Berkeley Heights Mayor Angie Devanney (left) and David Checchio, general counsel for Elite Properties, visited the firm’s new 53-unit Berkeley Crossing II apartment building on Springfield Avenue. The property is part of a surge of new investment that is bringing hundreds of new homes to the municipality’s downtown. — Photo by Aaron Houston for Real Estate NJ
By Patricia Alex
A spate of public and private investment is transforming the area around the train station in Berkeley Heights and allowing this small township on the western edge of Union County to reimagine a walkable and commuter-friendly downtown.
More than new 450 apartments have opened recently or are planned within a few blocks of the station on Sherman Avenue, which runs parallel to the main commercial corridor of Springfield Avenue. Nearly 200 units for renters age 55 and older have opened just outside the downtown near the community pool and a new YMCA on Locust Avenue, while Toll Bros. is completing 67 luxury for-sale townhomes and condominiums known as Carriages at Berkeley.
In all, the projects will add more than 725 new households to the core of Berkeley Heights, in a surge of new investment that looks beyond the high-profile redevelopment underway at the former Connell Corporate Park, the 185-acre campus just south of Interstate 78.
“There hasn’t been a lot of development or change in Berkeley Heights in probably a generation, so this is a big change,” Mayor Angie Devanney said. The township, consisting of mostly single-family homes, has about 13,000 residents. The building boom will add nearly 1,000 housing units and substantially change the downtown, where officials also are courting new retailers and sprucing up public spaces.
Much of the construction was spurred by the court-mandated obligation for affordable housing. However, those set-asides — about 15 percent of each project — are contained within developments that will bring hundreds of market-rate homes, with one-bedroom rentals starting at about $2,500 a month and townhouses for sale starting at $1.14 million.
Township Administrator Liza Viana said efforts were made to manage the growth as best as possible and use parks, walkways and other public investments to make a “cohesive” and walkable downtown.
“It was not necessarily our choice to build all these residential units, but what we can do is exert the most control with developers,” Viana said. “We’re maintaining a balance of fulfilling our obligation for housing but doing what’s best for Berkeley Heights.”
The state Supreme Court’s so-called Mount Laurel decision nearly 50 years ago constitutionally required more affluent municipalities to provide a “realistic opportunity” for a fair share of low- and moderate-income housing. In Berkeley Heights and most towns statewide, those efforts stalled amid years of legal and political wrangling.
Berkeley Heights’ obligation was negotiated to 389 affordable units after builders sued. The set-asides in the new developments bring the township near its total.
Officials and developers have jumpstarted the projects by negotiating tax incentives such as payments in lieu of taxes or PILOT agreements, while officials have leveraged state and federal grants to incorporate green space and pedestrian paths that help link the housing to the train station.
Along the way, a new $32 million, 60,000-square-foot municipal complex, which includes the police station and library, opened on Park Avenue near the train station in 2020. It provides an anchor of sorts and, most critically, additional commuter parking. The train — on NJ Transit’s Gladstone branch — does not offer a one-seat ride to Manhattan, but commuters can switch at the nearby Summit station.
Some of the new residential projects are helping to fill voids left by the departure of commercial staples along Springfield Avenue, a busy county road. The Terrace at Berkeley Heights consists of 20 apartments and 4,000 square feet of retail at a former movie theater property at 450 Springfield Ave., while Clarus, slated for completion in 2024, replaces the former Kings supermarket at the intersection of Lone Pine Drive.
The latter project, by JMF Properties, is the largest of the developments in town with 221 units, 32 of which are set aside for affordable housing. A few blocks south on Lone Pine Drive, 170 rental units are under construction at Modera Berkeley Heights by Mill Creek Residential, which advertises the complex as “near Summit.”
Township officials hope the critical mass of apartments will allow Berkeley Heights to attract new retail and restaurants and brand its downtown on its own, without relying on proximity to its more mature neighbor to the Northeast.
“We’re working to build cohesively, so it’s not a piecemeal downtown,” Viana said.
For years, redevelopment efforts in Berkeley Heights had focused on the Connell Corporate Park off I-78, long home to 1.5 million square feet of office space and, more recently, a LifeTime Athletic facility and an Embassy Suites. Its owner, The Connell Co., initiated plans around 2018 to modernize those buildings while diversifying the campus with more than 325 residential units and 190,000 square feet of entertainment, dining and retail space. Work on that reinvention is scheduled to begin shortly, officials said.
Local officials also learned recently that another iconic office park in town would be vacated with the announcement that Nokia Bell Labs was leaving its longtime headquarters in Murray Hill, which straddles New Providence and Berkeley Heights, for a new building in downtown New Brunswick. But officials insist that the downtown redevelopment, in the western part of Berkeley Heights, will not compete with plans for the big corporate parks to the east.
“It will all be complementary,” said Brian Kraut, chair of the township economic development committee.
Kraut allows that Berkeley Heights’ downtown probably “can’t compete with the Summit vibe,” but thinks the new residential development, combined with more pedestrian-friendly redesigns and initiatives will attract retail.
“We’re really trying to connect the dots,” Kraut said. “The opportunity is substantial for new businesses in Berkeley Heights.”
The new residential units are filling up fast, according to developers and town officials, who are hoping commercial tenants will soon follow.
Elite Properties of Watchung has just signed up two retail tenants — a fitness club and a computer school for kids — at its mixed-use, 53-unit Berkeley Crossing II apartment building nearing completion on Springfield Avenue, about a quarter-mile from the train station.
“The true indication of a strong community is getting those retail leases done, so to see the interest in retail space is another validation of our decision to invest in Berkeley Heights,” said David Checchio, general counsel for Elite.
The firm also built a 10-unit apartment building closer to the train and created a pocket park named for the former owner of the land, the late Vito Mondelli, who operated a farm stand there.
Green space that is part of the new downtown includes Peppertown Park at Sherman and Plainfield avenues, named in homage to the favored crop of the Italian immigrant farmers who first settled the township. Berkeley Heights has secured nearly $1 million in state grants to renovate the park, while the mayor said a dog park is also planned nearby.
As envisioned, Sherman Avenue, now a hodgepodge of residential and commercial space, would morph into more of a Main Street for Berkeley Heights. Grant money is helping construct sidewalks and a bike lane and to provide traffic mitigation on the thoroughfare.
Lance Blake, an architect who worked on The Terrace, said his client, Dr. Foun-Chung Fan, is eyeing “boutique” residential projects on Sherman as well.
“Smaller projects make sense for smaller cities,” said Blake, president of Rotwein+Blake in Livingston. “The town is trying to reactivate the Sherman Avenue corridor. There is a lot of potential.”
Patricia Alex is a former newspaper reporter and editor who covers real estate and other topics in New Jersey.