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Whole Foods Plan Still Raises Concerns in Parsippany

Large, skeptical crowd—most in opposition—came to Parsippany High to address economic development plan that would bring market to Waterview Plaza.

A revised Waterview Plaza development plan was presented before a loudly skeptical audience at Monday night's Parsippany Planning Board meeting.

About 200 residents turned out for the gathering, which was held at Parsippany High School. The last time the board attempted to continue hearings on the proposal at Town Hall on Dec. 17, a fire official shut down the meeting because the crowd the discussion attracted exceeded fire standards. The hearing was rescheduled and relocated. 

The large numbers attest to . That was in evidence Monday as residents from the Intervale area, from other areas of Parsippany and even from Mountain Lakes and Boonton stood in long lines waiting for an opportunity to state objections or ask pointed questions about the project.

In the end, 11 p.m. arrived before the developer's attorney could finish his case. The matter will continue before the Planning Board on Monday, Feb. 11, at Parsippany High at 7:30 p.m.

This project has become highly controversial in and around the township: The law firm Garofalo and O'Neill, representing the project, is trying to obtain approval for the site to become an overlay zone that would allow mixed commercial and residential use on the land, which is zoned for office space.. The Planning Board is determining whether to recommend the matter to the Township Council. The governing body ultimately will decide whether the overlay zone designation is appropriate.  

The developer, having heard many objections, offered a number of changes to its initial proposal at the Monday meeting. Attorney Robert Garofalo called the changes "significant" and said they were based on comments from Planning Board members and the public. 

Architect and professional planner David J. Minno was called as a witness to describe the revisions RD Realty is proposing. 

The , include:

  • moving residential development access from Intervale Road to Waterview Blvd.;
  • increasing building setbacks to 65 feet (Minnow wanted to be more conservative than the 75 feet attorney Joseph O'Neill stated previously);
  • reducing residential component density to seven units per acre and bringing down the non-residential component's net floor-area ration to .3, which is the same as similar districts in Parsippany;
  • adding a pedestrian connection to the shopping center; and
  • cutting the residential building height from 40 feet to 35 feet, making it conform with the maximum allowed by the town.

"We've listened," said Minno.

He also provided a first look at the townhomes that are proposed. Minno described them as three-story dwellings: the ground floor would consist of a two-car garage and a back room that could be used as a family room or den, the second level would be the main living level, the third level would have bedrooms.  

The architect said the developer expects "young professionals, empty nesters and...some divorcees" will be the prime market for the townhouses, which would list in the $450,000-$500,000 range. He said that 14 school children are expected to come from the townhome community. 

Minno also said the project would have "positive tax implications for the school district."

"A total of $748,000 is expected in tax revenue beyond what the project will bring in," Minno said. "$337,000 for the township itself."

He argued that this type of development is what's needed if the town wants to turn around its ever-growing office vacancy rate.

"What a thriving city like Parsippany needs to maintain offices is to provide housing for young professionals and people working in these offices," Minno said. "It's a competitive market in New Jersey. People will look elsewhere if they can't find housing close by. It's something corporations look at when evaluating doing business in a city."

The architect characterized the Waterview tract as a "transitional zone," one between a highway commercial district and a less dense residential neighborhood.

"This is Planning 101," said Minno. "If you were voting a zone ordinance for an image city… you would locate retail along the arteries, single family away from that and a transitional comfortably in the middle."

A number of attendees had questions regarding setbacks, which initially were projected to be 50 feet. 

In the announcements of revisions, it was said that setbacks would be increased to 75 feet, later scaled back to 65 feet.

Planning Board members offered a number of concerns.

Township Council liaison Michael dePierro was one of many who questioned the size of the project's residential component.

"The density still too high: Ten acres, 72 units..., " he said. "Since we've had a Master Plan we've not approved anything with a density greater than six units per acre."

Board member Steve Dinsmore shared a concern regarding the distance between residents and the back of the "Whole Foods grocery store."

Minno said evergreen plantings would help obscure the view of the commercial component, He also added that odor should not be a problem.

"I believe Whole Foods refrigerates its waste, so they don't have smelly, dirty waste sitting," he said. 

