By Gloria Stravelli
METUCHEN – The Oakite industrial site would be redeveloped as a gateway to Middlesex Avenue, incorporating traffic calming measures and a mix of uses including retail and housing units under a revised redevelopment plan proposed for the tract.
“The Master Plan has indicated a clear intent to move away from industrial uses,” Planner Chris Cosenza told members of the Planning Board during a presentation Sept. 2, adding the future vision for the site has already evolved.
“One example is taking a warehouse and making it Sportsplex. And now we’re taking a capped site and introducing retail and assisted living and a slew of uses,” Cosenza told board members, who later voted to approve the amended redevelopment plan and send the proposal on to the Borough Council for consideration.
“The master plans of 2014 and 2015 talk about having a gateway treatment to Middlesex Avenue,” Cosenza said, “which really benefits all users of all abilities, a safe-streets policy, and really makes for an attractive entry into the town. It will create that town center effect.”
In addition, he said the plan calls for a mid-block roadway to connect Middlesex Avenue to Durham Avenue.
A public hearing on the amended plan is scheduled for the Sept. 13 Borough Council meeting. A draft of the redevelopment plan can be accessed via the borough website, metuchennj.org.
According to Cosenza, the site, block 71, lots 37.01 and 37.02, sits at the foot of the downtown, southwest of the downtown area and has undergone significant environmental remediation at the expense of the current property owner.
“It is now a capped site and is home to Metuchen Sportsplex as well as several acres of vacant land and surrounded by open space: Trailhead Park across the street, the Conrail track, which is the planned future Greenway extension, as well as Vidas Park, home to Johnson Field,” he said.
Cosenza, of LRK, the borough’s planning firm, noted the plan has evolved over many years.
“I would stress this is actually an amendment to an already existing redevelopment plan called the Oakite Site Redevelopment Plan,” he said. “Redevelopment for this site actually began back in 2015 when the borough … made a determination that the vacant land outlined in red qualified as a non-condemnation area in need of redevelopment.
“Currently this plan only pertains to the vacant land, so it does not include the Sportsplex or the bank site,” he said, adding during the planning process other uses have been identified.
“We developed a list of uses because planning is ongoing for the remaining portions of the site,” he told board members.
According to Cosenza, the entire site was designated in 2020 as an area in need of rehabilitation and has been incorporated into a single plan that supersedes the 2018 plan with a more detailed concept.
“Generally speaking, the plan rationale concept was thinking about an age-in-place community that is really lacking in the community,” he said. “This includes assisted living and independent living. It’s really integrated with the surrounding open space.
“That means it’s really integrated for the entire community, which is really a great asset. The Artis memory care facility included in earlier plans is incorporated into the amended plan.”
Cosenza described potential uses for the remainder of the site, including along Middlesex Avenue, lower buildings, attractive street frontage, and a taller building that could be an independent living facility.
“It sort of mimics the pattern we have at The Hub at Metuchen,” he said. “That’s the site further to the north that was developed … a few years ago … so in terms of the urban design and planning, it’s sort of a similar feature but what this plan also does is include a daycare use in place of what is now a front yard parking lot of the Metuchen Sportsplex fronting on Durham Avenue.
Cosenza also described traffic calming measures incorporated in the plan.
“We reincorporated all the aspects of the midblock connected roadway and actually advanced designs a bit to make it more attractive and user-friendly and incorporate what we call a traffic circle, a roundabout, at the center of the site, to better manage traffic, creating a place for enhanced entry,” he said. “And that would connect to the existing driveway of Sportsplex, which will get you to Durham Avenue.”
In addition, plans include the call for a traffic signal to be installed at Middlesex Avenue.
“Not only does that help manage traffic at the site, Cosenza said, “but also manages traffic going through the downtown, which is a long-needed improvement.
“We believe all this is an efficient use of what’s otherwise capped land and really what this allows us to do is leverage the value to be created for contributions for long-needed improvements to infrastructure such as … open space trails and recreation that surround the site.
“As we discussed with prior redevelopment plans, the accessibility, universal design, charging stations … all that is now incorporated into the redevelopment plan as well as more precise design standards …
“That’s the plan in a nutshell, it’s really an amendment to an existing plan, incorporates other parcels … and does allow us to advance planning concepts and more precise plans.
“Those of you in town in the ’70s,” he said, “I think you will remember that this was a parking lot with a blue warehouse building … and an active asbestos factory. This is really turning a corner toward the downtown.
“This is the new gateway. And in 2016 the … Master Plan recommended that the borough continue to explore more efficient types of redevelopment for the industrial site.
“That’s exactly what we’ve done here and since 2016 we’ve seen developments that occurred all around the downtown as part of the downtown gateway … This is really the next step as a vision in the Master Plan for decades,” he said.