the sale of such scientific properties as the former Roche campus in Nutley.
Moench said he didn’t believe Loughlin could testify to the parking situation under the ordinance, and Collins said that Coakley had presented Loughlin to the board as a real estate expert.
Planner Paul Phillips pointed out that there are 655 fewer spaces than required, which he said is a “basis to relax the ordinance.” He also explained that a previous variance had been granted to Sanofi back in 2000, marking at least two instances in which the ordinance was relaxed, and that the R&D portion of the campus at present is almost 100 percent leased.
He then said there is little demand for parking, in that most scientists have their own lab space plus an office, although the buildings themselves have been designed with very little office space.
Phillips elaborated that, using Dean’s counts, empirical evidence demonstrates that there is one parking space per 560 square feet, and that the township ordinance is “highly conservative” with its stricture of one space per 300 square feet. He also said, like Dean had, that there is no need to construct new parking and new paved surfaces, and that there are benefits in retaining “green space” in terms of aesthetics and stormwater management.
Phillips said there are grounds for a C-1 hardship variance, which Moench later questioned as to what exactly is the hardship. Phillips replied that the site is a unique, extraordinary situation, and that a precedent had been set 10 years prior with the 1-for-300 standard.
Phillips later told resident Jeffrey Brookner that the property had not been entirely re-zoned, as there had been the 655 spaces back in 2008.
Resident Gaurav Gangoli asked Phillips if he is certain his proofs are correct, to which Phillips answered he is “highly confident” in them.
The board could not entertain new testimony after 10 p.m., per policy, which necessitated continuance of the application at a later date.