Dinsmore also voiced concerns about the townhouses' height.

"Our zoning ordinances have a reason why we discourage three-story homes," he said. "Empty nesters don't like three-story homes."

Minno begged to differ, offering a list of examples of successful three-story townhouse complexes in the region, among them the Brownstones in Morristown at Convent Station, Regency Club in Livingston, Coventry Park at Morris Plains (which he noted has 70 units and a density of 14 units per acre), Park Place in Mountain Lakes.

"And this just got approved, a three-story townhome project with 39 units at Kushner Academy with 18 to the acre," he said. "Market acceptance is very strong for this project."

Many in the audience shouted back in opposition, pushing Chairman Kaushik "Casey" Parikh to call for order.

Board Planner Edward Snieckus asked why a three-story building was appropriate.

"When you think about density and a three-story townhome, it's almost invisible density," Minno explained. "This project is not visible from many places in the township. We are setback building to building 250 feet from adjacent homes.... For the most part, it's an invisible project."

Much of the audience broke into disbelieving laughter.

"The [three-story] building height is comparable to other residential neighborhoods," Minno retorted. "It is no higher than single-family residences."

People from Parsippany and surrounding towns offered questions on concerns ranging from dealing with bears and addressing woodland habitat fragmentation to retaining undisturbed buffer and researching potential light pollution. Much of the questioning from residents came in the form of statements opposing the project and challenging the architect on issues outside of his expertise. 

Resident Nicholas Homyak of Lake Hiawatha called the Waterview tract an "open, living thing."

"In this economy," Homyak asked Minno, "who can afford to live in a nice little private city with a Whole Foods Market?"

Homyak accused the developer of trying to "erase this tree and bird sanctuary, this living organism. ... This is sprawl, helter skelter based on 'the divorcees are coming to Parsippany.'"

He asked Minno a question: "Do you represent Main Street or Wall Street?" 

He didn't get an answer.

Resident Scott Hoffman scoffed at the utility of a 50 foot or 75 foot buffer, using his experience at his own home involving an office building currently standing near the targeted 26 acres on Waterview Plaza..

"From November through March, I see that building clear as day with a buffer in excess of 200 feet," he insisted. "Explain how people are not supposed to see the development with a smaller buffer than I have?"

"Part is the difference in height," Minno explained. "The office building is much taller."

"The philosophy seems to be, 'Build it and they will come,'" said resident Robert Crawford. "You make reference to affluent retirees and office workers. Based on what facts have you drawn these conclusions to show these people would rather come here than, say, Hoboken or Jersey City?"

"They're currently buying in this region now," Minno said.

Sharon Ash of Mountain Lakes shared concerns over the tentative nature of the pproposal.

"This undermines what is a great community," she said, noting that the contract Whole Foods Market executives have signed with the township can only be contingent upon approval of the development project. "This could become, not Whole Foods, but something else. Parsippany already has one-third vacancy of commercial office space, and that info came from the secretary of the board!"

Councilman dePierro also put the architect on notice. Regarding setbacks, the original plan offered 50 feet. The revised plan increased that to 65-75 feet. Minnow talked of 250-foot "building to building" setbacks.

"We draw setbacks from property line, not from the back of the house," the politician said sternly. "I don't think anyone in this audience was fooled."

Members of the crowd applauded.

"I'm not trying to fool anybody," Minno responded.

Resident Andrew Choffo complained about "imprecise numbers."

"When will the public get actual numbers?" he asked.

"We're not at the site plan stage," Minno said. "Then there will be precise numbers and calculations. Right now we're talking about a zone change. We're showing plans merely to illustrate what we're planning here."

The four-hour session, which started with reorganization and a reappointment of existing professionals and minor site plan committee members, ended with a reappearance by a previous witness, professional planner and licensed landscape architect John McDonough. 

"We will start with the questioning of Mr. McDonough, cross examination and then public comments," said Chairman Parikh, noting that he will institute a three-minute limit for comments.

He added that anyone interested in looking for transcripts of previous testimony can find it within 10 days of a meeting at the Planning Board office at Town Hall.

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