The Howard Hughes Corporation continues to meet stiff opposition from members of the West Windsor community regarding its proposed mixed-use development on the old American Cyanamid tract.
Residents, township and school officials expressed their reservations about the plan during a packed planning board meeting held at the High School South playhouse on July 26.
The board was reviewing the company’s concept plan for a mixed-use development with nearly 2,000 residential units and more than 1.3 million square feet of retail and 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.
This was the board’s second of two meetings on the plan. The first was on May 10, and Howard Hughes also held an open house on the project on July 12.
The tract is currently zoned for commercial offices and would need to be rezoned by the township council to accomodate the Howard Hughes proposal. The company is also requesting that the township declare the parcel as an area in need of redevelopment.
That 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 has already declared hundreds of acres surrounding the Princeton Junction train station as a redevelopment area.
Because the meeting was only a hearing on a concept plan, the board took no vote. It was an opportunity for township officials and the public to give the developer feedback on the plan. The next step will be for township council to decide whether it wants look at rezoning the property or declaring it a redevelopment area.
One of the main points of opposition to the plan comes from the possible impact on the WW-P School District, which was discussed in depth throughout the night.
Howard Hughes maintains that the project would add between 849 to1249 new students to the district at a cost of between $12 million and $18 million per year, based on a $14,831 annual per pupil cost. The company estimates that those costs will be offset by about $19 million in tax revenues generated by the project.
David Aderhold, the district superintendent who spoke at the meeting, countered those claims, saying that the numbers were calculated using a multifactor provided by Howard Hughes, inferring possible bias. He said the school district calculations estimate up to 1,579 new students, approximately equal to the enrollment at each of the district’s high schools.
“This has a tremendous impact on our district. There’s nothing a private school or a neighboring community can do for us,” he said.
Aderhold also said that a 32-acre section of the property identified by the plan to be set aside as a public site (potentially for a school) is too small for a high school or possibly even a middle school.
The use and relevance of the land was further put into question when planning board member Andrew Kelley asked if “this land for the school will be donated to us or sold to us?” A Howard Hughes representative replied that the question was premature at this point.
Marvin Gardner, chairman of the planning board, said that if a new school is not built, he believes that crowded classrooms will create an environment that is not conducive to learning.
Meanwhile, the township’s planning professionals pointed out that a lot of work needs to be done in terms of studies and more specific information before the township can even consider rezoning the property.
The Howard Hughes proposal comes at a time where the planning board is about to review the township’s master plan, which is to be completed by 2018. State law requires that towns review their master plans every six years.
With that in mind, Steven Burgess, township planner, suggested that “the municipality look at the totality of the town instead of one location. The choices we make about development for a piece of property on one end of town affect the development on other parts of the town.”
Mayor Shing-Fu Hsueh reiterated Burgess’ point. “We are talking about carrying capacities for traffic and environmental issues,” he said. “This is not something you can separate from the rest of West Windsor. When you do planning, you need to look at how this reflects the whole community, from the social, financial and environmental perspectives.”
Hsueh also said that the proposal—with its high number of homes—does not address the current unfavorable ratio of residential to commercial ratables in the township. Conventional planning rules dictate a ratio of 60 percent residential to 40 percent commercial. If the amount of commercial is too low, it can result in the community’s homeowners paying more in taxes due to a lack of funds from commercial ratables.
“Right now, we have 30 percent commercial ratables to 70 percent residential ratables,” Hsueh said. “I’ve been working very hard to break this ratio. The general reaction from the community is that we want more commercial and less residential.”
The property is currently zoned for more than 6 million square feet of research, office and light manufacturing buildings. The 1.3 million proposed by Howard Hughes would be a significant reduction, while at the same time adding thousands of new housing units that are not currently on the books.
Gardner added to Hsueh’s sentiment by stating that he believes a mixed-use plan on the site could technically work without a residential component. However, if homes must be in the plan, he supports age-restricted housing so that the school district won’t be overwhelmed.
Burgess also added that the widening of Clarksville and Quakerbridge roads proposed in the plan would require approval by the state Department of Transportation, which would involve a comprehensive traffic study. Gardner pointed out that the plan would exacerbate the existing traffic congestion problem at the intersection of Quakerbridge Road and Route 1.
Francis Guzik, township engineer, commented on the lack of detail in the plan regarding township personnel that would need to be hired as a result of the project. “I don’t think it was indicated what sort of increased personnel—public works and service employees—will be needed for this proposed type of development.”
Open space and recreation are also an issue, said Dan Dobromilsky, the township’s landscape architect. “The needs of our society for recreation have changed (in the past 20 years). There are new and emerging sports like pickleball, lacrosse and even cricket. We need to do an analysis of what the needs are.”
During the public comment portion of the meeting, more than 30 members of the community lined up to share their opinion of the plan.
Kamal Khanna, a resident of Milbrook Drive and a candidate for mayor in the upcoming election, said “I have lived in this town for 40 years. It’s considered to be one of the best places to educate and raise our families,” he said. “Nobody in our township approves of the concept plan.”
Kristin Epstein, of Madison Drive, cited “overwhelming negative feedback to the plan. We’re not a small minority, we’re the vast majority of this town.” She suggested that the land be used to create a train station or a lake. Epstein is running for council on a slate with Khanna.
Township Councilwoman Linda Geevers, who is running for reelection, mentioned that, from the people she has spoken to, there was no support for the plan.
Afterwards, the Howard Hughes representatives took an opportunity to speak.
There were things said (by the audience) that aren’t true, but it’s all about cooperation,” said Adam Meister, executive vice president. “Hostility is not productive, what’s productive is constructive ideas. We decided to come to the planning board because we want to discuss and communicate,” he said.