At a special Planning Board meeting last week, Hopewell Township Planner Frank Banisch continued last month’s discussion about refining the master plan pertaining to the the Scotch Road / Merrill Lynch area.
The study area covers approximately 561 acres with 20% of the property already being used for “urban” land use/land cover, primarily on the the Merrill Lynch side of Scotch Road, also referred in Banisch’s presentation as the “East Side acres.” To give you an idea of size of the entire property, Hopewell Boro is roughly 450 acres – more than 20% smaller than the Scotch Road study area.
Why the change? Lots of reasons were presented.
At both meetings on the potential development and master plan changes, planner Frank Banisch outlined the problems with the current approved office park development on the site. These include:
Changing Development and Office Space Trends. According to Banisch, the traditional office complex model is outdated and companies are moving their offices to more central locations in downtowns and cities, often with public transportation access.
Although Hopewell Township is in a more unique area of niche tech/pharma operations, that does not fully insulate the area from losing further business when conventional office complexes are undesirable. In fact, Banisch explained, Hopewell Township currently has 25% more office space than the market can support.
Unique quality and location of the existing campus. The Merrill Lynch campus itself however, although not new, is distinguished by Banisch as being architecturally appealing with great finishes in a compact space. As a office campus, the ample parking that spans 4 parking decks is underutilized after business hours. Banisch explained that this could be an opportunity to intersperse new structures with mixed residential and retail uses to create a village setting.
The location of the Scotch Road property is bordered by major roads including interstate highway I-95, the booming Trenton-Mercer Airport, and “West Trenton line” train tracks which could eventually be the location of a possible passenger station upon future railway development.
Preserving the agricultural element. According to Banisch, agriculture is thriving in a way that in previous years’ trends could not predict. CSAs and farm-to-table markets are popping up throughout the area. The Scotch Road area already contains some farming and, in the proposed master plan, would retain an agricultural element. It appears that a large sprawling office park or other traditional low-density development would not allow for the preservation or inclusion of agricultural uses – where as high-density, mixed use would allow the construction to be concentrated on a small area, with shared parking, resulting in less surface coverage for the same uses. The less surface coverage, the more of the land that can be preserved or used for agriculture.
Need for more diverse housing stock. With housing prices and taxes high, young families and retirees are getting priced out of Hopewell Township. Between 2000 and 2010, there has been a 32% decline in the number of persons between 25-34 living in the Township. If you’ve been following the Hopewell Valley Regional School District’s under enrollment issues, you’re already familiar with the effect.
Furthermore, 92% of all housing is owner occupied, leaving only 8% as rental units further excluding certain individuals, namely starting families and downsizing empty nesters.
Affordable Housing. A constitutional requirement for municipalites to allow sufficient affordable housing, brought forth through a series of court decisions over the last 40 years, offers a real and unavoidable challenge to zoning provisions that prohibit residential development. A town must provide a certain “fair share” of affordable housing, preferably (affording to Banisch) in an inclusionary setting, where the housing stock is a mix of affordable and market rate units.
Known either as the “Mount Laurel Doctrine” (after the initial case where the NJ Supreme Court determined that Mount Laurel New Jersey’s zoning requirements unconstitutionally precluded low- and moderate- income residents from having a realistic opportunity to afford housing within their borders) or “COAH” (after the “Council on Affordable Housing” created by the State legislature by the 1985 “Fair Housing Act” in response to the Mount Laurel cases), a municipality’s failure to provide or allow it’s “share” of affordable housing can result in builder’s remedy lawsuits and loss of its restrictive local zoning powers. In those suits, a developer denied the variances or rezoning needed to construct a housing development that includes affordable housing could be allowed by the courts to side-step the restrictions imposed in a town’s master plan and zoning ordinance. In towns that have met their obligation and have a “fair share” of affordable housing, developers do not have that additional remedy – and don’t have the ability to side-step the zoning through builder’s remedy suits. (MercerMe is planning a post just on affordable housing later this week – but according to recently published figures – Hopewell Township will have a requirement of almost 1,000 ‘unanswered’ affordable housing units assigned to it through 2014, after the Township’s recent affordable housing projects are considered).
Avoiding sprawl. Banisch suggests a plan to “abandon the paradigm,” for economic and environmental considerations, that created widespread suburban sprawl. Especially when the outdated model suburban model can be replaced with a “more holistic approach…[through a] merger of built places with farmlands, natural lands and rural features.”
What’s the worst case?
The land is currently approved for up to 4 million square feet of office park use in total, spanning both sides of Scotch Road. To date, only 1.3 million square feet of the total permissible share footage has been developed, largely in what was initially the Merrill Lynch campus.
The property is currently allows “OP” (Office Park) uses, which include:
- research and development facilities
- operations, manufacturing, warehousing, packaging, assembly, printing, etc.
- conference center
- retail and personal service uses
- recreational uses
- nursery school and/or day care centers
- open space
Potential further development under the existing zoning regulations: 2.7 million square feet of additional office – tripling the current development.
What is being proposed?
In addition to zoning ordinances – each municipality in NJ Is required to have a “master plan” outlining the community’s planning, zoning and development vision and goals. By statute, the master plan must be reviewed and amended, if needed, every six years. (Click here for Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed’s Citizens Guide to New Jersey Municipal Master Plans.) Hopewell Township is going through that process now and the suggested changes to the plan for this part of the Township focus on “smart growth” – a planning concept that aims to combine where people live and work and encourages pedestrian, bicycle and public transportation. It maximizes the ability to access utilities and public services while it minimizes the impact on the environment as compared to other types of development.
It’s being called an “regenerative urban village.” While not designed or meant to be called a “town center” in this case, it is a form based mixed use zoning incorporating residential and commercial spaces in a town-like setting with a mind-set of sustainability. The proposed aim is to slow suburban sprawl and environmental degradation and maximize the preservation of perimeter lands.
On the left is an image of an “Avalon Bay” development in Somerset that Banisch shared as an example of attractive high density development.
The development area for the high-desity version of the project proposed for the master plan revision would be limited to 100 acres with average density of 25 units per acre for a total of 2,500 potential units. To put things into perspective, here’s a graphic of all of Hopewell Boro in light pink. The dark pink represents 100 acres (which is approximately 1/4 of the Boro).
To get that many homes onto 100 ares, the development would contain 3 types of units:
- “Apartment buildings” also known as stacked flats
- Stacked flats over retail; 3-5 stories tall
Banisch explained that the proposal for 5 stories creates a desirable higher density in order to use less land overall. The higher buildings would also create a better sense of “place.” Also in the mix would be some civic space such as parks, plazas and squares.
MercerMe following the issue closely.
UPDATE: June Planning Board meeting has been CANCELLED.