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Developer will present plans next month for affordable housing units near Lawrence Shopping Center

The would-be developer of a 70-unit affordable housing development at the rear of the Lawrence Shopping Center will have to wait until next month to find out whether the Lawrence Township Zoning Board of Adjustment will grant a use variance to allow it to move forward.

The zoning board began the public hearing on RPM Development LLC’s proposed 100% affordable housing development at its Sept. 16 meeting, but ran out of time to complete it. Additional testimony may be heard at the zoning board’s Oct. 21 meeting.

RPM Development LLC needs the use variance because duplex and multi-family developments are not permitted in the Highway Commercial or R-4 residential zones. Located off Texas Avenue, most of the four-acre site is zoned Highway Commercial and a small portion is zoned R-4. The density of the development at 17.9 units per acre exceeds the maximum of 10 units per acre in the R-4 zone.

With the exception of the apartment set aside for the site superintendent, all of the apartments are earmarked for low- and moderate-income households. The development will help Lawrence Township meet its obligation to provide affordable housing as the result of a lawsuit filed against it – and several other towns – by the nonprofit Fair Share Housing Center.

The site was added to the township’s Housing Element and Fair Share Plan in the Lawrence Township Master Plan in July. The site would have been rezoned to permit the multi-family development, but the developer is working under a tight deadline to apply for funding under the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program.

Kevin Kavanaugh, RPM Development’s vice president for development, told the zoning board that the company specializes in developing affordable housing and has done so for more than 30 years. It builds and manages affordable housing developments, including 4,000 units in New Jersey.

Kavanaugh said the owners of the Lawrence Shopping Center would sell the land to RPM Development LLC. The proposed development is “squished” into a tighter spot than RPM development would like, he acknowledged.

Much of the Sept. 16 public hearing focused on traffic and parking issues, with some discussion about the lack of recreational amenities for the residents of the 69 affordable rental units.

The original plan showed 79 parking spaces, of which 23 spaces were to be located on Texas Avenue. The rest of the parking spaces would be distributed on the property. A variance is required, because 141 spaces are required for the mix of one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments.

In an amendment to the application submitted earlier in the day Sept. 16, the plan showed 102 parking spaces. Of those 102 parking spaces, 42 would be located on land belonging to the Lawrence Shopping Center – between the rear of the shopping center and the three apartment buildings. The rest of the spaces would be located on RPM Development’s property.

Traffic engineer Justin Taylor, who represents RPM Development, said the number of parking spaces is sufficient. Given the income limits of the renters, the number of cars that could be expected to be parked at the 100% affordable housing development would be fewer than in a market-rate housing development, he said.

Taylor said the applicant has data from its other properties that show one car per apartment. NJTransit operates two bus routes nearby, which would reduce the parking demand.

Taylor said the proximity of a grocery store and other retail stores at the Lawrence Shopping Center, as well as the potential that some renters could find jobs in those stores, also reduces the demand for parking.

“In my opinion, this is more than sufficient to meet the demand for parking,” Taylor said.

Kavanaugh agreed and said that “what we find is that people find it more convenient to have one car.” There is typically one person of driving age who lives in the rental apartment, he said.

When zoning board Chair Christina Hultholm asked about the fate of those parking spaces if the Lawrence Shopping Center is sold, Kavanaugh said the current owner has agreed to work with RPM Development LLC to craft an agreement for the parking spaces. It could be an easement, outright ownership or a long-term lease of 45 years. The situation is “rapidly evolving,” he said.

Walking the zoning board through the rest of the application, Thomas Muller, the applicant’s civil engineer, said that although it does not include formal recreational amenities, there is an area of open space near the Texas Avenue entrance to the shopping center that would be part of the development.

Muller said his client is agreeable to working with the township to provide recreational amenities. Since the open space area may be needed for stormwater runoff, it would not be possible to pave it for a basketball court, but benches or swings are a possibility, he said.

Zoning board vice Chair Charles Lavine said there are problems with the application, citing the density of 17 units per acre and the lack of recreational amenities.

“To approve this application – the ‘i’s are not dotted and the ‘t’s are not crossed. I am not comfortable with what I am hearing. There are a lot of apartments. Where are the children going to play?” Lavine said.

Lavine said he grew up in Trenton, where there are many high-rise, public housing developments in the city.

Kavanaugh said it is the nature of the development. Public housing projects did not work out well, and there has been a movement away from them toward private developers to provide affordable housing, he said.

While public housing authorities accept most applicants, RPM Development LLC is a private, for-profit company. For every 10 applicants, “we get one that is a good fit. We are not obligated to ‘house’ everybody who walks through the door,” Kavanaugh said.

“We create tight communities (where) people live peacefully. Anybody would be happy to live in our communities. I would argue, having done a lot of work with housing authorities, (what we offer) is far superior,” he said.

When the meeting was opened to the public, former mayor and Planning Board member Greg Puliti said Lawrence Township has “high development standards” and that affordable housing units are indistinguishable from market-rate units. He commented that the view for some residents would be the loading dock at the Lawrence Shopping Center.

“We are not forcing anyone to live there,” Kavanaugh said. “Some people would not mind (the view). They have blinds on the windows.”

Kavanaugh said the development would not be indistinguishable from a market-rate development and that in some cases, RPM Development’s projects are “superior.”

Several residents called for an updated traffic study, pointing to the new Lidl grocery store and the LA Fitness gym that are slated to open at the Lawrence Shopping Center. They will generate more traffic, but Taylor, the applicant’s traffic engineer, said the traffic study was based on earlier, similar studies.

Meanwhile, Kendra Lelie, the zoning board’s substitute planning consultant, and James Kochenour, the zoning board’s traffic engineer, said they needed more time to go over the revisions to the application before commenting on it.

“It is somewhat unusual to submit a revised plan and have it approved the same evening,” Lelie said.

It was agreed to continue the public hearing to the zoning board’s Oct. 21 meeting.

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