By KAYLA J. MARSH
EATONTOWN — Concerns and questions surrounding a new ordinance that would change current zoning at the Monmouth Mall has caused a public hearing to be pushed back to allow more time to examine the full impact the change could potentially have on the site and neighboring community.
The ordinance, which would establish a new Mixed Use Regional Center Zone at the mall site, currently zoned only for retail use, would provide for development incorporating commercial, residential and recreational uses. It has raised some concerns about the impacts on safety, schools and traffic from the community.
“I like the concept, but I just have some fear … if it isn’t how it was intended,” Councilman Anthony Talerico Jr. said at the governing body’s March 9 meeting. “We’re creating the zone and I want to create it well.”
Kushner Companies, sole owner of the Monmouth Mall, recently announced a $500 million redevelopment plan for the site that would transform the mall into a vast, mixed-use retail, dining and entertainment destination featuring state-of-the-art amenities such as multi-story residential structures, a hotel, an outdoor plaza and biker- and pedestrian-friendly greenspaces and streetscapes.
“We like the developer, we like the concept, but is there something we can put in to make sure that we’re getting exactly what we think we’re changing the zoning for?” Talerico asked.
According to the ordinance introduced, mixed-use requires a building of two or more stories to have a minimum of the ground floor consisting of exclusively nonresidential uses … and a minimum of one floor of residential uses over one or more floors of nonresidential uses.
Nonresidential uses include, but are not limited to, business or professional offices, indoor sports facilities, bowling alleys and health or children activity centers.
The proposed zone change would also allow Kushner Companies to build up to 800 residential units on the property, where 15 percent are required to be affordable housing.
Many have expressed their concern that the additional housing will cause congestion along many roads surrounding the mall, including state routes 35 and 36 and Monmouth County-owned Wyckoff Road and want studies done before any final decision is made.
“I do have some concerns about traffic,” Councilwoman Virginia East said. “I feel it is the responsibility of this governing body for us to investigate that, perhaps get a comprehensive study to see how it is going to impact.
“We should do a study now so we know what we’re getting into later … and then we know how to address it and make informed decisions.”
Borough Engineer David Marks of Middletown-based T&M Associates said that as part of the ordinance preparation, he sat with Kushner Companies professionals to go over some of the concerns related to the number of vehicle trips that would be generated by the project.
“Obviously, this is a major development,” he said. “They were focusing on the New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT) highway occupancy permits as well as coordinating with the county engineering department since traffic is a major concern to the development … and we’re working through some of the numbers.”
Talerico said he feels nothing but good could come from going over things thoroughly.
“Rarely do we create an ordinance of this magnitude, and I think it doesn’t harm us to be a little more deliberative and look at it and ask questions,” Talerico said. “Since we are creating an ordinance that allows up to 800 units, we need to see how many schoolchildren could it potentially bring, we need to look at the ratables now at the mall and how that could change.”
Resident Ted Lewis said he likes the concept for the mall, but feels officials might be biting off more than they can chew.
“I think this is a good concept and I think it could work well and it could really update the mall, but my only concern is that the developer is jamming incredible amounts of stuff into this and overdeveloping, and I think that is where we are now,” he said. “Eight hundred apartments, quite frankly, is absurd.”
Resident John Williams said while the development can be a huge success, the study of the impacts it could bring has only been a “minor league effort.”
“This is a huge potential development, and while I do agree that the mall is deserving of an upgrade, my real concern is that with a half billion dollars … this is a major league effort, but … I only perceive a minor league effort going on here to vet this,” he said. “I don’t see any real substantive effort to look at the traffic, I don’t see one going on to see the impact on the schools.
“I would think with a half billion dollar effort it would be much more deserving of a larger effort before it is voted on and put in place.”
Mayor Dennis Connelly said he felt that there has been a lot of misconceptions about how the zoning ordinance came about.
“The Kushner Company purchased the Monmouth Mall in August of last year … and soon after, the mall’s long-term manager contacted my office and requested a meeting between the new owners of the mall [who] had some plans to do a complete makeover of the mall and myself and borough professionals,” he said.
Connelly said the Kushner team laid out what was going on at malls all over the country and discussed why they believed now was the time to make a huge change to the investment in the mall.
“The architects explained the conceptual plans and went over some preliminary ideas for their vision for this mall and how to make this work, and it was extremely obvious that the current land uses at the mall would not allow for this type of transformation,” he said.
“The residential component was met with immediate questions and major concerns by all professionals, and some discussions began to take place about the process, affordable housing, zoning, traffic and parking.”
Connelly said Kushner did not write the ordinance and the council did not just say “let’s go for it.”
“We did have input on specifics and reviewed the ordinance before it was introduced, and I think when the mall profits and is successful, taxpayers and business benefit as well,” he said.
“Traffic studies, economic impact studies, public comments, site-plan approvals, state and county transportation approvals … there’s a long road ahead before anything happens.
“Remember we don’t have a site plan yet and don’t know if they’re putting up 800 units or 200 units so there’s no way to look at the traffic impact until you see exactly what they want to do.
“Once they tell us exactly what they’re going to build, then they have to prove to us that they can handle the traffic, handle the parking, all those things.
“Most of the traffic right now goes straight through our town and doesn’t even stop, and I think we have to make sure that we get some share of that traffic … to go to our mall and go to our stores and make our businesses successful so that is really why we have to plan this and plan it correctly. The ordinance is only a guideline of what can be there.”
The public comment on the ordinance will now be held at the Borough Council’s April 27 meeting.