WAYNE, NJ – Wayne resident and former candidate for Governor, Bill Brennan has created a proposal that he feels will solve Wayne’s affordable housing challenge while also helping in several other areas. Brennan has pitched this idea at a recent planning board meeting and his idea was read aloud during Wayne’s recent informational presentation on affordable housing. 

However, Town planner, Chris Kok has called the plan “unfeasible.”  Brennan refutes this.

Brennan’s proposal is to change Wayne’s master zoning plan to allow for several residential condominium towers to be built above the Willowbrook Mall.

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“The Township of Wayne is faced with a series of significant problems that can be remedied with a single solution that enhances our quality of life, increases our property values and sustains our largest commercial tax ratable,” said Brennan.

According to Brennan, these issues include:

  • The inevitable imposition of thousands of new residential units that must be built as part of Wayne’s affordable housing obligation.
  • Rainwater runoff into the Passaic River due to the impervious surface built over the existing wetland when the Willowbrook Mall was built.
  • Wayne’s difficulty buying-out of flood-zone properties because residents don’t want to leave the town.
  • Wayne as a non-commuter friendly town
  • Willowbrook Mall as Wayne’s largest tax ratable.

Should Brennan’s vision come to fruition, there would be a platform built above the height of the Willowbrook Mall that would cover the entire 250-acre parking lot.  This raised area would be covered in ‘green space,’ meaning parks covered in grass and trees with bikes and walking paths.  On top of this would be built several residential condominium towers housing two-thousand luxury units.

Brookdale Properties, which owns the Willowbrook Mall could build this themselves, or sell the rights above their mall to a developer.

Brennan’s plan would have several caveats:

  1. Half of the luxury units must be sold as affordable housing units.
  2. Those residents of Wayne whose existing houses are in flood zones and sell their homes to the township must be given priority in buying affordable units, keeping them in Wayne.
  3. Green space must be created that would absorb rapid rain run-off and reduce spillage into the Passaic River
  4. A bus terminal must be built below the condominium units that would take advantage of the New York City express bus.
  5. Elevator access to the Willowbrook Mall from the condominiums.
  6. Solar, Wind, Geothermal and Hydro power generation must be incorporated into this project such that the community is carbon negative and produces a surplus of clean renewable energy that goes back into the grid.

This one solution, according to Brennan, reduces Wayne’s affordable housing obligation by 70%, aids those residents who need to sell their homes in flood areas and still want to remain in Wayne, reduces impervious areas and rapid rain run-off into a flood-prone area, makes Wayne more commuter friendly and provides a large customer base for the Willowbrook Mall which, like other ‘brick-and-mortar’ stores, are losing market share to online stores.

Chris Kok, the Wayne Township Planner and Brennan have been having an email discussion about the topic.  Kok wrote: “The proposal you put forth exhibits the sort of large picture thinking and multi-dimensional problem solving that is necessary to address the sort of challenges facing Wayne Township.”

However, Kok and Wayne Mayor Chris Vergano had some objections.

Vergano, who sits on Wayne’s planning board listened to Brennan’s proposal at the January 27 meeting.  His reaction was: “It’s certainly an idea worth looking at, but one of the problems is the flood zone. If you build above Willowbrook and a flood comes, you still have people in harm’s way.”

Kok, echoed this concern twice. Once at the affordable housing presentation on Feb 26 and also in an email response to Brennan. “The mall is located within the 100-Year Flood Hazard Area,” wroke Kok. “The Township of Wayne has developed a longstanding policy of trying to move residents out of the Flood Area, and construction of residential units here would potentially put more people, including our first responders, in harm’s way during future flood events.”

Brennan refutes this saying: “There are already elevated ramps/overpasses (far above the flood plain) connecting Rt 46 to the Mall. Given the fact that this proposal includes a 2-story parking structure, ingress and egress during flood conditions is something easily accommodated. Simply connecting the upper level of this parking structure to the existing overpass and adding exit ramps to Routes 46 and 23 solves this objection.”

Kok raised another issue: “While we would like to use this as an opportunity to provide affordable housing to existing residents in flood hazard areas, the Mount Laurel process does not permit preferential treatment to be given to local residents; instead, all residents within a four-county region (Hudson, Bergen, Passaic, Sussex) are required to be given equal opportunity to occupy any income restricted unit within the Township.”

Brennan knows the affordable housing obligation is the biggest issue that his proposal could help solve.  “Nobody wants dense development in their neighborhood,” said Brennan.

At the February 26 Affordable Housing Presentation, several residents came to the podium, speaking in outraged frustration over the idea of hundreds of residential units being built near their homes and Vergano ended the meeting by admitting that: “None of this is good news.”

Kok’s other objections include the approval needed by NJ Department of Transportation for connecting to the highway ramps; the reliability of the electric grid at the Willowbrook Mall; and that the owners of the property have not weighed in on this.

“We can theorize about potential projects at this location, but given the significant challenges involved with development, we would need a full feasibility study to work through all the various details involved in building on the site,” wrote Kok. “As far as I know, no such feasibility study has been completed, nor has interest been expressed by any of the property owners. If we do receive a proposal from the property owner, we will take it into consideration at that time.”

Brennan has answered each objection with a measured and logical response, but Kok states: “Given that the property is under private ownership, any project would have to come from the owner or potential purchaser. This becomes further complicated because the property is owned by multiple entities and partnerships

Brennan’s proposal does not seem to be the ultimate solution for the Township.

Kok concluded his emailed response to Brennan’s proposal by writing: “While the entire proposal may not be feasible, there are certain aspects that may be repurposed to help the Township meet its affordable housing requirements.”

Perhaps some good news can be pulled from this, but only time will tell.