Planning Bd. Okays Redevelopment For Rialto, Lord & Taylor Sites

By REBECCA MEHORTER
Specially Written for Leader/Times

WESTFIELD — Westfield Planning Board members decided to approve the Rialto Theatre property and the three Lord & Taylor properties as areas in need of redevelopment at their special meeting on Monday.

Phil Abramson and Chris Colley of outside redevelopment consultant Topology.is presented a preliminary investigation report on each of the properties. They explained how they believe the qualities of the properties, as researched by Topology.is, make them worthy of designation.

The two first presented on the Rialto property, which is 244-254 East Broad Street and designated as Block 3107 Lot 1. Mr. Abramson called the .32-acre property “really an iconic building.”

Mr. Abramson said, however, that the building itself fits the criteria to be designated “in need of redevelopment” for a few reasons. First, he said, it could be considered unsafe. Mr. Abramson said he saw wiring from old technologies that had not been properly taken care of.

“We saw some things that a movie theater would never be built like this today,” Mr. Abramson said.

The building also was grandfathered into the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), so it is not compliant with ADA protocols. Things like very narrow fire escapes, he said, could count as proof of obsolescence and lead to safety issues, especially for people with accessibility limitations. Additionally, the building’s basement was full of water, Mr. Abramson said, when he observed it. The disrepair of the commercially-used building, including the wiring and water issues, would affect a new certificate of occupancy.

Mr. Abramson said the Rialto property, as a theater, also could be considered obsolete.

“This type of theater, the small downtown, small-screen theater, cannot keep up,” he said. “They cannot modernize. Even the larger theaters are having trouble these days, but at least they are at a scale where they can offer in-theater dining and other things of that nature.”

Mr. Abramson also mentioned that the property could be considered excessive land coverage. He said it does not have parking on it and thus requires customers to use municipal parking.

“This board would be well within its legal rights and the framework in the statute to go ahead and make that designation,” he said.

A few planning board members expressed concern that the investigation would give developers down the line room to suggest the building itself could be considered for a teardown.

“One of the things we’re concerned about is a potential future developer saying, ‘Look, a planner’s report said it was a derelict building, it’s not worth saving, it’s wet, it’s moldy,’” board member Robert Newell said. “We don’t want them to use this as fodder for their argument.”

“It is wet and moldy,” Mr. Abramson said. “I can’t make it not wet and moldy.” But, he said, he did not intend to take a position on the fate of the building and instead looked at the history and current reality of the property. However, Mr. Abramson said he will add a cover letter to the report when it is sent to the governing body to clarify that the intentions of the report are the obsolescence of the use of the building and not the building itself.

On the condition that Toplogy.is adds the cover letter, the planning board agreed the property is an area in need of redevelopment.

Mr. Abramson next presented the findings from the preliminary investigations of the three Lord & Taylor properties: Block 2502, Lot 14, 630 North Avenue West; Block 2506, Lot 1, 526 North Avenue West; and Block 2508, Lot 11, 601-613 North Avenue West. He said the three properties share one owner, Hudson’s Bay Company, and have a combined area of 7.39 acres. He reminded the planning board that the master plan’s 2019 reexamination directly calls the town to address this property as it says, “Future redevelopment opportunities that should be explored in more detail include a reassessment of the… properties owned by Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), the parent company of Lord & Taylor along North Avenue.”

Mr. Abramson said the properties are in need of redevelopment as they fit criterion D, which says areas can be determined in need of redevelopment if they are “dilapidated, obsolescent, faultily arranged or designed improvement detrimental to the public safety, health, morals, or welfare.”

Mr. Abramson said parking lots can be considered obsolete due to a court decision from the case called “Concerned Citizens vs. Mayor and Council of the Borough of Princeton.” Mr. Abramson said he could argue the parking lots are an inefficient way to provide parking and come at the expense of other uses. This affects the welfare of the town because it leaves less land available for other uses and provides insufficient parking through single-level parking.

He said there is an argument that existing parking lots, besides their inadequate ability to provide parking, do not contribute to the downtown. Mr. Abramson said the lots have no functional value besides providing parking spaces and that they create a “break in the street wall.” He added that noncontributory properties harm the welfare of the town because they “result in inferior assessed value and limited potential tax revenue.”

He said he could argue the design of the parking lots could be detrimental to the health, safety and welfare of the community. The design could affect health, safety and welfare because dangerous layouts are a safety hazard, walkability has a public health benefit and poor stormwater management can lead to flooding. The lots, he said, have a few safety issues. For example, Mr. Abramson said, Lot 14 has no pedestrian striping for crossing the lot and wide drive lanes with tight turns.

The board unanimously agreed to send its recommendation to the town council that the three properties should be considered areas in need of redevelopment.

Board member Michael Ash said the decision is a way to face reality and give the town a solution to a coming issue. “We’re using the strongest land-use tool that the municipality has on offer to find some flexibility and to find a future for this site that works for the town, that works for the property owner, and that’s what this process is about,” he said. “It’s a way forward.”

Now that the planning board has recommended to the mayor and town council to declare these properties areas in need of redevelopment, the town council has no time constraint to discuss the topic. However, town planner Don Sammet said he knows through informal conversations that the council plans to discuss the topic at its Tuesday, August 11 meeting.