Planning board members still had no consensus on the concept of downtown multifamily housing when they met to discuss two proposed developments—the Dayton and Chestnut Village—on Wednesday night. The meeting was an opportunity, however, to discuss one of the larger issues in the central business district.
The board heard a preliminary report from consultant John Jahr. The Village hired him through a consulting firm eight weeks ago to conduct a study on the two housing projects’ potential impact on traffic in the central business district, using funds provided by the developers.
Jahr focused on traffic conditions on Franklin Avenue, which he said is already a problem area based on congestion and pedestrian accidents. He forecasted that the developments would push congestion at intersections on that street—already “pressure points,” he says—to their tipping points in the next few years.
But he suggested that this had more to do with current problems and natural annual growth in volume than with the additional population that the developments would add. The main source of congestion, he said, is poorly maintained intersections on Franklin. “All of you traffic lights are really old. They’ve done a good job, they’ve served you well, but they’re antiquated.
Some board members were skeptical about the parameters of the study, several raising the concern that the Dayton, which would be constructed at the former Brogan property on Broad Street, would create a hazardous situation at that street’s intersection with Ridgewood Avenue. The intersection was apparently not included in Jahr’s study.
“There’s not a lot you can do there,” Jahr told the board. “Unless you want to change bigger things.”
His focus, he said, had been on finding ways to work with developers to alleviate some of the already existing traffic problems, rather than being preoccupied with intersections that would require massive investment to fix. “What I’m trying to help you sort out is what, realistically, we can expect them to be able to fix that will help us and help them.”
“If these two developers come and they can somehow contribute to the town to mitigate one of these traffic problems, that is a great thing,” he added.
He suggested that there were 5 or 6 intersections that, if improved, would make the downtown traffic situation better than it currently is—even considering the small percentage increase in traffic that added commuters from the developments could bring. The estimated cost of improving an intersection is $300,000, and he indicated that the developers could reasonably expected to address one of these.
Jahr proposed that the council consider an ordinance creating a traffic improvement district, following the model of the City of Newark. Such an ordinance would, after study, establish a set fee, to be paid by developers, for every new commuter a given project adds to traffic flow. Rather than using the money to simply alleviate the immediate traffic problems directly related to a new development, Jahr said, the fees would go into a general fund that the Village could use toward traffic problems around town, at its discretion. “It becomes the lifeblood of the town.”
Deputy Mayor Albert Pucciarelli said that the problems pointed out by Jahr would have to be fixed, but expressed concerns about finding a balance between raising funds to alleviate traffic problems and discouraging new development by levying heavy fees.
“If the developers can help us along the way that’s fine. If they can help in respect to their increments, that’s reasonable. I don’t want to see us identify a big problem and then try to put it on somebody else’s shoulders because they seek to develop something in town,” he said.
Jahr repeated to the board that the traffic problems in the Central Business District were immense, and that the best way he saw forward would be to work with developers in establishing a general traffic improvement fund. “Every town we’ve done this,” he answered, “the developers have loved the town for it. Because most developers, the biggest thing they want is to know what they’re obligated to do.”
But given the lack of an existing ordinance, working with the Dayton and Chestnut Village developers on contributing to traffic improvement may be a long process. Though the developers are supportive of the idea, said attorney Tom Wells, the representative of both parties, the absence of a clearly established and uniform procedure will mean working closely with the Council and using “finesse.”
“We have to do it voluntarily,” he told the board.
In an interview, Jahr said that the two developers have been more cooperative than those he’s worked with in the past. “It’s a rarity to have someone come to town and say, ‘Whatever I break, I want to fix it.’”
But the board and the public will have to await the final report, which Jahr said would be done sometime after the New Year, to find out just how much the developers may break. And as the board weighs on whether to pursue the possibility of multifamily housing downtown, a new consideration will be the role developers may play in funding traffic improvements in the district.
Correction: The original version of this article gave the wrong location for the Dayton development.