By Jacqueline Durett
EDISON—Residents packed the Clara Barton First Aid Squad building on Jan. 14 to hear from designated planners Heyer, Gruel & Associates of Red Bank about their intentions for the Clara Barton area.
However, what Susan Gruel and Fred Heyer wanted from the session was to hear from residents about what they’d like to see done in the area before they started drawing up plans. They gave a brief presentation that covered the borders of the redevelopment area — Amboy Avenue and its adjacent streets between the New Jersey Turnpike and Route 1, and covered, at a high level, what their goals of the project are.
According to one slide, the intent is to “create a more vibrant neighborhood by encouraging new construction and rehabilitation of existing building with mixed retail restaurant and residential use.”
Then they turned their attention to the audience. Heyer said the residents are the experts on the area, and know what kind of development they would want in Clara Barton.
“We want to hear from you,” she said.
Over the course of the next hour and a half, residents addressed some of their concerns about the project — such as traffic, parking, adding children to the schools, whether the plans would include low-income housing, empty storefronts and a lack of enough types of stores to attract people to use a downtown corridor.
Some residents spoke about the overcrowding at Herbert Hoover Middle School, and the negative impact more residential housing could have.
“We can’t have any more residential development in this plan,” said resident
A few residents said what’s happening in Metuchen gave them pause. They felt Clara Barton didn’t have the pull of a train station the way Metuchen does, and at the same time, they didn’t want to face the downtown vacancy issues Metuchen is seeing.
Nancy Eggert was one of a few residents who brought up concerns about creating “canyon effect” with many tall building closely abutting Amboy Avenue—something she’s seen in Metuchen.
There were also a number of areas where residents agreed, particularly in the need for an ice cream shop. But that request opened up a broader discussion about what many residents really want: family-friendly establishments, green space, small businesses and to preserve the culture and charm of their neighborhood. There were business owners in attendance, and they and residents alike agreed that in order for any business to succeed, residents have to be willing to regularly patronize them.
One such business owner was Dr. Anthony Acello, who has a practice on Amboy Avenue and also is renting out space on the street. He said he felt a deep commitment to make sure he has the right tenants in his properties.
“I won’t let anyone in this room down,” he said.
However, he added he has been facing challenges bringing in tenants to the area, because of both a lack of interest as well as feedback from a bank that the area is dilapidated. He said the area has been a redevelopment zone for 20 years, and in that time, very little has happened.
Sally Yabra, owner of The Coffee House in Clara Barton, said she needs more resources to keep her business going. She said, for instance, if she runs out of tomatoes during the day, she doesn’t have anywhere close by to get more. The impact of that, combined with limited parking, has been tough on her ability to run her business.
“The little things add up in the end,” she said.
David J. Ostrowski of Provident Bank in Edison and a member of the township’s chamber of commerce, cautioned the amount of retail the area could sustain with three malls nearby. He said the area has more competition from local malls than many other successful downtown districts.
Plenty of local officials also attended the meeting, including township attorney Bill Northgrave, the townships’ council vice president, Alvaro Gomez, and council members Sapana Shah, Robert Karabinchak and Leonard Sendelsky. Gomez said he the council is working to make Edison friendlier to business and actively working to change negative perceptions from the past.
Heyer said she anticipated holding a follow-up meeting in the next six to eight weeks with some plans based on the feedback she received at the meeting. Members in attendance from the Clara Barton Neighborhood Preservation Committee, which co-sponsored the meeting with the chamber of commerce, urged residents to get involved with the committee and make their concerns and ideas known on a regular basis.