Mayor Looking to Renew Redevelopment Push

Specially Written for The Leader/Times

SCOTCH PLAINS — The township council’s final passage of three ordinances to put into place overlay zones on properties in the seven phases slated for development as part of the downtown redevelopment effort was a “big milestone for us,” said Mayor Alexander Smith, and will allow township officials to focus more on plans for redeveloping the downtown.

Speaking this week to The Scotch Plains-Fanwood Times, the mayor and redevelopment coordinator Thomas Strowe praised the council’s unanimous votes last week on the ordinances, which set out density levels for any future housing development properties along segments of Terrill Road, East Second Street, Park Avenue and a small segment of Front Street. Similar overlay zones have already been put into place on properties near the Scotch Hills Country Club that are targeted for housing developments.

Last year, a court mandated that the township enact the overlay zones as part of Scotch Plains’ settlement with builders. The enactment of the overlay ordinances means the township has completed its court-mandated affordable-housing-related obligations for the next five years.

The mayor said that having the new zones in place sets up the township to more fully concentrate on redevelopment efforts that, he said, “will take Scotch Plains into the future” and present an opportunity for the business district to become more competitive with other towns in the area. The new ordinances, Mr. Strowe explained, also include so-called “incentive bonuses” that will allow developers to increase the density levels as long as they meet certain criteria, including more open space, additional affordable-housing units and more green space.

An overlay zone is basically a zone on top of a zone that essentially adds a second zone to an existing one that will allow a developer to build on a property that may not be designated for, say, multi-unit housing. Throughout the lengthy process of crafting the overlay ordinances, and again in speaking with The Times this week, the mayor and others have emphasized that private property owners will not be obligated in any way to redevelop their properties or to sell to a developer.

Density along Park Avenue will be 20 units per acre, and that could increase to 30 units per acre if the incentive bonus provisions are met, according to Mr. Strowe. Along East Second Street, the numbers are 15 units per acre and up to 22.5 units per acre if the incentive bonus provisions are met. For Terrill Road, the numbers are 12 units and up to 18 units, respectively.

The Covid-19 shutdown has curtailed formal meetings of the downtown redevelopment committee, but the mayor and Mr. Strowe told The Times that work is still being done on plans for the first phase that encompasses the public properties in the central business district. They promised an open process as redevelopment moves forward. The public should get its first look at the proposals for the downtown “shortly,” according to Mayor Smith, meaning as soon as next month, when the committee is expected to resume its monthly meetings.

He said a “big listening tour” is organized after the plans — which he said he is “constantly looking to improve” — are unveiled. The intent is to meet with various groups, including business owners, the Green Team, civic organizations and neighborhood groups such as those living near the Plainfield Avenue property where the municipal building and first responders could be relocated.

“We want it to be an inclusive” process, Mr. Strowe said. “It’s got to work for the whole town,” the mayor added. He also said that as the process moves forward, there may be alterations to or new aspects of the overall plan depending on financing, including how much grant money the state ultimately provides for a new library. And the mayor stated again that, “we’re not doing this to raise taxes; we’re doing this to stabilize taxes.”