Redevelopment Agency works on finalizing redevelopment plan

At its upcoming meeting on April  16 (7 p.m., borough  hall), the Highland Park Redevelopment Agency is expected to report on progress that has been made towards finalizing specific aspects of the Redevelopment Plan as discussed at the Feb. 5 Redevelopment Agency meeting. A formal presentation to Borough Council is slated for May 5, 2015. Officials feel pressed to have concrete proposals in place to deal with anticipated development proposals for the downtown.

The Redevelopment Agency commissioners at the February meeting focused on: 1) continuing the process to amend the Redevelopment Plan; 2) identifying strategies to encourage redevelopment in the central business district while achieving the goals of enhancing  a walkable diverse community,while respecting local, established owners and business operators. Among the issues debated were: ground floor office space and curb cuts.

The Redevelopment Agency Commissioners allocated much of the February meeting to the discussion of proposed amendments to the Redevelopment Plan. This discussion was a carryover from the January 15 meeting. At that time the commissioners agreed to compile a list of proposed amendments to the Redevelopment Plan that would reduce impediments to redevelopment while respecting the plan’s original intent. That recommendation would be presented to the Borough Council to vet and pass along to the Highland Park Planning Board. The planning board ultimately has the authority to draft amendments to the Master Plan and present to the Highland Park Borough Council for final adoption.

The commissioners spent considerable time discussing the current provision in the Redevelopment Plan that restricts commercial office space and professional businesses on the ground floor of new redevelopment projects. Agency Chairwoman Rosanne Baruh expressed concern that forcing professional uses to the upper levels impedes access by seniors and physically disabled.  Joe Bauman, the Redevelopment Agency attorney, explained that such ground floor restriction exists in all of the other municipalities in which he has worked.

As discussed, the rationale for such a restriction is to create  a vibrant and economically viable business district. Specifically, the operational nature of office and professional space conflicts with the some of necessities of a downtown.  Professional businesses often require a level of privacy that conflicts with the current stipulation that building in the central business district have 75 percent fenestration (storefront windows) on the lower level facing Raritan Avenue; the significant frontage window  is essential to viable retail spaces. In addition, professional and commercial uses typically close at 5 p.m., in contrast to the more desirable retail uses that keep the streetscape alive and  well lit (attracting customers) to the later evening hours.  Finally, retail uses often need ground floor street frontage to attract business, particularly foot traffic.

The Redevelopment Agency commissioners agreed to a compromise by recommending that professional and commercial businesses be acceptable on the ground floor as long as they do not front Main Street.

Additional discussion focused on the current provision that there shall be no more than one curb cut per block on Raritan Avenue in the Redevelopment Area and that parking lot access shall be from side streets. There was general agreement among the agency members that one curb cut per block may be too restrictive, especially on a very long block. It was suggested that this provision be eliminated or that language be changed to merely discourage additional curb cuts without actually requiring they be restricted. Commissioners Solomon and Perlman noted that the curb cut provision protects the intent of the Redevelopment Plan to encourage the development of a walkable downtown.  It was also noted that completely eliminating restrictions on curb cuts would have meant that a proposed development of  convenience store (7-11) on the abandoned Sunoco station site (the project was denied site plan approval by the planning board in a long contentious proceeding in 2013) would now have to be approved if it were to come forward again. Other suggestions were made including limiting curb cuts to no more than two per block, and limiting curb cuts based on the size of the block. Discussions concluded with the commissioners tasking attorney Joe Bauman to research the matter and  with researching language reflecting the intent of the discussion.

At publication of this article Redevelopment Agency had not met again to negotiate and agree to final amendment recommendations for presentation to the Borough Council.  Further discussion is anticipated at the upcoming April 16 Redevelopment Agency meeting, with formal presentation to Borough Council occurring at the May 5 Council meeting. The Amended Plan put forward by the Redevelopment Agency is a non-binding recommendation to Borough Council and the Planning Board.  Only the Planning Board can offer official amendments to the Master Plan, but the Town Council is the body that adopts the final plan.

In other business not directly related to amending  the Redevelopment Plan, the commissioners on Feb. 5 were presented with the results of a parking study executed by Yupo Chiu and Stephanie Zarkis graduate students of at the Edward Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers. The study was overseen by Redevelopment Agency Commissioner Clint Andrews who is a professor of planning at the Bloustein School. Conclusions to their surveys performed on Thursday and Friday afternoons and Sunday mornings indicated that although on-street parking is typically close to capacity, many of the available public lots were well below capacity.  A study conducted in 2005 by Keep Middlesex Moving, Inc. found that while 55 percent of the survey respondents  responded that parking spots are Easy or Very Easy to find.  Nevertheless, 54 percent of respondents to that survey identified a need for more parking.

Commissioners noted that potential developers for the downtown have indicated that an impediment to substantial redevelopment in Highland Park’s downtown is the zoning ordinance’s parking requirements. Properties in Highland Park available for redevelopment are generally too small to have  commercially viable building sizes and retail spaces, while still accommodating all of the parking that would be required by current zoning.  Parking requirements often impede developers’ ability to maximize their footprint to a marketable and profitable size. According to the conversation inspired by this Bloustein graduate school parking study, other communities in New Jersey, such as Metuchen have turned to creative parking solutions,  including shared parking arrangements among businesses and between business and downtown residential uses.  Such arrangements, where developers lease parking spaces from underutilized lots, could be a win-win for the community, said the commissioners. Creative parking sharing and could open the door for more development in Highland Park and by optimizing parking capacity and thus creating an environment for more sustainable development of neighborhoods and walking communities.

In addition to shared parking, Mr. Chiu and Ms. Zarkis identified reduced parking minimums and metered parking as opportunities to optimize available parking. Metered two hour parking may discourage the extended use of available on street parking with the benefit of revenue dedicated to streetscape improvements along the Central Business District. This was countered by the concern that this may push parking into the residential neighborhoods to avoid paid parking. Other municipalities have completely eliminated parking requirements for new development. Many walkable communities have shifted from having required parking minimums that force additional parking, to having parking maximums that limit parking in favor of a more walkable scale.

Although the commissioners seemed to support a  relaxing of the current rules that limit development and buildings in order to accommodate more parking, no definitive proposal emerged.


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