PEAPACK- GLADSTONE – A scaled-down, affordable housing-related plan to redevelop the Lackawanna Avenue corridor drew questions and concerns but no strong objections at a special virtual public hearing on Wednesday, July 29.
The joint meeting of the Borough Council and the Land Use Board featured a presentation by the prospective developer and was viewed by at least 83 residents, of whom 14 spoke out.
It set the stage for another discussion at a special virtual council meeting scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 5.
Council President Mark Corigliano said the council would then likely introduce a rezoning ordinance for the Lackawanna Avenue corridor on Tuesday, Aug. 18. The site is now zoned for Village Neighborhood use.
“I believe it is our single best option,” he said.
The borough faces a court order to provide 78 income-restricted units to meet its state-mandated affordable housing obligation through 2025. It had a plan in May 2018 that met the requirement but components providing 21 of the units later fell through.
Last month, in an effort to help close the gap, the borough’s affordable housing committee drafted an amended plan that sought to provide 13 units by redeveloping Lackawanna Avenue. The plan called for additional development to subsidize the cost of building the affordable homes.
It featured 56 residential units including 13 with income restrictions, 19,000 square feet of retail space, and 28,000 square feet of office space. But the plan drew criticism from board members and residents over its density.
In the meantime, on July 1, the Land Use Board approved a proposal to expand and convert the FinPro building on Route 206 to include 28 residential units, of which five would be income-restricted. Borough officials added those five units to the affordable housing plan, reducing the deficit from 21 units to 16, although Corigliano put the deficit at 17.
The developer of Lackawanna Avenue, Gladstone-based Melillo Equities, then scaled back the project while using that and three other sites to provide 17 income-restricted units.
The revised plans for Lackawanna call for 40 residential units including three with income restrictions, 18,700 square feet of retail space, and 21,150 square feet of office space.
The proposed residential space would total 42,300 square feet, up from the existing 4,464 square feet comprised of three market-rate units.
The total commercial space, at 39,850 square feet, would be down from the existing 46,079 square feet.
Melillo plans to provide 14 additional income-restricted units through the conversion of multi-family, market-rate homes at 201 and 205 Main St., 219 Main St. and 1 Railroad Ave.
Corigliano called the Lackawanna corridor “an underutilized area” with close access to the Gladstone Train Station and Liberty Park.
Anthony Melillo, managing partner of Melillo Equities, characterized it as “a bit decrepit.”
The east side includes 217 Main St., which houses The Stable car dealership; 219 Main St. at the corner, which houses Equitack horse equipment; 12 Lackawanna Ave., which houses Cafe Sapori; and 10 Lackawanna Ave., a vacant office/warehouse formerly occupied by Bevel Saddlery.
The west side includes a house at 33 Lackawanna Ave.; Dominick’s Pizza at 31 Lackawanna Ave.; an office barn with a multi-bay garage; and an unenclosed parking shelter.
A drawing showed a plan calling for five buildings, all with flat roofs.
Three would be on the road’s east side, including a renovated version of the two-story Stable building at 217 Main St.; a three-story building in place of Cafe Sapori; and a renovated version of the two-story former Bevel parcel.
On the west side would be a two-story building and a three-story building, with the existing structures to be removed.
Melillo said the 219 Main St. corner building that houses Equitack would be removed to make the entrance to Lackawanna more visible. The extra space would allow head-on parking on both sides of the road.
A flood plain at the end of Lackawanna would push development toward Main Street, Melillo said. He noted that Lackawanna’s elevation is 12 to 14 feet lower than the parallel section of Main Street, “so we can hide a lot of density.”
The housing would provide a market for college graduates, empty nesters and divorcees who may not be willing or able to spend $500,000 to $1 million for a home, Melillo said. He said the project would be designed to encourage community gatherings.
It would spur new businesses and create more consumer demand, he said. He said he would anticipate tenants like nail salons and professionals seeking relatively small spaces of 600 to 1,200 square feet.
If approved, the project would be built in phases, Melillo said. Obtaining state environmental permits could push the start of construction to mid-2022, he added, with completion then taking three or more years.
Board members Christopher Downing and James Heck inferred that the project would actually increase commercial intensity because most of the 14,000 square feet in the former Bevel is unused. Heck said space in The Stable is also underutilized.
Similar concerns were voiced by the audience.
Rob Weible of Farm Cottage Road, noting that he specializes in real estate acquisition, said vacant commercial space is common. He said more office space could be cut.
Melillo defended the plan, saying there was still demand for small offices.
Bill Simpson of Mendham Road said the project was “a little too big for my taste” and has “a little too many residences.”
Fran Tosti of Chester Road said she was also concerned about the scope. But she said if any developer could do the project well, “it would be Melillo Equities.”
John Sorrenti of Brady Drive said that as motorists travel on Main Street past Lackawanna, they would see 20 to 30 parked cars, and “I don’t think that’s very attractive.”
Sorrenti, an architect, also questioned the idea of flat roofs, saying it was “out of character with Peapack-Gladstone. ”Melillo said he agreed that “the design concept could definitely be tweaked.”
Corigliano stressed that the plan is conceptual, and if the borough rezones to allow it, details like roofs, windows and open space would still undergo a Land Use Board review.
Cornelia Fuller of Main Street said she saw no need for additional nail salons but if the project could have outdoor dining akin to Cafe Azzurro, “this would be wonderful.”
Steve Kinsey of Mosle Road said he supported the plan in principle, and felt it struck “a nice balance” between residential and commercial components.
Rebecka Trelstad of Apgar Avenue called it “a great idea and a great use for the area.”
Trelstad asked if approval would eliminate a need to build 28 affordable units at the Smith tract off Apgar Avenue next to Komline Park. Corigliano said the 28 units were still part of the compliance plan.
Borough Planner John Szabo noted that the borough initially faced an obligation of 200 housing “credits” but bargained it down to 104 credits and 78 actual units.
He said that under a widely used formula prescribed by Mercer County Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson, the borough’s quota would be 120 credits.
“We have a very favorable agreement” Szabo said.
Tosti expressed frustration with the predicament. “It seems like this is a done deal so I’m not really happy about that,” she said.
Simpson raised the issue in the form of a question.
“If you were not up against a wall, would you approve a project of this scope?” he asked. “I don’t need an answer.”
He didn’t get one.