Emphasizing that the redevelopment plan for the 350-acre Princeton Junction train station area would continue to be a work in process, but that it would allow redevelopment to move to the next step, three members of the West Windsor Township Council voted to adopt the plan Monday, March 23, after a four-and-a-half hour meeting.
Council President Charles Morgan voted against its adoption, saying that he feared the plan did not provide enough safeguards to ensure a large number of housing units would be built in the redevelopment area in the future. Council members Linda Geevers, George Borek, and Heidi Kleinman voted for its adoption.
A standing room-only crowd consisting of residents, both for and against adoption, crowded council chambers to passionately argue their views on the plan, which comes more than three years after the site was deemed in need of redevelopment.
"This is not the end — this is the beginning of the end," said John Madden, quoting Winston Churchill, during the meeting during his description of the implications of adopting the plan. He said having the plan will allow township officials to work with state agencies, including New Jersey Transit and the state Department of Transportation, as well as the county and the West Windsor Parking Authority in hashing out funding and finishing designs for the station’s core area.
Details for NJT properties and the station core area — including the Bus Rapid Transit system, kiss and ride, and other immediate train station features — could not be completed without the adoption, first, of a plan, some officials had argued.
Madden also told the council that "the goals which the Township Council set, and the principles set to carry out those goals remain intact" in the plan. He also said that over the past decades, three different plans had been drafted for the area, none of which have stuck so far. But the redevelopment plan has come as a result of years of public input gathering and hard work, he said.
In 2005 the council adopted the area as a "study area," subsequently designating it as an area in need of redevelopment. In 2006, after a thorough interview process, council hired RMJM Hillier as the architect for drafting the plan for the area. There were three major public-input gathering workshops, but some residents grew weary after one of Hillier’s proposals for the area included a possible 1,000-unit residential scenario. Three members of council opposed to this scenario won election in May, 2007, halting the process, until it was jumpstarted in late 2007.
Council had also come up with 15 goals and 91 policies to guide the redevelopment process. Before 2007 was over, the council sent the task of creating a redevelopment plan to the Planning Board, which sent it back to the council shortly after, claiming the council was micromanaging. Council took on the task, directing its professionals, including Madden, traffic consultant Gary Davies, and Planning Board attorney Gerald Muller to work with Hillier in re-drafting a plan focusing on parking, road improvements, and a main street with a limited number of housing units.
In October, 2008, Hillier’s draft plan was shown to council, which spent the rest of the year revising and working on the language and maps before sending it to the Planning Board for review. It then listened to public input, and incorporated suggestions for the language of the plan before introducing and then adopting it.
The plan calls for a total base number of 483 housing units consisting of 311 market-priced units and 172 affordable housing units. As for non-residential development, the plan proposes 207,910 square feet of retail with the potential option to increase retail floor area in District 1 – which encompasses the 25 acres off Washington Road owned by InterCap Holdings – by an additional 67,500 square feet along with 7,500 square feet of added office space.
If the option for 75,000 square feet of additional commercial space is implemented, it would add an obligation for 9 more affordable housing units. This would bring the total redevelopment area residential unit count to 496, with 311 market units and 185 affordable units.
Office use is the predominant future land use proposed for the redevelopment area, with a total of 871,909 square feet, built and proposed.
With traffic congestion a main concern with residents, Madden told the council that "there is less traffic in this redevelopment area than the current zoning would create." This is because there is half a million square feet less development. However, "There will continue to be congestion, which is unavoidable."
Madden said there is no plan that could fix the traffic congestion because of the "capacity limitation" imposed on the roads in the east side of the redevelopment area by previous township councils. "This plan, or any plan, is not going to relieve that traffic."
The plan calls for a total of 487 units — or 496, if InterCap decides to build the second phase of retail and office space already allowed for in the redevelopment plan, and thus, creates a Council on Affordable Housing obligation of nine more units. Of those units, 311 would be market, and 284 of which would be located in District 1. The other 27 would be located in District 7, which would all be affordable and come as a result of the Sarnoff General Development Plan, which was already adopted prior to redevelopment discussions.
"The issue of school kids is something that’s going to be monitored over time," said Madden, who said that it would be a factor in determining, during negotiations with developers in the future, whether those developers would be able to build more housing units. Madden said that the multiplier of .28 children generated per dwelling unit was a "very generous multiplier" and that he has seen most studies show that transit-oriented developments produce far fewer school children. He said that usually a number more like .11 would be used.
