Chatham Borough is in the process of two major redevelopment projects, at Post Office Plaza and River Road. These, along with recent discussions in the Township, have led to real anxiety among a number of Borough residents about traffic, our schools, and potential changes in the community.
A number of those expressing concern were only vaguely aware of these projects until recently, despite a number of outreach efforts. This is understandable – we are all busy and bombarded with news and information from many sources. Therefore, I think it is important that the Borough Council take the time to work through these issues with the public, even issues had have been addressed in the past.
Residents, in turn, should also be cautious about where they get their information. I have seen numerous emails and on-line posts with false information and some bizarre accusations. One person – a non-resident – admitted in e-mails that he made up information in a published letter to the editor in order to provoke a reaction. Such an action is irresponsible and does not help us move towards a good outcome.
A few things to keep in mind:
· These projects are a work in progress and many issues need to be resolved. Contrary to some reports, there is no impending vote that locks in the specifics of either project – just an extension of project deadlines to allow us to continue discussions. The goal is to do this right, not to adhere to artificial time-lines.
· The much maligned “fortress” proposed at Post Office Plaza was an early concept by the developer, presented to the Council and the public for the first time in November. We believe they heard clearly that this design does not work for the downtown.
· Property owners have specific legal rights that the Borough cannot take away. The River Road project is entirely on private property. Post Office Plaza is largely private property; to use the entire plaza for public purposes (such as a municipal parking lot as some have proposed) would require the Borough to purchase the land from the owners at great cost.
· While the financial analysis has not been completed, even preliminary data do show that the two projects could bring in millions of dollars in revenue to the Borough – money that could offset residential property taxes.
· This is important because, under State law, property taxes are capped at a 2% increase every year while costs increase faster than that. We therefore face a degradation in service over time unless we can expand revenues beyond taxes on single family homes. We also face an inability to fund some needed big ticket improvements (such as replacing a 30+ year-old fire truck).
· Beyond that, if done correctly (and I recognize that this is a critical if) the Post Office Plaza project can help revive downtown by bringing in additional foot traffic, giving the Borough access to concessionaire’s licenses for new restaurants that can serve alcohol, and making traffic and crosswalk improvements badly needed to ensure better traffic flow and pedestrian safety.
· The River Road project would involve the remediation of contamination on the sites and puts to use old, unsightly industrial properties.
· In contrast to the typical planning and zoning approval process, the redevelopment process allows us to negotiate with the developers to make sure they do more than the minimum required by law. That means we can negotiate for traffic management improvements, improved roadways, buried utility lines, open space contributions, and walkways.
· We have made a commitment to the School District to address any impacts associated with these developments, and held a highly successful kick off meeting with Board of Education members and the Superintendent of Schools last week. While the developments as currently envisioned are designed to attract young professionals and retirees, we can build in to any agreement a plan to compensate the schools if the number of students is greater than expected.
· The projects do set aside 15 % of units for affordable housing, which will help the Borough meet its affordable housing obligations. Many residents are unaware that the threshold for a household to qualify for affordable housing in our region is quite high - around $70,000 per year. Many of our civil servants and retirees fit into this category.
· If either project involves a PILOT agreement – Payment in Lieu of Taxes – it will only be done if it is a net positive for the community – including the schools. Contrary to what many have been told, PILOT does not mean that the developer escapes payments; it simply means that for a limited time, cash payments go directly to the municipality (potentially shared with the schools) which can allow for more direct benefits than can be obtained otherwise. PILOT is a negotiating tool, as is the redevelopment process itself.
There are many opinions about what should happen in the two redevelopment areas, from no change at all to “get it done already.” There is no way we will satisfy all groups, but we will listen to those who raise concerns in good faith.
I know that my fellow 2020 council members and I are committed to a thoughtful, open, and deliberative process as we explore these projects in 2020, and encourage all residents to remain engaged. We will hold a number of public meetings – both to go over the history of the projects and obtain input – and hope to see many residents there.
In the meantime, please feel free to reach out to me firstname.lastname@example.org or to any other council members and please send specific questions about the projects to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ms. Mathiasen is a member of the Chatham Borough Council