The Clark Planning Board met on Thursday to discuss a planning report that suggested the town should rezone the 28-acre former U.S. Gypsum paper manufacturing plant on Raritan Road to encourage a new commercial town center.
The plan, prepared by Planner Kevin O'Brien of Shamrock Enterprises and Town Engineer Richard O'Connor, suggests a new "Limited Commercial Industrial" district for the Gypsum property (which is currently zoned for industrial use) and the ShopRite side of Central Avenue from Raritan Road to the Parkway circle.
The vision presented in the plan is for a new town center – an environmentally friendly commercial center with retail and office space in "a park like setting with tree-lined streets" and with "a central architectural focus such as a fountain, plaza, clock tower or landscaped boulevard."
O'Brien said the center should be a focal point for the community, describing "a pedestrian friendly area where people can park once, shop and not have to move their car every time they want to go to another store."
"We're trying to make it more of a village theme," said O'Brien. "We're throwing that out there as a suggestion, so that there are streets, passageways for vehicles, rather than large, wide roadways that go through here that would encourage people to speed. Rather, we want them to slow down and take their time in this particular area."
Exactly how many and what kinds of retail stores and offices could fit in the center would be determined after a buyer submits a proposal to the town. O'Connor and O'Brien explained to Patch that the suggested zoning would encourage mostly retail uses but also allow restaurants, office space, banquet halls and other uses. It would not allow big box stores that require more space – another store like Target, for instance.
"It all depends on how it’s configured," O'Connor told Patch. "Someone who develops could develop it as six parcels or 20 parcels. Until somebody is developing it, lays it out, and sees parking requirements for various uses and tenant requirements, we're not going to know exactly."
The plan takes into consideration the survey Mayor Sal Bonaccorso sent to residents in December. O'Brien reported that the survey was issued to 4,823 households and more than 1,200 residents responded, which the report called "an astounding response rate of 25 percent."
"That's just unheard of in any kind of community survey such as this," said O'Brien. "It certainly shows a very large interest on the part of the community."
The reports says the survey showed a vast majority of responders against housing and in favor of retail, office or commercial uses. It says, "a very small number support industrial, solar energy or recreation uses at the site."
O'Brien added that the project "will have to be extremely well-buffered, in particular towards Walnut Avenue where we have a large residential area. A lot of considerations are going to have to be made in terms of access, in order to protect that particular area and to set this project back so we don't have any kind of activity between the storefronts and the roadway."
O'Connor said traffic is a primary concern for the redevelopment of the property.
"The township is taking traffic in this instance very seriously," said O'Connor. "We've retained Gordon Meth from the RBA group to act as the township's traffic consultant in that regard. And as an application comes forward, the township will be taking advantage of Mr. Meth’s expertise to ensure that the intersection improvements that are necessary minimize the impact on traffic, if not eliminate impacts on traffic on this area as a whole. We're very conscious of complaints that currently exist and the need to not exacerbate any of those issues as we move forward."
The reexamination report also says Clark's "long-term reliance on the strength of the manufacturing sector to support its tax base is becoming an increasing problem" as these jobs are declining.
The report says Clark's industrial properties have an average assessed value of $298,649 per acre, which is significantly less than the average assessed value for commercial uses, which is $666,951 per acre. It further states, "the shift from a manufacturing to a service sector will have significant positive impacts for Clark. Allowing additional flexibility in the types of uses presently permitted in the industrial areas such as the US Gypsum property that will encourage reinvestment, rehabilitation and redevelopment, is necessary. This flexibility could include a variety of retail uses, including regional retail uses."
The Gypsum factory was built in 1947 and operated as a paper manufacturer until its shuttering in August 2009. It has been on the market for more than a year.
Mayor Bonaccorso previously told Patch that a retail property (he couldn't reveal which) has made a deal to purchase the property pending they could get it rezoned from light industrial use to retail.
"I said to them, okay, good luck before the zoning board, and thought that was it," Bonaccorso told Patch in early December. "Then they came back and said that because it was such a huge piece of land that they believed the zoning should actually be decided by the governing body as a change in the master plan. I talked to our attorney and he agreed that maybe a master plan update is needed, and because it's a project of major proportions we really want to feel the pulse of the community on this."
In conjunction with the surveys, the town commissioned the Master Plan reexamination by O'Brien and O'Connor. The board will now look over the proposed plan and meet again to decide how to proceed. To rezone, the board will likely hold a public meeting in Arthur L. Johnson's auditorium in March.
In March 2012, we ran a story also asking residents what they'd like to see at the property. Of the 208 poll votes our story received, 28 percent of respondents said they'd like to see another industrial property, 23 percent said a shopping complex or strip mall, 17 percent said a mixed-use development, and 12 percent chose "other" and left us thoughts in the comments about what they'd like to see. Very few respondents chose housing or a hotel as their vote for the property's use.
See a PDF of the full Master Plan reexamination report presented at Thursday's meeting in our gallery, right.
Other notes from Thursday's meeting:
-O'Brien also suggested that town revisit its plan for a section of Westfield Avenue that was previously zoned as a Downtown Village Improvement District in 2004. "No new development or investment in this area has occurred since this area has been rezoned," says the report. "The Township should consider additional measures to spur new investment in this area." The report suggests investigating whether the area should be designated as an area in need of redevelopment or rehabilitation. It specifically suggests the smaller commercial properties near the former A&P and properties at the intersection of Brant and Westfield avenues.
- A handful of residents were in attendance and asked questions of O'Brien. Debra McLeester asked what kinds of stores would be in the new center and what effect the new center would have on the Clarkton Shopping Center farther down Raritan Road, expressing concerns that that area could become vacant or abandoned because of the new development. O'Brien said he felt the new, larger center would encourage a different type of tenant than is currently in the Clarkton Shopping Center because it could house larger shops.
"We hope and assume that there is not going to be an impact because people like to go to Clarkton," said O'Brien. "It's small, it's compact, it's easy to get in, easy to get out, it's away from Central Avenue. It has its space here in town and is pretty well used for the most part. Whether a new center would have an impact on that, we really have to see and take a look at that and if there is an impact that's something we have to keep in mind and would have to address."
- Resident Delia Collins asked if the soil at the Gypsum site will need remediation and if it will need to be capped like the Hyatt Hills property was. O'Brien said the property is currently under DEP monitoring and that they are not of the opinion that the Gypsum site will require anywhere near as extensive treatment as Hyatt Hills required. He said the town will be working with DEP and the owner so that "whatever needs to be done, will be done."
-The reexamination reports says that reuse of the property as an manufacturing facility is unlikely because it is aged and unsuited for modern manufacturing.
-O'Brien suggested that it would be good if the new tenant was able to safely and legally remove the no longer used railroad tracks along the back of the property.
-The reexamination also included a rezoning for the Clark Power Equipment property on Westfield Avenue into the townhome zone adjacent to it. Business Administrator John Laezza explained that this change is to correct an error in the previous Master Plan that mistakenly left the property out.
What do you think of the plan for a new town center? Tell us in the comments.