Ridgewood News

By Laura Herzog

Few new developments were announced at Tuesday’s Planning Board hearing on proposed changes to the village master plan that would allow high-density multifamily housing in the downtown, though the debate rages on.

The hearings – and increasing public criticism of the projects – have been ongoing since December. More than two years ago, several developers came forward with proposals for downtown multifamily housing developments that are not allowed under the current master plan, prompting a series of Planning Board workshops prior to the hearings.

On Tuesday, after the Planning Board spent nearly three hours questioning the two planners representing three current housing proposals, opposition leaders expressed some optimism, believing that this questioning indicated improved scrutiny of the projects. But representatives of the developers continue to insist that public skepticism appears to be based on misconceptions, not facts.

Concerns raised

During the hearing, which was attended by more than 40 residents, Amy Bourque, president of the grassroots opposition group Citizens for a Better Ridgewood (CBR), noted that she was “encouraged by the line of questioning,” which CBR believes is now focusing more on Ridgewood’s best interests.

Planning Board member Wendy Dockray spent a full hour asking for detailed clarifications on the testimony of Joseph Burgis, the planner for the 52-unit complexes Chestnut Village (proposed for 166 Chestnut St.) and The Enclave (proposed for East Ridgewood Avenue, near the North Maple Avenue intersection). Last month, Dockray extensively questioned aspects of the testimony of Peter Steck, the planner for the 106-unit luxury complex known as The Dayton (proposed for the now-vacant Brogan Cadillac site on South Broad Street).

Mayor Paul Aronsohn, who noted Tuesday that Ridgewood’s soon-to-increase affordable housing obligation is now a big “unknown,” also gained some crowd approval by pressing the developers’ planners for “one concern” about their clients’ projects. They did not express any serious concerns about the projects, but CBR Planner Brigette Bogart emphasized there are “no guarantees” of the developers getting their expected rents, or any study proving Ridgewood residents themselves want these apartments.

At one point, Steck emphasized the importance of architecture to the developments’ success. Later, architects Peter Wells, of Chestnut Village, and Larry Appel, of The Dayton, explained how they came to their latest respective flat-roofed and pitched-roof Tudor-style designs, pointing to inspiration from nearby Ridgewood architecture.

Referring to the board’s questioning, Bourque said that “it seems like they’re putting a little more thought and attention into the long-term consequences.” She noted that CBR is “thrilled that the public is engaged and showing up to these meetings.”

This has been one of the aims of CBR’s grassroots efforts. The group has recently increased local awareness of the issue by distributing lawn signs, now scattered throughout Ridgewood, that encourage residents to “SAY NO to high density zoning changes!” and “[hundreds] of new apartments downtown!”

CBR trustee Lori Weil noted that “it is amazing how many people approach us and say, ‘Thank you for bringing this to light, and thank you for fighting on our behalf.’”

Developers question stance

While some residents may now feel more enlightened about these proposals, these signs have led to confusion among some of the developers about the opposition’s stance and reasoning.

The Enclave’s public relations representative Ron Simoncini told The Ridgewood News that his team was shocked by the fact that Bogart, in her testimony last month, did not assert a position against multi-family housing in Ridgewood, instead asking the board to be cautious.

Unsatisfied with Bogart’s testimony, Thomas Bruinooge, an attorney for Enclave developer John Saraceno, had asked that Bogart’s testimony be “stricken from the record” as “pure opinion.” On Tuesday, however, Bruinooge withdrew his motion; he wanted the opportunity to cross-examine Bogart, Simoncini said.

“They don’t have any real content to object to. What are they objecting to?” Simoncini asked. “There seems to be some underlying, unspoken issues.”

“The crackpot opinions of lay people have to be weighed for what they are,” he added. “I’m confused and frustrated. I think this [process] shouldn’t take anywhere near this long.”

Garden Homes Development developer Scott Loventhal, whose firm has proposed The Dayton (a luxury complex which he noted may be expected to rent at $2,000 to 4,000), said he thinks the debate is “healthy” but not intimidating.

But he believed some residents may not realize a master plan amendment is a step in a longer process. If an amendment is approved, that does not mean “there could be a shovel in the ground several months later,” he noted.

According to Bourque, CBR has never been “anti-development.”

“Our message has always been sort of ‘responsible development,’” she said.

Still, she added, the current proposed density (from 12 to more than 50 residential units per acre) is “a 400 percent increase” and “that’s an extremely large jump.”

“How can we find the happy medium?” she asked.

Responding to allegations that have been levied in private against the opposition – that it may be motivated by prejudice against potential renters – Bourque and Weil noted that this could not be further from the truth. That argument, Bourque added, is “always thrown at citizens to belittle their genuine concerns.”

“We’ve said all along that people can move from Timbuktu,” Weil said. “It’s the density.”

The exact date and location of the next public hearing on the housing proposals will be announced at a later date.

Email: herzogl@northjersey.com