By REBECCA MEHORTER
Specially Written for Leader/Times
WESTFIELD — The Westfield Town Council passed a resolution designating certain areas as “areas in need of redevelopment” at its June 30 meeting. The properties, 146 Elm Street, 131 Elm Street, 360 Watterson Street, 300 South Avenue West, 301 North Avenue West, 116 Elmer Street and 148 Central Avenue, could be considered obsolete, according to Phil Abramson, founder and CEO of Topology.is and the outside redevelopment consultant. Mr. Abramson gave a presentation to the council saying that, based on legal precedent set by Concerned Citizens vs. Mayor and Council of the Borough of Princeton parking lots in downtown areas can be considered obsolete if they use valuable space inefficiently because they detract from the safety, health, morals or welfare of the community. The resolution passed, but the town will need to create and approve an ordinance to continue with redevelopment plans.
Westfield has run into problems in the past when declaring properties as areas in need of redevelopment. Starting as far back as the 1970s, Westfield elected officials have looked for parking solutions for New York City commuters, downtown shoppers and employees.
In early 2002, then-Mayor Greg McDermott said the town was in need of 900 new parking spaces. An idea that began with three parking decks slowly settled into a plan to build one 55-foot parking garage on the north side at Prospect and Elm Streets on a property designated “in need of redevelopment” by the planning board. The parking garage itself was to cost $10 million and provide 244 new parking spaces, 19 residential units and 3,000 square feet of retail.
Mr. McDermott said the deck would pay for itself, but the plan went into motion before a financial plan was created. When the financials were in order, then-councilman Sal Caruana said, the deck would not pay for itself.
“Could that project be financially successful?” he said told The Westfield Leader this week. “I don’t know, because the town council never fully studied it.”
The town hired a parking developer and conducted environmental and traffic studies. The total cost of the planning was approximately $360,000.
“There was a lot of study money that went into this, and unfortunately, the results did not get the attention they deserved,” Mr. Caruana said. “The studies came in, [and] in every case, there was a serious cause for concern at every turn.”
In October 2004, more than two and a half years after its introduction and after countless public meetings that went on until late at night with public comment, the parking garage plan was put to a non-binding, public referendum. The town spent $4,000 on mailing so residents could vote. When the results came back in early November, 77 percent of residents were against the garage. The polls showed no ward or district was in favor of the project, and the district where the garage was to be located expressed the most opposition, with 82 percent of voters saying no.
A grassroots effort against the parking deck led to the formation of the group WECARE (Westfielders Concerned About Responsible Development), which led a charge to vote against the referendum.
Then-Mayor McDermott told The Westfield Leader in 2004, “I think we’re all amazed it was that big of a ‘no’ vote.” He said after the referendum that he was glad that the council decided to put it up to a vote. “I don’t see any way this council or any future council will want to build (a parking garage). … I’m not pushing this and I can’t see the council saying we’re going to take this on,” he said then.
Mr. Caruana, who represented the district the garage was to be located in, said he supported a 2004 South Avenue parking deck that met the real needs of employees and commuters and the presumed needs of shoppers. He said that when the project faced opposition, it was downsized and the location shifted.
“It no longer offered a reasonable solution to commuters and that’s where the project lost its problem-solving ability,” he told The Leader earlier this week.
Currently, the areas designated in need of redevelopment have no set plans.
The consultants have made a suggestion for a parking deck, but nothing is decided. The demands for parking are different than in 2004. Consumer patterns have changed with the introduction of e-commerce. Commuter patterns also may change following the Covid-19 pandemic.
Mr. Caruana said that as the council makes plans for the areas, especially in parking structures, it should take a look at the past and remember, “we have to be very careful that we’re solving the problems and not the problems we imagine.”