CRANFORD, NJ – Affordable housing concerns wove through commissioner and resident comments during Tuesday night’s township committee meeting, at which the committee passed a resolution exempting most properties from the North Avenue Redevelopment Study.
The committee voted to remove all lots from the study except for the parking lots, the vacant MDTV building and Swan Cleaners. Swan Cleaners is the only included property that remains privately owned.
The approved resolution also removed the ability to use eminent domain on any of the land in the study, a move that Deputy Mayor Ann Dooley and Commissioner Jean-Albert Maisonneuve believe will negatively impact the ability to redevelop Swan Cleaners.
“I think it’s very important to consider what the experts are telling us,” Maisonneuve said. “I think that this action to not include eminent domain for Swan Cleaners really challenges us to do any sort of development. That area has been in need of redevelopment for over a decade. If we leave that area in that state, we’ll be very challenged to have a developer come in and give us any sort of plan.”
Commissioner Mary O’Connor disagreed, saying there are other options for the township committee to use.
“I do not agree with eminent domain,” she said. “I think it’s a slippery slope and we don’t want to go down there.”
The resolution passed 3-2, with Commissioner Patrick Giblin, Mayor Thomas Hannen, Jr. and O’Connor voting ‘yes.’ Dooley and Maisonneuve voted ‘no.’
Many of the business owners with properties originally included in the study were in attendance, questioning the committee's transparency and reiterating that they were not notified when the study was conducted or before it was presented.
Judy Swick, co-owner of Chapman Bros., said the study has already hurt business.
“It’s great removing eminent domain and all that, but it’s still out there,” Swick said. “Google any of our businesses and it comes up in the top five results. It’s impacted every one of us. It’s not going to go away overnight. I just think all of this should have been thought about before and it should have been communicated to us.”
As the commissioners and residents discussed the resolution, concerns regarding affordable housing were brought up repeatedly. The commissioners acknowledged that the properties included in the study may be used for affordable housing and that Cranford’s immunity from the Mt. Laurel Doctrine ends on Jan. 1, 2019.
“I tried to do the math and it appears to me that we have between 77 and 97 affordable units that we still have to account for,” resident Eric Rubinson said, reading from documents from the township’s court appearance in September, at which the township was not granted further immunity.
In those documents, multiple sites were included as potential spaces for redevelopment, including the Birchwood property and 750 Walnut Avenue.
“If we scale that out at a 15 percent offset of what the total is, that becomes a total of 647 apartments that still have to be built in this town,” Rubsinon said. “Am I in the ballpark?”
“You may be very close with those numbers, but remember that when we went to court, that is what was projected as how we may get to that number,” Hannen replied. “That doesn’t mean that we have the vacant land to build all of those units, but that would be the assignment. One of the reasons we went to court is to reduce densities and convince the court that we’re fulfilling our requirements with affordable housing so that we don’t get in trouble with the court.”
“Are we looking for areas?” Hannen continued. “Yes, there are ways that we think that we can fulfill the obligations that we have. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that all of those units have to be built, because, quite frankly, the land might not be available. We are doing the best we can to show the court that we are serious about fulfilling those obligations so we maintain control of what Cranford’s density is, not someone else from the outside trying to determine that.”
At the end of the meeting, O’Connor received loud applause when she addressed the housing concerns during her closing comments.
“We have options for North Avenue,” she said. “Rehabilitation would allow us to work with property owners to upgrade design standards and build a more cohesive street scape. We could combine redevelopment and rehabilitation to improve the area without disrupting family-owned businesses that have been Cranford staples.”
“Although there are people who want to see this town have a more urban setting, I don’t believe most of our residents of any generation, from millennials through seniors, want that,” O’Connor continued. “No one has ever said to me, ‘I move to Cranford because I hope it becomes like the city I left.’ People come here because of what Cranford is. We absolutely need to find a way to meet our affordable housing obligation, but we need to do it without losing our identity. I believe we can do it and we need to work together to find a way we can achieve that goal.”