Scotch Plains is seeking a developer after recently adopting a long-awaited redevelopment plan for its downtown, aiming to create a vibrant hub with a mix of retail, restaurants, housing, a consolidated library and town hall, public plazas and parking, as depicted in this conceptual rendering. — Courtesy: Township of Scotch Plains
By Tina Traster
Local officials in Scotch Plains have redevelopment on their minds — and they’ve set their sights on many of the township-owned surface parking lots in the heart of the downtown.
“Parking lots don’t serve the best interests for the town,” Mayor Josh Losardo said. “By constructing mixed-use buildings, we grow the population. That leads to more customers, which entices more commercial tenants.”
It’s a key piece of the strategy as Scotch Plains looks to transform its underperforming downtown into a revitalized center for commerce and community. It’s now seeking a developer to help with that effort, a search that ushers in a hopeful era for the town after it recently updated its zoning and affordable housing mandates, adopting a redevelopment plan to create a vibrant hub with a mix of retail, restaurants, housing, a consolidated library and town hall, public plazas and parking.
“If you build it, they will come,” Losardo said. “In today’s economy, with competition between municipalities for jobs and investment, it is critical that Scotch Plains has a comprehensive vision for our downtown based on sound smart planning.”
The plan focuses on 9.5 acres of public land and allows construction of 350 residential units, a minimum of 15,000 square feet of commercial space for restaurants and stores and two open space plazas totaling 13,500 square feet for outdoor events and activities. The redevelopment area mostly includes land on Park, Bartle and Westfield avenues, plus Forest Road.
Local officials intend to pick a developer in the first quarter of 2022, Losardo said, adding that they envision selling off the parcels to one or more builders over time. The town has not hired a real estate broker but has tapped Acacia Financial Group of Montclair as an adviser. The mayor also said the township has completed appraisals, but there is no price tag on the land at this time.
The search comes around six months after the township council voted unanimously to sever its agreement to work exclusively with Advance Realty Investors of Bedminster, which had collaborated with the town for 16 months on phase one of the plan. Scotch Plains officials said they found themselves in conflict with Advance over several issues related to design and construction, prompting them to solicit other prospective developers.
The town’s discussions with Advance also involved PS&S, the Warren-based design and engineering firm, which has since filed notice that it intends to sue the municipality for $1 million over its decision to seek a new developer. The practice claims Scotch Plains used the firm’s plans, drawings and other documents for the project “without adequate compensation” and that it “enticed PS&S to expend extraordinary time, materials and manpower to develop concepts plans and development standards.”
Both Advance and PS&S declined additional comment.
“We negotiated with Advance and PS&S for an extended period of time, but it became apparent that our visions were quite different,” Losardo said, adding that the town allowed the agreement to lapse. “We are now in the position where we can work with them again, but we are now allowed to identify another developer.”
Partnering with the right developer is key, said Peter Kasabach, executive director of New Jersey Future.
“What towns really need to do is manage the redevelopment process,” he said. “They don’t just say ‘Come and tell us what you want to build.’ It’s important to seek out developers who will build what they want.”
Although it is a conceptual plan, its memorialization represents a great leap forward for a town that has been grappling with downtown revival for nearly 40 years. The central business district was identified in planning documents as a priority dating back to 1976. Since 1984, there have been eight major planning studies prepared for the township’s downtown redevelopment area, but none resulted in an adopted plan until last year.
“Over the years, we’ve talked about the need to redevelop, we’ve hired planning firms to conduct studies, we’ve spent money,” Strowe said. “But in 2021, we put it all together by adopting zoning to do this.”
There are roughly 300 businesses downtown, but Tom Strowe, the town’s director of redevelopment, says many close early, weekends are like ghost towns and there is little to attract younger people or couples raising children.
“When I’m out there, talking to people at Scotch Plains Day or at the farmers market, what I hear is that we need more restaurants, small businesses, more services,” Strowe said. “A lot of people are moving to this area from the city. We need to compete if we’re going to attract newcomers.”
He added that officials have buy-in from town residents.
“We surveyed 8,000 people online, and 86 percent said they supported downtown redevelopment,” Strowe said.
The downtown redevelopment plan also calls for a minimum of 15 percent of the rental units and at least 20 percent of the for-sale units to be set aside as affordable housing. Half of the affordable housing units to be built will be subject to a veteran’s residency preference.
Also envisioned is a newly built, 43,000-square-foot combined public library and town hall with community space that replaces the library on Bartle Avenue and the obsolete town hall on Park Avenue. Town hall’s physical location in the nexus of town needs to be replaced with uses that bring people downtown in the evening and on weekends.
“You have to design downtowns for people,” Kasabach said. “You need to pay attention to sidewalks, where bikes can ride, public transit, the circulation of cars.”
Scotch Plains lacks a train station, but town officials said they are working with NJ Transit to create a bus depot.
Officials are also working with a handful of private property owners beyond the redevelopment area to stimulate growth, especially on East 2nd Street.
“We are looking to increase density for housing, to build up retail, to bring more activity to downtown,” Strowe said. “One project feeds off another. We want to grow our downtown. We need people down here to do it.”
Tina Traster is a freelance writer and the editor of Rockland County Business Journal. She is also a former business writer for Crain’s New York Business, real estate writer for the New York Post and staffer at the Bergen Record.