The project, which has been billed by some as a second Harmon Cove, will require two variances from the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission (NJMC), but the 212-unit condominium development will likely get the blessing of local officials.
The NJMC hearing, which will be held at Huber Street School on July 30 at 7 p.m., will lay out the entire project for the public and allow residents to comment. The HMDC, which is composed of state appointees, will vote on the variances at a later date.
But Mayor Dennis Elwell said the two variances the project seeks would not likely delay development even if the NJMC denies them.
Baker Residential Industries, a firm responsible for the construction of numerous townhouse developments in New York, Connecticut and New Jersey, is seeking to build a gated community similar to Harmon Cove on the Shiptank property. This property is located roughly between Paterson Plank Road and Meadowlands Parkway along the Hackensack River.
The site, which has lain vacant for more than a decade, served as a storage and reconditioning center for sea containers until the company went out of the business in the 1980s. The property is currently owned by Charan Industries of Garden City, N.Y.
Because the property traverses two differing zoning areas, riverfront recreational and low-density residential, Baker must seek variances from the NJMC.
According to NJMC zoning requirements, a riverfront development must have some water-related use. Baker Industries is seeking to move the required marina from the site of the housing development to town-owned property at the end of Mill Ridge Road. The marina would become a public resource connected with the NJMC-Secaucus run park located at Mill Creek Point.
"If negotiations work out, they will pay for its construction there instead of building it on their own property," Elwell said.
Baker Industries may also agree to provide riverfront access to a walkway proposed for along the river. This would be open to the public. The company would also pay for the construction of the walkway from Trolley Park at the end of Paterson Plank Road to Mill Creek Point.
The second variance deals with height restrictions on property in the residential part of the project. According to NJMC zoning, the buildings in the residential section cannot be more than 35 feet high. The townhouses in both the "riverfront recreational" section - where buildings can be five stories high - and the residential section - would be almost 38 feet high.
The variance seeks relief in order to provide a uniform building height throughout the project, according to the developer.
Baker, which specializes in customized townhouse development, is proposing mostly two-bedroom townhouses, although there will be as many as 30 three-bedroom units. The proposed cost would run between $300,000 and $400,000 each.
Although town officials were initially concerned about the impact the project might have on the recently expanded schools, Elwell said discussions with the superintendent of schools showed that the expansion had provided for additional students possible development on open property in town.
Not everyone agrees
Frank MacCormack, an open critic of numerous development projects ongoing throughout Secaucus, said the project will "devastate" Secaucus, putting an increased burden on various public services.
"We're going to have to expand our police department, and we might even have to move to a paid fire department," he said.
Currently, Secaucus has an all-volunteer fire department and is one of the reasons why taxes in Secaucus are the lowest in Hudson County, and lower than in many other communities in Bergen and Essex Counties as well.
Elwell, however, said the town could not halt the project even if public opinion comes out strongly against it. "For the most part, Baker is proposing something within that area's zoning," he said. "In fact, under the Meadowlands Commission zoning, they could build as many as 250 units there."
The original proposal was for as many as 270 at one point, but after various consultations with local officials, Baker agreed to cut it back to 212 units.
"The whole plan will be unveiled at the public hearing," Elwell said. "We insisted that they hold one in Secaucus so that local residents can look at what is being proposed."
Despite the critics, the project does have some benefits to Secaucus. The increase in taxable property could net the town an addition $2.5 million a year in taxes. A percentage of the units will also fall under the state's affordable housing laws, which means that the town's Affordable Housing Board will be able to offer some of the units to the general public at reduced cost.
While MacCormack has questioned why it took 40 years for a developer to express interest in the property, Elwell said other firms have proposed projects there, some of which the town opposed. One developer wanted to build access through existing streets so as to connect with the existing neighborhoods.
"We opposed that project because many of those streets down there are narrow and couldn't handle additional traffic imposed by the development," Elwell said.
Traffic study to be unveiled
Baker will also unveil a traffic plan for the area, something that has been the concern of people living along Meadowlands Parkway. According to a preliminary report, all traffic will enter and exit the development at Meadowlands Parkway. This will relieve fears of residents living along streets near Paterson Plank Road, who have in the past opposed any plan to extend Meadowlands Parkway to Paterson Plank Road. While such a proposal would make sense for providing a better traffic flow in an area that has only one way in or out, many residents believe more access would bring more traffic.
Mayor Elwell said the Shiptank project would provide only emergency access to a series of currently dead-end streets, allowing fire trucks and other emergency vehicles to access the condo development, but not general traffic.
"One of the concerns we've had over the years has been the lack of access to the North End," Elwell said. "There is currently only one way into that part of town. If something should happen to the Paterson Plank Road bridge over Route 3, residents would be stranded there."
Under the proposal for developing Shiptank, the emergency access would also allow residents a way in and out of the North End should some disaster close the Paterson Plank Road Bridge.
To better gauge the kind of project Baker has proposed, town officials took a trip to Perth Amboy to tour a similar townhouse development there.
"We were very impressed," Elwell said. "This is not a shabby operation. These are quality units that will contribute to enhancing the quality of life in Secaucus."
Although no barometer of interest, Elwell claimed people are already calling Town Hall to inquire about the project and the available of units there.
"We've had about 20 calls from people interested," Elwell said.
Mayor sells some property
Mayor Dennis Elwell can never forget the day in the mid-1990s when his political opponents showed up at his house to hold a press conference. In a blatant political move, his opponents accused Elwell of being a developer, and claimed he had plans to put up townhouses on three lots he owned near Farm Road and Meadow Lane.
Over the last two weeks, whispers have begun again as signs of development began on one of these lots, staked out sections that indicated a survey for construction. The cost of gadflies' telephone bills rose even further when they learned that the mayor was looking to possibly relocate his trucking business from Farm Road to Secaucus Road, thus freeing additional land.
"I'm not selling the land for townhouses," Elwell said. "I have sold lot to a woman who lives across the street from me. She's getting married. She and her husband are installing a modular home on the site."
Elwell, who owns three lots, admitted that developers had approached him over the years, offering to purchase the lots for townhouses. "But I refused," he said. "I still have two more parcels and I'm holding off selling them just to avoid possible town house development in that area. I am fully conscious about how narrow the streets are in that area. I wonder, if positions were reversed and my opponents owned the property, could they resist selling off the land to the highest bidder?" - Al Sullivan