In District 1, officials were able to set out a number of 350 units, 284 of which are market and 57 of which are affordable, because the number of required affordable units was reduced by the credits the developer would receive for demolition of the current buildings on site. This number excludes the nine affordable units that could be developed if the developer decides to add the additional retail on site.
Between 250,000 to 380,000 square feet of office space is associated with the possible transfer from the Sarnoff Woods in District 10 into District 6, which includes everything left and right of Vaughn Drive, including Mack Cali and properties owned by West Windsor. It is zoned for parking and offices. That, along with public parking would generate between 44 and 67 affordable units. And 40,000 square feet of retail near the parking garages would generate about four COAH units.
However, Muller explained that instead of accommodating these units on site, the plan would be written in a way that states that the affordable housing generated by development on the state property to subsidize the parking should be waived by COAH. The idea is that if there is a public entity that is building nonresidential space other than parking garages, it cannot build it unless it secures a waiver from COAH that there will not be growth share attributable to the township. The whole purpose of this, officials said, is to serve regional needs in terms of parking, and West Windsor should not be stuck with the growth share that comes from that public initiative.
Officials said that it would be up to New Jersey Transit to seek the waiver and explain to COAH officials that the two initiatives are a clash of two state policies — to promote transit-oriented development and serve the regional needs of commuters, and to provide enough affordable housing for the state’s residents.
Madden said there are 5,500 parking spaces called for in the plan, and the next step after adoption is for NJT and the parking authority to detail their respective parking plans, as well as plan for the design of the station core area. "New Jersey Transit has just preliminary started on that, so that will create some alterations in the plan," Madden said.
Before making a decision, council took comments from the public. As residents commented one-by-one, tension in the room grew, as those in support of the plan and those against it booed and clapped at others’ comments.
Resident Ina Marx said she felt West Windsor really needed a development plan, even if it is not perfect as it currently is. "You can’t nit-pick, or we’ll never get anywhere," she said.
Resident Al Lerner, who attends almost every council meeting with his wife, Janet, said that "a ‘no’ vote on this ordinance is a guaranteed repeat of the Toll Brothers episode." Toll Brothers had brought a developer’s remedy suit against the township in 1993 and won the case. What resulted was the Estates at Princeton Junction.
Most residents who were against adoption said they were against adoption because they felt more work and more information, including financial feasibility studies, were needed. "It’s a big improvement over previous plans," but there are still many things missing, said resident Hemi Nae. "This bad plan with its ambiguous wording will open the door to interpretations. Why not wait until we have all the missing pieces?"
Dan Fabrizio, a resident and commuter, also urged the council to vote not. He said he moved to West Windsor after living in Journal Square a transit village in Jersey City, to get away from the traffic congestion. He said he worried that all of the development, including of a parking garage, would increase the time it takes to get in and out of the train station. "We don’t need housing; we don’t need retail; and we don’t need roads going through the lots," he said. He also said building a parking garage would "quadruple" his commuting costs.
Morgan said he believed transit villages "are a place to be," but stressed that he was against "hastiness and urbanization of our town."
He said he also opposed the idea that West Windsor had to cater to "regionalization" needs to help residents of other towns, but on the backs of West Windsor taxpayers. But the most prominent issue Morgan raised throughout the meeting was the idea of too much housing to come later. The plan states that after the first phase of construction is complete, developers could negotiate based on studies of the impact to the township, including economically, financially, and on the number of school children generated. However, Morgan said a developer might complete all of the studies with favorable results but still be denied by West Windsor for further development, which could cause a legal challenge.
And, "if everything we’ve heard about economics is true, we’re kidding ourselves if we think there’s going to be less than 935 units," he said, referring to an earlier comment by Steve Goldin, InterCap CEO, who said that developers would not be interested in redeveloping the site unless the 935 units served as a base number.
Kleinman said there has been a tremendous amount of discussion on redevelopment, specifically on the plan, and throughout the process, "there are things I had to compromise on to build on the information we had at the time," she said. As a result, the amenities were scaled back, and there were adjustments made. "As a transit project, this is a gem," she said, adding that now, the township can have something to bring to the state for funding.
"It’s not the perfect plan, but it’s a plan that we can all work on," said Borek.