CLARK, NJ - Kevin O’Brien, Township Planner said, “It’s time again for Clark to evolve,” while presenting a resolution at the September Planning Board meeting. He said the town had grown from a suburban bedroom community in the sixties and seventies to a commercial powerhouse today. O'Brien referenced the Clark Commons and the Woodcrest 55+ apartments as examples of the town’s growth before making his appeal to the board.
The resolution as presented was designed to make an amendment to the LCI Master Plan which includes the Clark Commons. The Limited Commercial Industrial District (LCI) encompasses the properties on the block formed by the Garden State Parkway, Central Avenue, Raritan Road and Walnut Avenue, except for the office development.
If permitted, the modifications to the LCI Master Plan, would allow for residential development in the LCI zone. O’Brien’s plan included a variance for housing up to 150 feet tall, including underground parking.
During the meeting Mayor Bonaccorso said the idea of adding a multi-family residential building in this area was suggested to the township and in turn, the township put it out to the Planning Board to consider by way of a resolution.
A few days later at the September 8, Town Council Workshop Meeting Bonaccorso further explained this resolution to the LCI plan was meant for the Clark Commons area and “wasn’t just for any old lot around town." He said it was more of a long-term plan to find and keep rateables coming into the community and to keep the shopping center sustainable in the future. He also said he wanted to put it in front of the board for their consideration and that he had “no great flavor for it.”
What Kind of Building?
Bonaccorso did not disclose who inquired about the feasibility of adding a luxury residential property to the LCI zone. He said there was no official applicant for this project at the time
Despite no specific developer submitting a plan to the Planning Board, O’Brien’s presentation included the concept of a building to be constructed in the empty space adjacent to the Modell’s and Party City in the Clark Commons and behind ShopRite.
The building would include ten stories of luxury apartments with several levels of underground parking. O’Brien said this type of building would be a way to keep Clark’s young professionals in town as the development would include numerous amenities and services.
Planning Board Reactions
Most Planning Board members objected to the idea of opening the town to more residential apartment construction. They cited projects already approved and not yet built on the corner of Valley Road and the site of the old A&P on Westfield Avenue as reasons to hold off on approving more. The thought was it would be prudent to wait and see how those sites develop.
Additionally, one board member questioned why more apartments for young professionals would be needed when both of the previously approved sites had been touted as a location for this demographic.
The development of the Westfield Avenue corridor as a downtown area entered the conversation. In his initial presentation O’Brien said, “Our traditional downtown Westfield Avenue is a classic downtown with residential above retail and other commercial usages.” Bonaccorso added that the town and Planning Board had done what they can do at this point (for Westfield Avenue), and now “that just needs to develop, we’ve done all the legwork we can do there.”
Planning Board Chairman Kevin Koch asked if this new residential area were developed by the Clark Commons, what incentive would folks have to move to the downtown area on Westfield Avenue. O’Brien said the demographics are different between the residents that would choose to live in the LCI zone as opposed to those that would live above retail.
Another objection from a board member was related to the height buildings could reach in the LCI zone if this were approved. “This is three times higher than we’ve ever allowed, and we have fought to keep the height restriction,” he said. O’Neil soon verified that if this one building were approved in the zone, more structures of the same height could be built within the same zone if properties became available.
Up For Vote
After a robust discussion, a request for a vote was made. In the end, the Clark Planning Board voted against the resolution by a small majority. The votes were 4 Nays by Kevin Koch, Michael Altmann, Michael Triola and George Olear. There were 3 Ayes from Sal Bonaccorso, John Laezza and Matt Casey.
Casey said he voted yes to the resolution because this is just an idea for now. He continued on to say that when an actual plan came in front of the Board, he might vote against it at that time. Koch took the time to remind Board members, that had this resolution passed, and a developer submitted a plan which got turned down later, the town could be sued and had a good chance of losing.
At the close of the meeting Bonaccorso thanked the Planning Board members for a great discussion by talented people and for dedication to their volunteer positions. He said a lot of good dialogue came out of the meeting and the board was a great example of how the democratic process works for the town.
Future Construction and Affordable Housing in Clark
If approved, this residential building would not have been subjected to affordable housing guidelines as the property was not part of the original plan submitted and approved by the state to meet Clark’s fair-share housing requirements.
Bonaccorso has never been quiet about his feelings about the high-density building expected of Clark to meet NJ's affordable housing requirements. He even asked residents to sign a petition against the project proposed for 750 Walnut Avenue in Cranford several years ago.
He has often lashed out against NJ Legislators for not getting the COAH decision-making out of the hands of the courts and back in the hands of lawmakers.
He has repeatedly said that Clark is going to look like Queens, NY with the density of housing required under current laws. When asked why he would consider putting this type of proposal in front of the Planning Board, Bonaccorso said he sees it as a way to keep the Clark Commons Shopping Center viable for many years to come which is an important benefit to the township as a whole.
Planning Board members were not specifically named in quotes throughout this article as audio and visual equipment difficulties prevented reporter from deciphering which member of the Board was speaking in the virtual viewing of the meeting.
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