By KATIE MOEN
For The Westfield Leader
WESTFIELD – After months of public debate and discussion, Westfield residents and elected officials alike were given their first look at the results of a long-awaited traffic-impact study connected to the Prospect and Ferris Redevelopment Project. The findings were presented as part of Tuesday night’s regular meeting of the mayor and council, held in person at town hall.
The study, completed by Stonefield Engineering and Design, took place between October of last year and the beginning of this month. It highlighted areas of known concern (such as the intersections of Prospect Street and Ferris Place and Prospect Street and Broad Street) as well as a few others (at Clark Street and Ferris Place and Clark Street and North Avenue) that could be impacted by the redevelopment.
Plans for the multi-family, mixed-use project currently call for 64 residential units, 500 square feet of ground-floor retail space and 96 below-ground parking spaces (including 15 electric-vehicle charging stations). The most recent iteration of the designs also include provisions for a designated drop-off and loading zone on Ferris Place which, as Stonefield Engineer Matthew Seckler said, should help to prevent unnecessary backups due to deliveries.
The assessment was generated over the course of six non-consecutive days at peak hours (defined by the study and other industry standards as 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. on weekday mornings; 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. on weekday evenings; and 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays). Stonefield engineers anticipated (based on industry standards and guidelines) that the new complex could generate between five and 18 more vehicles at each of those intersections per hour during the area’s busiest times.
According to the Stonefield report, “The proposed development is expected to generate [a total of] 28 new trips during the critical weekday evening and Saturday midday peak hours. It is important to note that the proposed site driveway is located along Ferris Place which operates as a one (1)-way roadway. As such, all vehicles exiting the subject site would be traveling southbound along Ferris Place towards Clark Street and away from the intersection of Prospect Street and Trader Joe’s driveway.”
The Stonefield assessment was completed at the expense of redeveloper James Ward as a condition of his agreement with the town.
John Federico, supervising transportation planner for WSP, a planning and design firm that has become Westfield’s on-call redevelopment consultant group, said Tuesday that his group had been contracted to review and weigh in on the Stonefield data.
“WSP found the traffic study followed all of the proper standard practices as outlined by the [New Jersey Department of Transportation], Union County and the Institute of Transportation Engineers,” Mr. Federico said, noting that his firm requested that certain additional information — including an additional traffic count to understand the impacts of Covid-19 on traffic patterns specifically in and around the YMCA — be included in the Stonefield report.
In addition, Mr. Federico said, WSP required Stonefield to undertake several warrant analyses to determine whether the intersection of Prospect Street and Ferris Place would meet the minimum NJDOT standards for the installation of either a four-way stop or a traffic signal.
“The Prospect and Broad Street intersections both warrant some kind of intervention,” Mr. Federico said, noting that that information would hold true even outside of new construction. “That doesn’t mean it would be mandated or even appropriate to put something there, but the minimum thresholds are there.”
Some of the area’s major congestion problems, Mr. Federico said, seem to stem from the fact that visitors to the Trader Joe’s parking lot tend to circulate in and out of the lot while either looking for a space or waiting for a passenger to finish shopping.
“Without a doubt, this recirculation is happening,” Mr. Federico said, noting that out of the 448 vehicles that engineers observed passing through the lot during peak hours, 108 exited the lot only to circle the block and re-enter it a few minutes later. “Basically, one out of every four vehicles that come out of the lot is going right back into it.”
Though WSP has submitted several mediation suggestions back to the town regarding the lot and its impact on the surrounding neighborhood, Town Administrator Jim Gildea said that conversations with the property owner were still “in very early stages.”
In its summation, the Stonefield assessment indicates that, “the proposed development would not have a significant impact on the traffic operations of the adjacent roadway network. Future capital improvements outlined in municipal planning documents would enhance the experience for all members of the community and would be feasible with the volume of traffic proposed in this development.”
But, said Councilman David Contract, there are other mitigating factors at work in Westfield — including another pending major redevelopment at the Hudson’s Bay Lord & Taylor building — that could still lead to extra traffic, congestion and pedestrian-safety concerns.
“It seems to me that we need to factor in this potential Streetworks [redevelopment], even if it’s just estimates,” Councilman Contract said. “I do think it’s going to add a lot of traffic. We know they’re going to build something there…and we don’t want to overly exacerbate existing conditions.”
“At this point, it’s hard to say what [the Hudson’s Bay] project would add to the mix,” Mr. Federico replied. “They’re just not far enough along in the process yet for us to make those kinds of determinations, but there will be an opportunity for that conversation to happen if they do decide to move forward with that project, not just because of [the town’s redevelopment ordinance] but because it would impact Union County roads.”
