The Howard Hughes Corporation made its case, but anxiety is still running high among West Windsor residents who fear its plan will have a number of adverse impacts on the town.
More than 150 people attended the May 10 planning board meeting to view and comment on a concept plan presentation for a development being proposed by the Howard Hughes on the 653-acre former American Cyanamid property, which is bounded by Route 1, Quakerbridge Road and the Amtrak mainline.
Appearing in public for the first time since 2014, company representatives gave a general overview of how they want to develop the site, which is located in the west end of town. In addition, they called on the township to declare the parcel as an area in need of redevelopment.
The proposal presented by Howard Hughes mirrored the concept plan submitted to the township in February, a predominantly residential development featuring a mixed-use village center and more than 1.3 million square feet of commercial space.
West Windsor currently has roughly 10,000 housing units, and the company’s concept plan proposes 1,976 units. Of the proposed total, nearly half are high-density apartment rentals, followed by 353 townhomes, 462 single-family homes, and 236 age-restricted homes.
At this point, the proposal is effectively a wish list, since the entire property is currently zoned for more than 6 million square feet of research, office and light manufacturing. Any rezoning would requires the passage of ordinance by the township council.
The concept plan presentation was an informal hearing, and no action was taken. In fact, no planning board member or township official commented on the proposal during the meeting. The next time the planning board will convene for Howard Hughes is July 26, and chairman Marvin Gardner assured company representatives that board members would comment on the plan then.
The board did allow ample opportunity for residents to comment, and by and large, those who spoke opposed the project as currently proposed. Following the presentation of the plan, there were more than 40 comments from members of the public.
“Howard Hughes is looking to create a separate city with current residents footing the bill,” said resident Andrea Mandel.
While Mandel was speaking, several residents stood up and cheered, prompting Gardner to quiet the crowd.
“This is not a rally,” said Gardner, though he allowed the expression of opinion through applause. “Please let’s exercise a little decorum.”
Just two speakers later Marshall Lerner said: “Platitudes, flowery rhetoric and fancy slides are designed as distractions. ” He ended his comment by saying, “These flacks are trying to pimp our community.”
Resident Becky Marks, who is also a board member of Friends of West Windsor Open Space, noted that the one-third of the 653-acre parcel set aside for open space also happens to overlap with the property’s unbuildable wetlands.
“We are a community that values open space and our schools. We do not want to change the fabric of the community because you happen to own a large parcel,” Marks said.
The heart of the matter for many residents is the anticipated number of school-age children that would result from the Howard Hughes development and the corresponding burden to a public school district already at capacity and is already proceeding with an estimated $12.5 million expansion at Maurice Hawk School.
The concept plan does allocate 32 acres for a “school/community recreation site,” though superintendent David Aderhold has previously stated that is insufficient space for a middle or high school. Moreover, when also factoring in other residential developments already approved or near-approval, he estimates the company’s project as proposed would require multiple new school buildings.
Aderhold and several school board members were in attendance at the planning board meeting, which was held in an auditorium at High School South, but like their municipal counterparts they did not comment on the plan during the meeting.
Since the plan would require a rezoning, the planning board can take the impact on the school district into account, officials have told the News. Under circumstances where a plan is consistent with zoning, state land use law precludes a planning board from considering the impact a development would have on the school district.
During Howard Hughes’ presentation, consultant Keenan Hughes said the proposed development was a “major ratable for West Windsor.” A planner with Hoboken-based Phillips Preiss Grygiel, Hughes claimed that the development would generate more than $30 million in gross property taxes at full build out, adding more than $1 billion to the town’s tax base.
The company would like to complete the project in three phases over 15 years, and Hughes said the school district would be receiving net annual revenues at the completion of every phase, culminating in $6.6 million of net revenue at full build-out, plus $1.5 million of net annual revenue for the town.
Hughes did not address whether the presented figures also factor in potential school construction costs, though he mentioned that designating the site as an area in need of redevelopment would “open up flexibility for the financing of a school site.”
During public comment, several residents questioned the fiscal impact numbers provided by Howard Hughes, with one resident calling them “alternative facts.”
“I would like to see the town establish a committee,” said Julia Miceler, who also questioned the fiscal impact numbers, and requested different sets of analyses with best-, middle- and worst-case scenarios.
Another member of the Howard Hughes team, planner Jim Constantine of the Princeton-based firm Looney Ricks Kiss, said the existing zoning of “single-use, auto-oriented” suburban office is “obsolete.”
He added that the proposed mixed-use development would feature multiple modes of transit and align with state and county planning goals.
Howard Hughes attorney Thomas Letizia, of Carnegie Center-based firm Pepper Hamilton, said the company is hopeful for a collaborative process with the town and residents.
In 2014, Howard Hughes went before West Windsor Council to request consideration for designating the property as an area in need of redevelopment, and Council in turn asked for a concept plan first.
“We intend to return to council to renew our request,” Letizia said.
In an interview with the News earlier this year, Mayor Shing-Fu Hsueh said that he believes the property is a good candidate for redevelopment designation, which would give the town more flexibility and control in negotiating with Howard Hughes.
Also commenting at the meeting were members of the retail and commercial community. According to sources, Howard Hughes has made a strong effort to lobby the commercial community to support the project — and a number of them seem to have answered the call.
In a May 4 email sent to members, Robert Prunetti, then-president and CEO of the MidJersey Chamber of Commerce (he has since left the organization), urged support for the development.
“The MidJersey Chamber of Commerce is continuously supporting innovative growth-driven projects, such as this, that support our regional economic development goals,” Prunetti wrote. “Through this project, the Howard Hughes Corporation hopes to serve the local community in an interesting and strategic way.”
“As the plan is still in its design stages, we value and encourage your input. If you agree that mixed-use development is important to our region, please come speak in favor of the project,” he said.
Peter Dawson, who runs Leigh Visual Imaging on Everett Drive, said the mixed-use plan would attract people to live here, which is important to him as a business owner.
The director of NJ Future, Peter Kasabach also supported the proposal. “The type of place presented tonight is the future marketplace,” Kasabach said. “West Windsor has a great opportunity to create new choices for those who would live to move here.”
Paul Kuhl, chairman of the MidJersey Chamber of Commerce, and Peter Crowley, president and CEO of the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce also supported the plan.
“I have companies that are busing people in from Jersey City,”Crowley said.
In response, Gardner noted that the Howard Hughes property is larger than 72 municipalities in New Jersey. “There are a lot of implications,” Gardner said.
By the time Howard Hughes comes before the planning board in July, West Windsor may have a clearer picture on its affordable housing obligation, which is currently being litigated in Mercer County Superior Court.
The township’s current fair share plan does not call for affordable housing on the Howard Hughes site. However, a judicial ruling or potential legal settlement requiring more affordable units would give the company’s high-density proposal more leverage. Of the 1,976 proposed housing units, 20 percent would be affordable.