Downtown Devel. Plans Close to Being Unveiled

By FRED T. ROSSI
Specially Written for The Leader/Times

SCOTCH PLAINS – Mayor Alexander Smith said last week that plans for the first phase of downtown redevelopment will be ready to be shown to the public very soon once township officials worked with the developers to finalize standards for building heights and parking.

“We’re very close to a real plan,” the mayor said at the downtown redevelopment committee’s meeting October 15. Over the past few months, committee members and the designated redevelopers, Advance Realty Investors and PS&S Engineering, have hashed out some of the final details of the plan, which calls for developing the publicly owned properties in the central business district into a mix of residential and commercial buildings along with green space.

The mayor said the tallest buildings will be no more than four-and-a-half stories high — lower than what the developers had wanted — and will probably be set back from the street to avoid a canyon-like feel to the downtown. In addition, he said, parking will be distributed throughout the municipal-owned properties instead of being concentrated mostly in a parking deck located in the lot between Westfield Avenue and Bartle Avenue. Redevelopment coordinator Thomas Strowe said the developers had proposed a lower parking ratio than the township desired but were told that more parking opportunities — for the existing and new businesses as well as the residents, present and future — needed to be added. To meet that requirement, more public parking will be included in the properties in front of the library and in the lot adjacent to the municipal building.

The mayor said last week he expected committee members to find the revised plans to be suitable, thus allowing renderings to be shared with the public. The committee also will conduct a listening tour to hear residents’ reactions and suggestions for possible refinements to the plan.

The township is still waiting to hear if it will be awarded a state library grant to help fund a new library on Bartle Avenue. Once that grant is confirmed — hopefully by the end of the year — “that will probably start our downtown redevelopment,” the mayor said. Development of the property where the library now stands as well as the parking lot will be done first, he said.

Mayor Smith expressed confidence that “the financials [for paying for some of the new buildings, especially a new municipal building and new first-responder headquarters] are going to work out.” The township anticipates a healthy revenue windfall in the coming years from property taxes at the two large residential developments being constructed at the former Bowcraft Amusement Park site on Route 22 and at the former Parker Gardens site on Terrill Road.

It appears that the municipal building and the first-responder headquarters are going to be relocated from the downtown to the township-owned wooded property on Plainfield Avenue, a plan that has drawn the ire of neighborhood residents since the idea first was raised last year. During last week’s committee meeting, several residents living near the site called in to again air their concerns, which center primarily on vehicle and pedestrian safety as well as whether putting the fire, police and rescue squad facilities in that part of town will reduce first responders’ ability to travel quickly and efficiently to emergencies. “Hundreds of people do not want this to happen,” one Evergreen Avenue resident stated.

The mayor said leaders of the police and fire departments and rescue squad believe the Plainfield Avenue site will allow for better responses, and Deputy Fire Chief Skip Paal said the volunteers who staff the fire department are often delayed getting to the aging north-side firehouse due to congestion at the corner of Park Avenue and East Second Street as well as the traffic light there. He added that most of the department’s emergency calls require firefighters to drive their large apparatuses through that intersection. The Plainfield Avenue site, he said, would provide various routes for getting to the north side of town, including Westfield Avenue and Morse Avenue.

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