Several members of the public, including former councilman Jim Boyes, also stepped to the podium on Tuesday to share their continued concerns about the project and the validity of the Stonefield assessment.
“Smart development has tremendous potential to spur economic activity in the downtown by bringing more people into our shops and restaurants and enhancing its overall sustainability,” Mr. Boyes said, speaking as a private citizen for the first time since he announced his resignation from the council earlier this month. “The Prospect/Ferris redevelopment project is located in a residential area, albeit on the periphery of the downtown area. Single- and multi-family homes abut the proposed development on both sides and to the rear. There is a narrative that has been floated that this is not a residential area, but that could not be further from the truth. A 50-foot-tall, four-story building with 95-percent lot coverage is grossly incompatible with the surrounding neighborhood.
Another resident, Joellen Bard, said that while she appreciated the information presented in the report, she still had questions about whether or not the study had accurately captured the daily struggles of an average Westfield driver.
“That study was done for Mr. Ward,” Ms. Bard said. “I really expected to hear a study tonight that took into account what goes on here. Since this came to pass, I have been really looking at the traffic. You might not know how bad it is if you don’t ride down there yourself during peak hours, but those of us who live there can’t get home. It’s a real problem.”
The council also voted on Tuesday to adopt on second reading a new ordinance (2022-12) that would prohibit left-hand turns from Prospect Street onto East Broad. The ordinance, which can be found it its entirety on the town’s website, also makes amendments to several regulations pertaining to loading and unloading zones throughout the downtown area.
On a related note, the council also approved on first reading an ordinance (2022-14) that would seek to amend the Downtown Westfield Scattered Site Redevelopment Plan in order to pave the way for a conceptual project that would allow residents to preview eventual design concepts for the Hudson’s Bay project. If approved, the ordinance would allow Streetworks, the development arm of Hudson’s Bay, to open a temporary public space at 76 Elm Street where visitors would be invited to meet the redevelopers and view a variety of design concepts and ideas.
The council also voted Tuesday to adopt both its $49-million 2022 municipal budget and its Special Improvement District budget of $416,347.
This year’s municipal budget includes a 1.98-percent increase in the tax rate over last year, Councilwoman and Finance Chair Linda Habgood said when the budget was introduced back in March. All told, the increase represents an additional $4 responsibility per month per average household, or approximately $48 per year. Statutory expenditures (including health insurance, Social Security, pensions, utilities and the town’s standing agreement with the Rahway Valley Sewerage Authority) are up by about 5.16 percent (approximately $900,000) this year, Mr. Gildea said during a previous meeting of the mayor and council.
Other challenges for the 2022 budget include increases in salaries and wages (up 2.49 percent or $450,000 from last year) and operating expenditures for various non-discretionary costs across different departments (up 9.59 percent or $490,000 from last year). Despite ongoing challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic, however, Mr. Gildea said the town was able to replenish $3.8 million of its surplus account for a total balance of $9.4 million.
According to this year’s financial presentation, the 2022 budget utilized those replenished funds to “manage revenue losses and [provide residents with] a lower tax rate.” As was previously stated by the mayor and by Councilwoman Habgood, “we’re very proud of the budget that we have proposed as one that represents the town’s sound financial health and priorities,” said Councilman and Acting Mayor Mark Parmelee, who filled in on Tuesday for Mayor Shelley Brindle while she was recovering from Covid-19. “We continue to put your tax dollars to work through responsible fiscal management, investment spending and strategically utilizing and regenerating our surplus.”
In other town news, the council voted via resolution to award a contract to CNB Associates, a research and consulting firm that specializes in recreational development, that has been tasked with providing the town with an impartial overview of the state of the town’s Edison Fields project.
“There has been discussion behind the scenes about having an independent assessment done on this project and where we are to date. There has been a lot of questions from the public about turf versus grass, capacity, cost, etc.,” Mr. Gildea said Tuesday, adding that the firm has already been involved in multiple grass and turf field projects. “We’re going to send them all of the documentation that we have, including comments from residents, our own PowerPoint presentations. They will do an assessment of the project and come back to us with a cost analysis, a capacity analysis, a turf and grass analysis and comparison, and then the council will decide how to proceed with those findings.”
The CNB assessment project is budgeted at a price not to exceed $14,000.
Copies of both the traffic-impact assessment presentation and the original report from Stonefield can be found on the town’s website.
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