It’s back to the drawing board – again – for RPM Development LLC, the would-be developer of an affordable housing development proposed for a 4.3-acre parcel next to the Lawrence Shopping Center off Texas Avenue.
The Lawrence Township Zoning Board of Adjustment reviewed revised plans submitted by the applicant at its March 17 meeting, but the board was not satisfied. The tweaked plan dropped 16 apartments from the 70 apartments originally proposed for the site, bringing it down to 54 apartments.
After three hours’ of testimony and board reaction, RPM Development agreed to submit another set of revised plans in time for a special zoning board meeting, set for April 28. It will mark the eighth meeting on the application since September 2020.
The revision to reduce the number of units to 54 apartments was made in response to comments offered by the zoning board members and the public at the board’s March 10 meeting. Wile some residents supported the application, others were skeptical and said it was not a suitable site for affordable housing.
The application is in front of the zoning board because RPM Development LLC needs a use variance. Duplex and multi-family housing is not permitted in the Highway Commercial and Residential-4 zones. Most of the parcel is zoned Highway Commercial, and a sliver of it is zoned R-4.
A variance also is needed because the density of the development – 17.9 units per acre – exceeds the maximum density of 10 units per acre in the R-4 zone. The revised plan had a density of 12.6 units per acre.
The rental apartment development will help Lawrence Township meet its obligation to provide its fair share of affordable housing as a result of a lawsuit filed against it – and several other towns – by the Fair Share Housing Center.
RPM Development LLC’s original plan called for a trio of three-story apartment buildings on a field next to the Lawrence Shopping Center. Six duplex units containing 12 apartments would be built on Texas Avenue, blocking the view of the three-story apartment buildings from the street.
The revised plans eliminated one of the three apartment buildings that contained 12 apartments, and also lopped off four apartments on the third floor of another apartment building.
Eliminating the third apartment building, which was perpendicular to the two larger apartment buildings, provides a triangular-shaped open space site.
Zoning board member Peter Kremer said that while he appreciated the reduction in the number of apartments and the elimination of the smaller apartment building, he did not see any re-use of the space where the building had been planned.
The development is basically asphalt, concrete and buildings, Kremer said. It is still 54 units on two acres of buildable land, and it has not been reconfigured to improve the livability of the site.
Recreational amenities are limited to a playground and a dog park, and an open space area where the small apartment building had been sited, Kremer told the applicant.
“I fully support affordable housing, but it also has to be livable space. I think this (redesign) was rushed. There is no reallocation of the space. That was the whole point. If you had listened in September, (the board) told you that 70 units was not workable,” Kremer said.
Kevin Kavanaugh, a principal in RPM Development LLC, did not dispute that turning around a new site plan in one week is rushed. He said he considered moving the playground to the open area created by penciling out the third apartment building.
Kavanaugh compared the proposed development to other developments in Lawrence and Princeton. Heritage Village, which is an affordable senior citizens apartment building on Brunswick Pike near the Brunswick Circle, has a density of 26 units per acre. It is surrounded by asphalt and concrete, he said.
“(RPM Development LLC) has much more dense sites,” Kavanaugh said. He mentioned a 65-unit affordable housing apartment building on three acres on Mount Lucas Road in Princeton.
“I think it is a livable space. We have a vacancy rate of less than 2% in our other developments. We are not going to make anyone live here. They will choose to live here. This will be a huge upgrade for a lot of people,” Kavanaugh said of the proposed development.
But zoning board member Charles Lavine said his “biggest issue” with the application is its location at the rear of the Lawrence Shopping Center. He said he visited other shopping centers, and the loading docks are noisy and “smell.” Diesel truck engines idle, and chairs and “other junk” are strewn around, he said.
“We are looking for good, healthy housing that fits in with Lawrence’s quality of life. Overlooking a loading dock is not a good quality of life. The aesthetics of this is utterly horrible. It is a horrible location for a housing project of this type.
“My whole issue is, it shouldn’t even be here. It took until the March 10 meeting for you to listen. I am not a very happy camper,” Lavine said.
Charles Latini, the applicant’s planner, defended the application and said that his client is trying to build workforce housing for secretaries, Amazon warehouse workers and grocery store workers. It is integrated into the community and is close to stores, schools and transportation, he said.
Zoning board chairman Christina Hultholm said there may be a way to make the development work – to become a place where people will want to live. She suggested that RPM Development LLC “take a step back” and reconsider its site plan.
“We have an obligation to protect the most vulnerable. I don’t want to see the zoning board lower its standards, just because it is affordable housing,” Hultholm said.