UPDATED: Clark Says Yes to Plan for Town Center on Former Gypsum Site
The Clark Planning Board approved the new plan and rezoning at Tuesday night's special meeting.
At Tuesday night's special meeting, Clark Planning Board members unanimously approved a master plan revision that will rezone the 28-acre former U.S. Gypsum paper plant to encourage development of a new town center.
The plan, prepared by Planner Kevin O'Brien of Shamrock Enterprises and Town Engineer Richard O'Connor, suggests a new "Limited Commercial Industrial" district for the Gypsum property (which is currently zoned for industrial use) and the ShopRite side of Central Avenue from Raritan Road to the Parkway circle. The vision presented in the plan is for a new town center – an environmentally friendly commercial center with retail and office space in "a park like setting with tree-lined streets" and with "a central architectural focus such as a fountain, plaza, clock tower or landscaped boulevard." See a PDF of the full report in our gallery, right.
More than 70 residents attended last night's meeting and several voiced concerns about how the new development would affect traffic, whether a town center was the best use of the property, and what sorts of stores might rent there.
O'Brien explained to the residents that the path to such a development will likely be a three or four step process, with rezoning being the first step. Next, council will have to draft and approve an ordinance to define the zone. O'Brien told Patch that the ordinance could be highly specific, not only limiting the size of stores, but also permitting only certain kinds of stores and offices. The ordinance could also include design specifications that would define the aesthetics of the development's appearance, landscaping and building materials.
"The Master Plan is simply a comprehensive long range plan intended to guide growth and development of community," said O'Brien. "This step we are at right now is the first step. It lays out a vision for community – what we hope this area will look like."
The last steps in the process would happen when a developer with a contract to purchase the property comes before the planning board with a site plan. At that time, O'Brien explained, particulars regarding traffic, design, fiscal and environment impact issues would be hashed out.
Mayor Bonaccorso told Patch that council will move quickly on drafting an ordinance to define the LCI zone, and could have something to present to the public in April.
On resident asked whose vision this was for a new town center and what it would look like.
The mayor responded, saying it was his vision based on a beautiful shopping area he saw in Georgia.
"If I had the powers of 'I Dream of Genie' and could blink and put that here," said the mayor. " The landscaping, the flowers - it was the most breathtaking thing I’ve seen for a shopping center. If there’s anything that’s going to go here, I’ll give my damnedest to make sure it’s something we can all be proud of. Not everyone is going to love it, and as we go forward everyone has a right to have concerns. We will give it our best to make sure we take care of those concerns to the best of our ability. You have my pledge that that’s what I would like to do."
Other discussion items:
-Tax revenue from the property. Several residents proposed other ideas for the property including a sports complex and the back nine holes for Hyatt Hills Golf Course. The mayor explained that he would love to have either of those options, but they would provide no revenue for the town and would come at a very high cost to taxpayers. He estimated that if a new town center is built, it could provide more than $1 million in tax rateables for Clark.
-A solar field? Bill Caruso, a former Clark councilman and president of Clark Senior Housing has been vocal about his opposition to the property. The mayor responded to Caruso at again at Tuesday's meeting, arguing that Caruso was pushing for a solar field and that the town would be open to that, but it simply did not materialize. Caruso argued that it was the town that discouraged the building of a solar field and that such a use would be extremely light impact and not affect traffic. Caruso also said that he felt high-end stores would not come to Clark and that the mayor's vision is "a dream." Caruso said it is not too late to look into a solar field and put Clark on the map as a "green" town.
-Put it on the ballot. Caruso further suggested that the town put the idea of rezoning for a new town center to a vote, making it a ballot question in November. The mayor responded by saying he did "the next best thing," when he sent a survey asking residents what they would like to see on the property.
-Notifying Cranford residents. Several Cranford residents asked the mayor to please reach out to Cranford and ask their elected officials to keep them informed on the project. The mayor said he would be meeting with Cranford officials soon.
-Store size. O'Brien said the proposed plan would only include buildings on 25 percent of the property. The rest would be buffering, landscaping and impervious coverage. The plan is for one larger, supermarket-sized store and the rest to be under 50,000 square feet. The mayor added that the property would only be one-story.
-Something for the kids. Planning Board Member Neil Curcio voiced his support for the rezoning and noted that most stores in Clark close around 5 p.m. and there isn't much for kids to do here. "The bright lights of Westfield draw them," said Curcio. "There is no where around here for kids to go after 5 p.m."
-The risk of not rezoning. Several board members expressed that if Clark is not proactive in this process, a developer could submit a proposal for another factory, housing or other less attractive options.
-A model of what the property will look like. The mayor said he plans to ask any developer to create a scale model of their proposal and that he will make that model available to all residents who would like to see it.
What do you think of the plan for a new town center? Tell us in the comments.