WESTFIELD — With words like “redevelopment” and “rehabilitation” being continuously used in Westfield, The Westfield Leader took the opportunity to discuss the process and the status of various projects with Town Planner Donald Sammet.
“Redevelopment is a complex process that involves a lot of legal and procedural steps. We really want people to understand that none of this happens over night,” said Mr. Sammet.
The process began in May of 2020, when Mayor Shelley Brindle and the town council voted to designate the town’s Special Improvement District (located in the downtown area) as an area in need of rehabilitation (defined as “any municipality, or part thereof, which is deteriorated, deteriorating, substandard or detrimental to the safety, health, welfare or general economic well-being of the community”).
In doing so, Mr. Sammet said, the town was able to provide tax abatements of up to five years to any owners in the district who agreed to make improvements to their properties.
The rehabilitation designation was based on the results of a study that found that Westfield met two specific state-mandated criteria — that the housing stock [the total number of houses and apartments in a municipality] is, on average, older than 50 years, and that the water and sewer lines also were more than 50 years old and in need of repair.
“It’s not an either/or situation,” said Mr. Sammet, noting that the state manages such designations very carefully. “Even though Westfield has a large number of historic homes, we would not have been able to qualify for the designation on that merit alone.”
Once the town had found a way to encourage existing owners to make improvements to their properties through rehabilitation, the next step in the process, Mr. Sammet said, was to entice developers to the area through redevelopment.
“Rehabilitation and redevelopment go hand-in-hand. They are both useful tools designed to revitalize struggling neighborhoods and bring new opportunities to the area, which is why you typically see one working in tandem with the other,” he said.
Both rehabilitation and redevelopment plans give municipalities a bit more control over what types of projects can be completed within their designated zones, Mr. Sammet explained.
“With redevelopment, the process is a bit more complicated,” he said.
When properties qualify as and are then designated as areas in need of redevelopment by a governing body, the Westfield town website explains, a redevelopment plan may be drafted and adopted which would include “specific and detailed development standards that are reflective of community desires for the development of the area.”
There currently are four major redevelopment projects happening in Westfield: The South Side Redevelopment Plan (Westfield Crossing) on both sides of South Avenue near the Garwood border, which includes 193 residential units and 17,000 square feet of retail space; the old Handler Manufacturing Plant on North Avenue East (which will see the installation of a vertical hydroponics farm); the corner of Prospect Street and Ferris Place (which proposes a mixed-use facility intended to provide housing and additional retail space) and a fourth on South and North Avenues (which pertains to the town’s municipal parking lots, the Rialto Theater, and the Lord & Taylor site).
Each individual project, Mr. Sammet explained, needs its own redevelopment plan in order to move forward.
According to information provided by the New Jersey chapter of the American Planning Association, these plans help to ensure “that residents of a community are empowered to improve their quality of life and environment as a result of sound Planning practices.” Typically, redevelopment plans also should incorporate other aspects of community development such as design, preservation of historic assets, public spaces, promotion of environmental justice, environmental remediation and even issues that enhance the level of social services provided to neighborhood residents.
Once a redevelopment plan is presented for a first read to the council, it is then sent to the planning board for consideration in order to determine whether or not it falls in line with the town’s Master Plan, a dynamic, long-term planning document that provides a conceptual layout to guide future growth and development. A master plan typically includes analysis, recommendations and proposals for a site’s population, economy, housing, transportation, community facilities and land use.
“Basically, the Master Plan is the guiding document that lays out what we envision for our town. It includes things like land-use requirements, usage and building standards intended to best meet the changing needs of the community,” Mr. Sammet said.
Upon approval from the planning board, the redevelopment plan goes back to the council for a public hearing. This is typically one of the most engaging parts of the process, Mr. Sammet said, noting that local residents are always encouraged to use this time to voice their opinions or ask questions.
At this point, after getting recommendations from the planning board and hearing from the public, the council will vote to adopt the redevelopment plan via ordinance as per local redevelopment and housing laws.
Even then, Mr. Sammet said, the process is still far from complete.
“At this point, the redeveloper will enter into an official agreement with the town that can be negotiated to include certain stipulations such as traffic impact or environmental studies that will be conducted at the redeveloper’s expense,” Mr. Sammet explained. Once an agreement is reached, the redeveloper will need to carry out those established preliminary actions and present the results before heading back to the planning board to get their official site plans approved.
“This is where it starts to look more familiar,” Mr. Sammet said, “because this part of the process is just like any other construction project. The redeveloper will work with the planning board to make sure that the site plans are in line with the Master Plan by making whatever adjustments the planning board deems necessary. The council will then monitor the project as it develops to make sure that redevelopers are following the redevelopment agreement to the letter and not stepping out of bounds.”
The process is, indeed, complex and confusing, Mr. Sammet said, but he noted that local residents who may have questions about a given project can always get the answers they need by contacting the town directly or speaking out at any of the public meetings in which these issues are discussed.
“It’s perfectly understandable for people to have questions about these projects and their timelines,” Mr. Sammet said. “We know that there are concerns surrounding these projects, and we want people to understand that we are certainly taking them under consideration as we move through these processes.”
Below is an overview of where each of Westfield’s redevelopment projects are in the process:
Prospect and Ferris — The Prospect and Ferris Redevelopment Plan was adopted by local ordinance on December 7 during a regular meeting of the Westfield mayor and council. Current plans for the space include a four-story building made up of up to 64 residential housing units, retail space and an underground parking garage. The plan also calls for the restoration of a historic structure located on the property. The redeveloper will now need to enter into an official agreement with the town which will outline how and when a traffic study will be conducted.
Official site plans for this project will then be presented at an upcoming meeting of the Westfield Planning Board.
Handler Building — The Handler Redevelopment Plan also was adopted at the December 7 meeting of the Westfield mayor and council. This project has already secured an agreement with the town and will be going to the planning board for site-plan approval in the near future. Plans for this property include a multi-faceted farming operation which will consist of growing space, a retail shop, a restaurant, an event space and a learning center.
South Avenue Redevelopment (Westfield Crossing) — This project has an adopted redevelopment plan and Payment In Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) agreement with the town. Developers have obtained site-plan approval for phase one of the project, which will impact properties on the north side of South Avenue. The redeveloper still needs to secure approval for phase two of the operation, which will affect properties to the south. Ultimately, this project will consist of 193 residential units, parking, and retail space spread across the two designated properties. This project will be discussed at an upcoming meeting of the Westfield Planning Board as the redevelopers seek to gain site-plan approval for the southern lot.