LIVINGSTON, NJ — A change in the township’s DS-1 (Designed Shopping Center) District that will allow for a hotel and restaurant in the corner of Livingston Mall at South Orange Avenue and Walnut Street was adopted unanimously by the Livingston Township Council on Monday.
Simon Properties, the owner of the mall, and the Noble Investment Group are contemplating the construction of a Marriott Residence Inn and restaurant in the parking lot of the mall.
However, a number of residents, both in previous meetings and at Monday’s session, have opposed the development on the grounds that the hotel would bring additional traffic, noise and patrons who will be consuming alcohol to the Coventry residential area surrounding the mall.
In approving the zoning change, however, township council members said on Monday that, with recent announcements of potential store closings by both Sears and Macy’s, the character of the mall will likely change in the future and that it will benefit the township to have a more productive use on the property.
The council members also noted that the development would be preferable to a more intensive use of the mall property for high-density, multi-family, low-and-moderate-cost affordable housing.
However, at Monday’s session, resident Tom Scrivo called the zoning change proposal a “textbook example of spot zoning,” which is frowned upon by New Jersey’s courts. He stated that spot zoning changes are made solely for the benefit or detriment of a single property owner, adding that the proposal would run contrary to the state land use and affordable housing laws.
Scrivo called upon the council to refer the Simon proposal to the township board of adjustment, where it would have “a full vetting” to see whether or not it would, in fact, provide a benefit to the Coventry neighborhood or the township.
He added that those proposing the hotel development should be seeking a use variance because, among other reasons, the proposed hotel would be 52-feet high when the township’s current maximum building height is 35 feet. He also said that the development’s proposed setback from South Orange Avenue would be 25 feet, whereas 200 feet is required in the area.
According to Scrivo, the hotel would place a 52-foot-high structure “right in the faces” of residents whose properties sit adjacent to the mall on Walnut Street. He also said there was “no dramatic call” in the township master plan for a major hotel in Livingston and reiterated that the proposal was spot zoning because the zone change would apply to the township’s only DS-1 zone.
However, Township Attorney Sharon Weiner replied that the zone change would not be spot zoning because the entire DS-1 zone would be changed. She added that the complete vetting sought by Scrivo would be accomplished when a formal proposal for the development comes before the Livingston Planning Board.
Weiner’s comments were supported by Noble attorney John Hague, who said that the zoning change would apply to the entire zone and would not be for the sole benefit of one property owner.
One resident of the area said, however, that the owner of Simon Properties lived in South Bend, IN and would not only be unaffected by the detrimental effects of the hotel, but would also oppose such a similar development near his home.
A South Orange Avenue resident noted that in 2015, Simon had 1.4-million square feet of retail space under construction and its leasable area for 2014-2015 was up in value by 1.2 percent. He urged the council not to allow this development, which he said would decrease the value of the investments of residential property owners and affect their health and safety negatively.
The resident added that, with the possible closing of Sears and Macy’s, the Livingston Mall “would become a ghost town soon enough” without permitting a development that could potentially bring additional robberies and other crimes to the area.
However, resident Phillip Ende, who works in leasing for Simon in the area, said his area of the firm employs at least 10 Livingston residents who do not work directly for the Livingston Mall. Ende said it was wrong to blame robberies on the mall when robberies occur in all areas.
Additionally, Ende stated, the firm needed a place in which to hold meetings for the firm that was close to its area facility.
He also noted that Simon was a $65-million capital company recognized for providing high-quality space and added that the proposed hotel would be replacing a corner of the current mall property that is currently “a piece of asphalt used only for storing construction equipment.”
Resident Harriet Freedman said, however, that the proposed restaurant would be open later than other similar establishments in the township and was also concerned about late-night meetings where alcohol would be served.
Weiner pointed out that the township currently has no laws specifically limiting closing times for any restaurants or similar establishments.
Councilman Rudy Fernandez said times change and that the township and mall would have to change with them by updating of the zoning regulations, noting that the regulations had been updated in the past when requirements of mall stores changed.
Fernandez added that a builder’s remedy lawsuit could bring a much more dense use to the mall site.
Additionally, he said, the recently completed traffic study of the South Orange Avenue corridor would bring much-needed traffic improvements to the area, which would benefit the Coventry section.
Mayor Alfred Anthony said the council had taken comments of residents and others very seriously during discussions of the proposal over the last several months and that the governing body “did not rush anything through.” He noted that the mall property was underutilized and that he believed the proposal would be a good use of the site.
Also, Anthony stated, complete development of the mall into retail uses would be more detrimental to the area. Anthony’s concern was with the noise potential of the hotel and restaurant, but believes that the township’s noise-control ordinance will properly address those concerns.
Other councilmen said that they, too, had concerns about noise and the potential late-operating hours of the facilities, but believed those concerns would be addressed when a specific proposal for the hotel and restaurant development comes before the Planning Board.