The Howard Hughes Corporation has proposed an ambitious mixed-use development plan with nearly 2,000 residential units and more than 1.3 million square feet of commercial space. The predominantly residential development would be located on the company’s 650-acre parcel bounded by the Amtrak mainline, Route 1, and Quakerbridge Road, which includes the former American Cyanamid site.
Howard Hughes submitted a concept plan to West Windsor Township on Feb. 10. At this point the proposal is effectively a wish list, since the land is commercially zoned for more than 6 million square feet of research, office and light manufacturing. The next step will be for Howard Hughes to present the concept plan publicly before the township Planning Board, which is expected to take place in May at the earliest, according to township officials.
“We spent a lot of time thinking about and being responsive to the goals and principles of West Windsor’s master plan,” said Adam Meister, the company executive overseeing the project. He said he believes that this is the largest undeveloped site owned by a single private entity in the northeast corridor. Mayor Shing Fu-Hsueh and planning board chairman Marvin Gardner have both made similar statements.
Hsueh, after seeing the concept plan for the first time, said, “It’s a lot.”
In previous conversations the past two years, the mayor had pointed the company in the “general direction” of mixed use and trying to minimize housing units. “I think Howard Hughes has the opportunity to create something attractive,” Hsueh said. “It’s a location that could attract a lot of economic development. It could be attractive to businesses.”
In 2014, the township requested a concept plan in response to the company’s request that the property be designated as an area in need of redevelopment. Meister said the company “may proceed with the redevelopment approach if the township is supportive.”
State law allows municipalities to designate public or private parcels that are abandoned or under-performing as redevelopment areas. The Howard Hughes property, which has sat vacant since Amercian Cyanamid ceased operations there over a decade ago, certainly qualifies for consideration.
The designation provides officials with tools to spur the redevelopment of the site, including the use of tax exemptions, favorable bond financing, and the creation of revenue allocation districts. The township had already declared hundreds of acres surrounding the Princeton Junction train station has a redevelopment area.
Hsueh said he would consider redevelopment, but added any redevelopment plan would require council support.
“Under a redevelopment plan, there are a lot of the things the state can provide to help with,” Hsueh said. “In this particular case, I see the potential benefits here may have to do with traffic review. If there is any other toxic contamination, or environmentally sensitive areas, the state may provide more support.”
The town’s main interests, according to Hsueh, are open-space preservation, a good traffic plan, and improved bus service.
“I’m seeking a win-win for both sides,” Hsueh said.
Howard Hughes is based in Dallas, specializing in mixed-use, master planned communities. There are projects ongoing in Hawaii and Nevada. The company’s east coast headquarters are in New York City, where it is redeveloping the South Street Seaport. There the company had proposed a 42-story condo tower on the East River waterfront, at the former site of the Fulton Fish Market, before withdrawing the proposal amidst local opposition. The company has developed a number of mixed-use projects, including in Woodlands, Texas, and Columbia, Maryland.
So what does Howard Hughes want in West Windsor?
In its plan, the company has allocated more than a third of the property for 1,976 residential units. Nearly half the proposed units are high-density apartment rentals, followed by 353 townhomes, 198 single-family houses on eighth-acre lots, 262 single-family homes on third-acre lots, and 236 age-restricted homes. West Windsor currently has roughly 10,000 housing units.
The blend of residential offerings in the concept plan would offer different price points, and Meister said the market rate housing “will be priced at what the market will bear.”
The plan calls for a “Village Center” with more than 200,000 square feet of retail and office space, surrounded by apartments and townhomes. The lower density single-family and age-restricted homes would be located in a ring around the high density residential sections.
On the northern portion of the property, the concept plan calls for a new access point from Route 1. Cars would turn into a “Gateway District” with one million square feet of commercial space, which in the proposal includes a hotel and office buildings.
Meister said the office space would be different from the existing corporate parks on Route 1, and the goal is to attract financial services and innovation sectors such as technology and advertising.
“Companies are looking for a dense office without a big footprint,” Meister said.
There will be more than 215 acres of open space in the proposed concept plan, as well as 24 acres of formal park space.
Howard Hughes is proposing to build the proposed development in three phases over 15 years.
At this point no one is sure how long an approval process would take, and Hsueh considered a 15-year build out optimistic given the size of the property.
“Even if they receive an approval, I think it will take a long time to finish it from beginning to end,” Hsueh said. In an interview with the News in January, the mayor estimated that the project could take between 20 and 50 years to reach full buildout.
In the concept plan, Howard Hughes projects “there is a positive net annual impact to the municipality and regional school district at each phase of the projected build-out.” The completed development would produce $29.6 million in gross annual property tax revenues, according to calculations by Hoboken-based consultant Phillips Preiss Griegel.
The net annual revenue claim is based on an estimated residential population of 4,551 residents. Public education would likely be the highest service cost accompanying the proposed development, and the concept plan estimates the addition of 588 to 988 public school children.
Superintendent David Aderhold has previously noted that the school district’s facilities are at capacity, and at the Tuesday, Feb. 21 Board of Education Meeting he will give a presentation entitled, “Impact of Residential Developments on WW-P Schools,” according Gerri Hutner, district director of communications.
The developer’s plans depict a 32-acre “school/community recreation site.” Asked if Howard Hughes plans on donating the land to the school district, Meister said, “We’ve allocated the land. In terms of any economic transaction, it’s too preliminary.”
One issue that could have a major impact on the amount of housing allowed on the property is the uncertainty surrounding West Windsor’s affordable housing situation.
The township is currently involved in a trial before state Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson, who will establish the amount of affordable housing the township must provide through 2025. If the judge rules that the township’s obligation is higher than West Windsor is arguing, or if a settlement is reached, the town will have to look to additional properties to accommodate affordable housing.
The Howard Hughes property is a likely candidate, and the town might be forced to allow a higher number of residential units as an economic benefit in exchange for the developer’s inclusion of affordable housing as part of the project.
West Windsor’s current fair share plan does not call for affordable housing on the Howard Hughes site. The company is a party to the township’s affordable housing lawsuit, and a judicial ruling requiring more affordable units would give the company more leverage when asking to have the 650-acre property rezoned for a higher density of housing.
The current ROM-1 commercial zoning actually permits the construction of one affordable housing project, though it is unlikely Howard Hughes, an NYSE company, would build affordable units without market rate units.
The concept plan includes 348 apartments that are below market rate and 87 townhomes that are below market rate. That represents 25 percent of the requested residential units. Some 20 percent would be affordable, while five percent would be “workforce housing.”
According to Meister, workforce housing would be for households at 80 to 120 percent of the median income, though he emphasized the plan is in the “preliminary stages.”
He said the affordable housing would be dispersed throughout the site, adding the company’s plan is an “important opportunity” for the town to satisfy its fair share obligations.
Asked whether the Howard Hughes would consider a builder’s remedy lawsuit, Meister did not rule it out, but said, “it is not something we’re focusing on.”
In 2004, American Cyanamid sold the 650-plus acre property for $35 million. After a series of corporate transactions, the Howard Hughes Corporation, chaired by hedge fund manager Bill Ackman, emerged as the property owner.
More than 530 acres are currently assessed as farmland, and the remainder currently yields more than $540,000 in annual property tax payments, according to public records.
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