By Ron Leir
Carlstadt builder Ed Russo can expand his residential project at Bergen and Schuyler Aves. now that the Kearny Planning Board has signed off on the proposal.
The board, on March 4, voted – despite some reservations about traffic flow – to greenlight the project’s expansion to 311-337 Bergen Ave. with the demolition of several commercial properties and construction of two 3-story buildings with a total of 70 apartments plus 106 parking spaces.
During the board’s hearing on the application filed by Wal Park Associates/Schuyler Crossing Urban Renewal LLC, several board members and a member of the public, Lawrence Handlin, voiced concerns about traffic going in and out of the development.
Plans call for two driveways at the development site, both opening onto Bergen, but Handlin noted that at certain times of the day, “it takes upwards of 40 minutes” to drive along Schuyler to get to Harrison Ave.
With what he called a “high-density development coming into the picture, those traffic snarls are only going to get worse, Handlin said. “Be flexible, give up a driveway,” he urged the developer’s representatives. Or restrict traffic to “right turns only,” he added.
Mayor Alberto Santos, who sits on the board, agreed that traffic tie-ups at the light at Schuyler and Bergen have been a persistent problem, especially for motorists using that corridor as an approach to Rt. 280 and the N.J. Turnpike. “This intersection has been one of my biggest frustrations,” he added.
He said the former N.J. Meadowlands Commission had tried – unsuccessfully – to fix the problem through its MASSTR (Meadowlands Adaptive Signal System for Traffic Reduction) program which adjusted traffic signal timings based on traffic flow via camera and radio systems.
Fred Esteves, the board’s vice chairman, worried that accidents could occur if a driver tried to “dart out [from the driveway] and cut across two lanes of traffic” trying to zip onto Bergen.
“I see an unsafe situation,” Esteves said, for motorists emerging from the driveway closer to the Schuyler intersection where two lanes of westbound traffic form. “It’s very dangerous,” he said. “Somebody’s going to get hammered.”
But Town Manager Michael Martello, who sits on the board, countered that, “It’s kind of hard to envision this driveway’s going to create havoc, given that I’ve not heard any reports of problems for traffic coming in and out of the CVS [further east on Bergen]. Plus, because the grade is going to be higher at the development, the line of sight should be better.”
After a discussion with the developer’s attorney Christoper Minks, Town Engineer Michael Neglia and Minks proposed that if two “ Do Not Block Driveway” signs could be installed along Bergen, that should “create a gap” to allow drivers to get out safely from the development site.
Still, Esteves said, the board should “get a police report” on whether the current traffic plan passes muster from a public safety point of view.
“I don’t want to approve something where someone gets hurt. I’d feel a lot better if we got a police report that can assure us that [the proposed traffic plan] is the right thing to do.”
To this, Santos replied: “I don’t think anyone wants to do the wrong thing.”
Martello said that Russo may end up acquiring additional commercial property running up to the corner of Schuyler with the intent of extending his project still further and, if that happened, “there may be an opportunity for a Schuyler access to the property.”
“We’re doing all the right things when it comes to make this a successful project,” he said.
Minks added: “We want to have a safe and successful project. We don’t want to put our residents – or other residents – in harm’s way. We’ll continue our unmitigated cooperation with Kearny to have our plan vetted through the appropriate public safety officials.”
In the end, Minks said that the developer would be willing to agree to a restriction for its more westerly driveway of no left turn into the development from cars eastbound on Bergen and will await the outcome of any further recommendations from Neglia and the KPD’s- traffic unit, including a possible restriction on left turns out of the site.
As of now, the second proposed driveway — further east of Schuyler — would be unrestricted but Neglia will also be looking at a possible restriction here for no left turns out of the site. The board also briefly talked about whether any type of barrier was needed to prevent any foul balls hit from the adjacent municipal recreation field from striking any vehicles or people at the development site. Esteves suggested the developer put up a fence but Minks said: “That’s not something we’d be interested in doing.” He said that since the ball field proximity is “a condition that exists now,” that the town should probably be the party to deal with it. Besides, Minks said, “I don’t know how effective a fence would be” in stopping foul balls. The board has previously discussed extending the baseball backstop as a possible remedy but came up with no solution.
Russo has been granted approval by the town’s governing body for a 30-year PILOT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) on the expansion project which will generate $170,406 for the town for the first year after it’s built and more afterward. Russo will also provide a onetime $125,000 contribution to the municipal Affordable Housing Trust Fund and pave a section of potholestrewn Bergen, from Schuyler to the railroad trestle.
The new project will supplement Russo’s Vermella Crossing development, just across the street, where six 3-story buildings to house 150 apartments – a combination of oneand two-bedroom units – and a clubhouse are nearing completion.
For that part of the development, Russo will pay the town an annual PILOT beginning at $375,000 and rising over the 30-year life of the agreement, a yearly $2,500 administrative fee and a $150,000 Affordable Housing contribution.