Friday, November 30, 2007

Planners Probe Land Use Issues

Future development should feature higher buildings with more density around four city transit hubs, planners agreed Thursday, but split over the preferred kind of land use.

In a special meeting Thursday (Nov. 29, 2007), the Planning Board discussed aspects of the land use element of the master plan. The city has committed to transit-oriented development, meaning tying proposed projects to rail and bus links at two existing train stations and two former ones. While many of the proposals are for residential development, some Planning Board members asked for more consideration of “community commercial” and light industrial development along the Raritan Valley Line rail corridor.

Community commercial development might include businesses such as Home Depot alongside the tracks, and light industrial development would continue the historical uses of rail-side buildings.

Board members agreed that the tallest buildings and highest density should be in the central business district, which includes the main train station on North Avenue. They favor six stories as the maximum height, although a developer has proposed higher buildings behind the existing historic commercial buildings around the station. For the Netherwood station, board members envisioned a height of four stories. For development at the sites of former stations on Clinton and Grant avenues, the board agreed that development needed to produce enough density to convince NJ Transit that the stations should be restored.

The discussion was keyed to the concept of transit-oriented development, a popular notion along rail lines statewide. Seventeen “transit villages” have been designated by the state Department of Transportation, but only a few have progressed to development, Planning Director Bill Nierstedt said.

Nierstedt presented a chart comparing the heights, density and other statistics in the 17 designated locations and a few others. But board members asked for more statistics showing how Fanwood and Westfield set parameters for their transit-oriented growth.

The question of where to put parking was discussed. Plainfield currently relies on parking lots, but underground garages or parking decks may have to be built to accommodate new development. Planning consultant George Stevenson of Remington & Vernick said he knows the city is planning a six-story parking deck off East Second Street between Watchung and Park avenues.

Board members Donna Vose and Cory Storch stressed the need for some light industrial or commercial development to provide jobs. So far, most proposals have been for residential development.

Late in the discussion, the issue of putting multi-story residential buildings right next to the train tracks emerged. Storch recalled how the board disagreed with a proposal to put a middle school next to the train tracks and said, “Now we’ve done a kind of 180 flip here.”

Board member Gordon Fuller, a railroad executive, agreed.

“There is nothing that strikes terror into my heart like building residential right up against the tracks,” Fuller said, citing complaints about noise from train whistles, bells and idling engines.

Fuller said noise can be buffered by trees and landscaping, but only up to about three stories. Those living on higher floors would get all the noise.

The board then discussed having community commercial uses along the north side of the tracks east of the main station, as suggested by board member William Toth, an architect. Toth also suggested adaptive re-use of the existing industrial buildings along the tracks, Nierstedt countered with concerns about land cost and brownfields problems.

Besides what will go in the clusters around the transit hubs, board chairman Ken Robertson and others questioned what would be built between the four circles. Robertson said he didn’t want “a wall of apartments” all along the rail line.

Still unresolved is where the city’s Public Works yard will go if displaced by a proposal to redevelop the north and south side of the tracks between Richmond and Berckman streets. City Administrator Marc Dashield said the city is looking at some sites, but none has been selected.

Discussion of the land use element will continue at the board’s Dec. 20 meeting.

--Bernice Paglia


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