Cranford Begins 750 Walnut Redevelopment Hearings

For The Westfield Leader

CRANFORD — More than five years after its initial proposal that called for a 900-unit apartment complex at 750 Walnut Avenue, following both negotiations and litigation, Hartz Mountain began hearings last week for a mixed-use, 250-unit complex at the site.

Hartz Mountain brought several experts to the first hearing, but only cross examined the first witness, James Rhatican, Vice President of Land Use and Development and Assistant General Counsel for Hartz Mountain, before the session ended. The other witness that spoke, Zachary Chaplin of Stonefield Engineering, only began his testimony. Henry Kent-Smith, an attorney representing Hartz Mountain, asked the witnesses questions to give context to the project while also adding supplemental information as the hearing went along.

The project will consist of 250 total units, 38 of which will be designated as affordable. The affordable housing units include eight three-bedroom units, 24 two-bedroom units, and 6 one-bedroom units, Mr. Rhatican said. He also explained that Hartz Mountain has several other properties that include affordable housing units and are familiar with the rules and regulations that come with affordable housing.

Mr. Rhatican also said Hartz Mountain will be subdividing the property and there will be two different entities maintaining the residential and commercial properties. Several residents asked how that would work, especially if there was a problem and residents needed to call someone to fix it. Diana Sen, a board member, asked who a resident or the town would sue if there was a problem at the complex.

Mr. Rhatican said it would be one of the two entities mentioned before depending on whether it would be on the residential or commercial property and what exactly they would be suing for. By way of example, Mr. Rhatican addressed the natural berm on the property and noted that in the event of any trouble, Hartz Mountain would be the one to call and they would handle it from there.

Mr. Rhatican also fielded questions about a basketball court that was planned for the property that some residents say they never wanted. Don Smith, of 21 Onedia Place, asked if Hartz Mountain ever considered not adding it and Mr. Rhatican said Hartz Mountain was told it was wanted.

Other concerns included teenagers drinking at the basketball courts or generally loitering and if there would be any security to deal with it. Mr. Rhatican said there had not been plans that far ahead but also reassured the residents police would be allowed on the property to deal with it if a situation arose.

Community members, such as George Collins of 5 Behnert Place, also questioned Mr. Rhatican on what the commercial property would really be used for. “Are you building loading docks?” Mr. Collins asked Mr. Rhatican. When Mr. Rhatican said yes, he asked if they would be built to connect with tractor trailers and Mr. Rhatican said yes as well. Mr. Collins went on to say he felt Mr. Rhatican was minimizing the fact that there would still be tractor trailer traffic, even if it was not a normal sized warehouse that tractor trailers are constantly coming and going from. Mr. Rhatican did not expect it to be heavily traveled by tractor trailers.

Christine Esposito of 11 Behnert Place, asked, “Is there any documentation about the discussion you had with the county regarding the traffic?” Mr. Rhatican said there were not any minutes of that meeting to his knowledge but the board’s traffic consultant would be able to speak better to that question.

Ms. Espsito followed up that question with, “Has there been an understanding between the county and your site plan designers in terms of what’s required?” Mr. Rhantican answered he had only been a part of one of the traffic meetings but his understanding was the county was still working through plans with Hartz. The county wants to look at a layout that includes crossing and such in a more formalized way before getting the official yes or no, according to Mr. Rhatican, that would most likely come after the site plan is approved.

Mr. Kent-Smith followed up the public comments saying, “We hear all of the public comment. We take it all seriously and under advisement and between now and the next hearing, you’ll have a response.”

Mr. Chaplin then took the podium to get into more details about storm water management, site plans, and environmental impacts. Mr. Chaplin said Hartz mountain was adding two acres of greenspace which Hartz Mountain believed would lead to a significant reduction in run off. Mr. Chaplin also added Hartz Mountain was planning on keeping 3 main drainage areas, two basins and “sliver” on the western side of the property. There will also be rain gardens and bioretention in the southwest corner to further help with run off, according to Mr. Chaplin.

Another key talking point was expanding the sidewalk that followed along the south side of the property and Walnut avenue from four feet to eight feet, Mr. Chaplin brought up when talking to the board. Several board members wanted to know why it needed to be expanded and residents wanted to know if they planned on cutting into the berm that also follows along the same line. Mr. Kent-Smith explained in other meetings there was a concern of the sidewalk being too small for the amount of people that would potentially be using that sidewalk regularly.

Mr. Chaplin also added another issue is Walnut Avenue is a county road and making any changes to the roadway would need to be made through the county. Mr. Kent-Smith said Hartz would reach back out to the county before the next meeting to see what they would be willing to do.

The last major point for the night came from the board about an exception Hartz Mountain asked for concerning the height of lights in the complex. Hartz Mountain is planning on attaching lights to the commercial buildings at a height of 25 feet, 9 feet taller than the 16 feet maximum required by the town, according to Mr. Chaplin. As questions arose, Mr. Chaplin and Mr. Kent-Smith both concluded the lighting plan needed more work and they would need to redo it.

The next hearing is scheduled for August 17, with the planning board beginning their meeting in Room 108 of Cranford’s Municipal Building at 7:30 p.m. and the hearing will begin no later than 8 p.m. in Council Chambers. Residents can either watch live on Tv35 or Tv35’s livestream on Facebook.

To view more stories like this, please SUBSCRIBE.