Parking concerns for Zoning Board

Serious concerns about overflow street parking in the neighborhood prompted the Zoning Board of Adjustment to push back a vote on a senior affordable housing development proposed for the St. Mary’s Church property on Esterbrook Avenue.

Representatives for Domus Corporation, the development arm of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Newark, testified for three hours Monday night and were asked to return to the Feb. 28 meeting with more parking options. They seek preliminary and final site plan approval, along with several variances for a four-story, 51-unit senior housing facility. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is providing more than $11.2 million to build the project, in addition to subsidizing part of the rent for qualified residents.

The project would eliminate eight spaces from the current 86-space parking lot while adding 27 specifically designated for senior housing (for a total 105 spaces). Residents of the senior facility would have specifically designated spaces also be able to use the church lot for overflow parking, but the church could not use the seniors’ space.

“There is overflow onto the streets but not to the point of saturation,” traffic engineer Joe Staigar testified, adding that he doesn’t believe there would be additional overflow from this project, judging from similar senior housing projects in Garwood, Linden and Westfield. During a site visit on Sunday, Dec. 5, he said there were about 50 to 60 vacant spaces on surrounding blocks while during a visit on Friday, Dec. 10, about 30 to 35 vacant spaces were found in the area.

A typical development would require 1.8 spaces per 1-bedroom unit and 2.3 per 2-bedroom unit but given the demographics of a senior facility, 0.5 parking spaces should suffice, said Staigar. During his site visits to Clifford Case Apartments on West Milton Avenue, about 20 of the 28 spaces for 40 units were filled, while at the 196-unit Golden Age Towers on East Milton, generally 75 to 85 of the 104 spaces were filled.

Father Dennis Kaelin of Divine Mercy Parish (the combined St. Mary’s and St. Mark’s parishes) testified that the parking lot at St. Mary’s is generally about 80 percent occupied. Rahway Alternative High School operates out of the St. Mary’s school building and has about 25 spaces designated for staff during school days. A Thursday night prayer group accounts for some 20 spaces but the lot is full for Friday’s prayer group, he said.

Board members seemed unconvinced by testimony that suggested the demographics of a low-income senior housing facility would bring few car owners. Several members expressed serious concerns about exacerbating parking issues in the neighborhood, given the almost half a dozen churches within two blocks; Veterans Field, which hosts high school football games on Saturdays or Friday nights in the fall; the Union County Performing Arts Center less than two blocks away, and an amphitheater and black box theater planned around the corner on Hamilton Street. “They (residents) put up for years with people going to church, and not enough parking. The only concern is parking,” said board member Egon Behrmann, suggesting that if 10 of the units have a couple who each have a car, that leaves only seven spaces for the remaining 41 units.

Representatives for Domus said the parking complaints from other churches is an existing parking issue, but that the senior facility can accommodate its own parking. “Churches in the area are not going to change, what’s going to is the 51 units and losing eight spaces,” said Staigar. If the church needs more parking, he said it could use nearby St. Mark’s, if necessary.

Board member Josh Donovan suggested the applicant review the actual parking and if there’s a shortage, not make it up by street parking but perhaps lease spaces from the Parking Authority if it falls short. He also asked whether any attempt was made to acquire adjacent property for parking and the possibility of creating underground or first-floor parking. Underground or first-floor parking would be cost-prohibitive given HUD requirements and impractical for a senior facility the demographics, said architect Steven Cohen, adding that the building’s small footprint might only yield six spaces.

Lawrence Street resident Renee Thrash is a member of Ebenezer A.M.E. Church, located across the street from St. Mary’s. She told the board that said parking is a big issue in the neighborhood given the number of churches nearby while patrons of the arts center park along Central Avenue for blocks on the night of events.

Diane Bettinger of Campbell Street said sometimes she can’t go out of her house on Sundays, and waits until after church services. “We don’t go anywhere when there’s an event” at the arts center, she said, adding that they also got residential parking permits because commuters were using street parking.

Board Chairman William Hering implored the applicant to come back with a plan that has more parking to lessen the impact on the neighborhood. “It’s a tight fit,” he said, suggesting that they acquire more property or reduce the number of units, something the applicant’s attorney said is not economically feasible. “Come back with creative plans that make us all feel comfortable; I don’t think 51 into 27 will fit,” Hering said.

City Planner Paul Phillips suggested it would be helpful if the application provided documentation to bring board members to comfort level on parking variance, examining comparable projects at the same income levels and look at the parking offered there.