Developer Frank Cretella won final site plan approval Thursday for what will be the largest downtown residential project in the city’s history.
West Second Street Commons will bring 100 rental units and 48 condos, plus retail uses, to the block now anchored by PNC Bank. Planners wrested some concessions on traffic, landscaping and parking from the developer before giving unanimous approval to the plan.
A proposed new two-way exit onto Park Avenue will be modified to permit only a right turn south after planners questioned the impact on traffic flow of vehicles crossing lanes, especially at peak hours. Cretella spoke in favor of giving drivers the most options possible to get in and out of the development, but board member Ron Scott-Bey was most outspoken on the need to avoid backups on the city’s busiest north-south road.
“Giving people choices is not always the best way to go,” Scott-Bey said.
While no parking is required for residential development in the central business district, the developer had proposed 132 spaces for all uses and on Thursday increased the number to 141. Expert witnesses for the developer leaned heavily on the notion that residents of the new project and shoppers would use public transportation or walk downtown, Scott-Bey said, “We’re not a walking village yet.”
On one idea to improve parking, Cretella said he was interested in using the currently under-utilized parking garage next to the Park-Madison office building, but ran into “stupid nonsense” in trying to talk to the owner. Constructed by the Union County Improvement Authority, the garage was supposed to be open for other than office use at times, but talks over several years have yielded no results.
Planning Board Chairman Ken Robertson urged Cretella to “put as much pressure as possible” on the authority for use of the garage, saying, “They walked out on this board.”
The developer will also allot 55 of his proposed parking spaces for “compact cars,” which traffic expert Paul Gowing said would include vehicles such as the Prius, Cooper Mini and SmartCar. Board member Barbara James also suggested use of the shared-rental ZipCar to alleviate parking issues.
The project has only a 10-foot driveway abutting the Raritan Valley line at its south border, but planners asked for a buffer of trees alongside the embankment. Trees and shrubs will also be planted along the western property line, which abuts a PSE&G power station. Trees will be of a columnar type to suit the narrow space.
Cretella plans to erect 100 rental units first, for which he is seeking completion of an HMFA financing agreement and a payment in lieu of taxes plan with the city. The 48 other units will be built later and sold as condos. The PNC Bank will move from its historic building at Park Avenue and West Second Street to new quarters in the retail portion of the project. Cretella is seeking to buy the old building and transform it for hospitality and commercial uses.
One last item is the disposition of the historic Titsworth-Sutphen building, which will be moved off the West Second Street site to make way for construction. Although a city-owned lot at West Second Street and Madison Avenue was mentioned as a possible new location in past talks, other options are still being explored. Cretella will have to seek the endorsement of the Historic Preservation Commission for the final decision on where the pre-Civil War building will be relocated.