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A New Town Center on Old Gypsum Property, Suggests Master Plan Report

The Clark Planning Board met to hear a planning report suggesting how to rezone the 28-acre property to encourage a commercial and retail center.

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.

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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.

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Heather Warszawa February 12, 2013 at 02:15 PM
I think they should build another elementary school on those grounds!!! We are so over crowded!! Our schools are falling apart!!! Build a new modern school for our kids rather than Another shopping center!!!
Andrew Timoni February 12, 2013 at 02:33 PM
I think this is a good plan to keep Clark money in Clark. Growing up in Clark, if my friends and I ever wanted to shop/eat/see a movie/walk around town we had to get a ride to Westfield or Cranford. If done properly, this could be a very good thing for the township.
Westsider February 12, 2013 at 03:22 PM
If this is a postive, balanced plan, a modest number of housing units wouldn't be a deal killer for me. Presumably any units would be placed over retail space on the model of what Livigston is doing with their town center, and would be toward the Cranford side to obtain proximity to the train station. No big deal to me.
Michelle longoria February 13, 2013 at 01:40 AM
No housing! I live right across from this site and extremely concerned about traffic. I think it needs to be more of a down town feel. Some open space would be nice for a small park area where people can eat or relax outside. Clark has become very over crowded!!
Success for Clark February 13, 2013 at 01:50 AM
I would like to see the property converted into a sports complex. An indoor pool like Cranford. Ice rink like Woodbridge, Baseball, Softball, Soccer fields like Edison. People would flock to Clark and the property where all the fields are now could be converted to housing because they are already neighborhoods. Also they are to small to handle the fields they have now. Boys Little League, Girls softball and all soccer could happen in one place with one concession and parking. Township run maintenance dept. Its a win win for all. Do we really need more shopping? Improve the shopping we have like Clarkton Shopping Center and Westfield Ave.
Lynn February 13, 2013 at 03:21 AM
love the idea for retail, also our own movie house would be a nice touch to our town.
Westsider February 13, 2013 at 02:14 PM
The contemporary "downtown" style complexes normally have a housing component. Contextually, having some in that area makes sense than in other spots in town. Realistically, a developer will probably need something in the housing genre to get a good project done.
Westsider February 13, 2013 at 02:15 PM
I'd love to see a movie theater and a bowling alley. Either might be a tall order because there are competitors in the surrounding towns.
OnTheBrightSide February 14, 2013 at 08:52 AM
In a perfect world the development would produce strong tax benefits with out a negative school budget impact or additional traffic. Any development should include types of retail or entertainment stores and venues that will benefit the citizens while denying residential development as our current education facilities are at full capacity. There is no competition for mid level retailers or stores in the area. The route 1 corridor is populated with Walmart and Kmart big box stores and the Westfield downtown is filled with high end retailers. Clark would benefit most from an industrial use of manufacturing, warehousing or energy generation such as a combined heat and power gas plant to support local micro grid development in this county's infrastructure overhaul which in a generation overdue. Although this is least likely to happen I will share my thoughts on the subset at future planning meetings.. I suggest that if any use change is permitted then a retail plan that includes the aforementioned mid level retail, theater, bowling alley, multiple restaurant concept should all we accept as as quality of life improvements for the compromise traffic and congestion we are likely to face.
b pisano February 19, 2013 at 01:23 PM
a village type of shopping area with small specialty shops would be great.

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