The former Children’s Institute at the corner of Sunset and Bloomfield Avenues could become the site of 300 new apartments, including 60 units that would qualify as affordable housing.
The property has more recently been known as Spectrum360, a school for children on the autism spectrum, and the school was a so-called intervenor (potential developer) in New Jersey’s litigation on affordable housing. But the property was the subject of a settlement accepted by the Verona Town Council on October 1. Under it, Verona accepted a concept plan proposed by Spectrum360 for a building of up to six stories including parking, and about 300 residential units. Twenty percent of the units would have to qualify as affordable housing.
In our area, a property designated as “affordable” would generally need to be affordable to people earning between $47,250 and $75,360 a year–people like teachers and first responders. It is not the same as Section 8 housing, which is government-subsidized housing for very low-income people.
Spectrum360, which has outgrown the property, has now listed it for sale. The listing is through BlueGate Partners, a real estate investment banking firm in New York City; the sale price is not disclosed in the listing. Any developer who purchases the site must abide by the terms of the concept plan settlement. The property consists of approximately eight acres: About 5.5 acres are located in Verona and the balance in Montclair.
The Spectrum360 site was one of four intervenor properties that had been the subject of discussion with Verona authorities. At the October 1 meeting the Town Council also approved a concept plan for the former Poekel Travel Bureau site near the Verona Community Center. That concept plan seems to indicate a mixed-use development of approximately 46 rental units and 6,395 square feet of commercial space. Twenty percent of the residential units would have to be set aside for affordable housing. The Poekel property does not appear to have been listed for sale.
Like most municipalities in New Jersey, Verona has been dealing with the issue of affordable housing since the first of the three so-called Mount Laurel decisions were handed down in 1975. They obligate New Jersey communities to make sure that their zoning makes it possible for a “fair share” of their housing to be accessible to people who are less well off.
Verona had used the 159 units in the senior citizens building at 100 Hillwood Terrace to meet its Mount Laurel obligations in the past. But when former Gov. Chris Christie stripped the Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) of its responsibilities in 2015, the affordable housing quotas of all New Jersey towns–including Verona–were thrown into confusion. Verona planner Jason Kasler told the Town Council in September 2017 that experts consulted by Verona had said we need between 20 and 120 additional affordable housing units. Fair Share Housing Center, an affordable-housing advocacy group, has pegged our shortfall at 327 units.
While we still don’t know what the final number will be, on October 15, the Town Council adopted an ordinance that mandates that any Verona property now zoned for nonresidential uses that gets a zoning change or use variance to permit multi-family residential development would have to meet an affordable housing requirement. And thanks to the structure of the settlement with Spectrum360, while the new developer must only designate 60 of the 300 units as affordable, Verona could actually get credit for up to twice as many.
What happens next to the Spectrum360 and Poekel properties is unclear. No development plans have been filed for either. When they are filed, they will be the subject of a site plan review with the Planning Board that is open to the public, just the Annin Flag factory redevelopment did.
The concept plan settlements with Spectrum360 and Poekel leave two other intervenor sites in Verona unresolved: A private property now used as the Verona leaf dump on Commerce Court and a heavily wooded lot on Mount Prospect Avenue at the edge of Eagle Rock Reservation. Development at either property could likely be limited by wetlands restrictions. And if the settlements on the Poekel and Spectrum360 properties are deemed to satisfy Verona’s affordable housing requirement, the other two properties could lose some of their impetus for development.
One other affordable housing issue of note: Some Verona residents on Howell Drive and other streets at the top of the Fairway have also recently been notified of potential affordable housing development on an expansive tract of woodlands in West Orange. Verona officials have no authority over what happens there.