1,850 units near new train station? ‘Transit village’ study suggests Exchange Place-like setting for south Secaucus

A long-awaited development study for the south end of Secaucus was released in early September, offering a startling new view for the area surrounding the newly opened Secaucus Transfer train station.

"I believe that we’re going to be the gateway to the entire northeast region," said Mayor Dennis Elwell last week. "This will change the southern portion of Secaucus, turning it into one of the most prestigious areas in the region."

The study envisions 1,850 townhouse-style units (this is down from about 5,500 as proposed in an earlier version), 575,000 to 750,000 square feet of commercial space, 241 acres of open space, a hotel with 350 to 500 rooms, and a conference center of 30,000 to 50,000 square feet.

The study, which is a joint effort by NJ Transit, the Town of Secaucus and the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission (NJMC), was authorized in December, 2002. A version of it was released in May, but portions of it were revised for release this month.

Elwell said the NJMC had approached the town to allow NJ Transit to provide a conceptual plan for the area.

"Usually that would cost us a lot of money if we were to do it," he said.

Chris Gale, spokesperson for NJMC, said NJ Transit hired the independent consultant to see what could be put in the "transit village," with the idea of presenting the information to the public.

A public information meeting has been scheduled for Sept. 17 at 6:30 p.m. in Secaucus Town Hall to outline the project, officially called "The Revised Secaucus Transfer Station Area Vision" plan.

Councilman Chris Marra, who is a member of the Stakeholders Committee for the village study, said the committee has already reviewed the plans. He called them "eye opening."

"People will be talking about this all over town," he said.

Elwell said this is not a plan written in stone. The public presentation also is not a public hearing, so while members of the public can attend, they can’t give testimony.

"This is to show what can be done there," he said. "We don’t have to accept any of it."

That said, Elwell was very excited about the plan, especially because it promises to create a massive new taxable base from a portion of town that has the lowest current land values.

"In the 1990s, most of our tax appeals came from that part of town," Elwell said. "It is an area with the oldest warehouses that do not meet contemporary standards."

Village studies have been conducted elsewhere in the state, particularly in Morristown and in Rutherford. But Elwell said what makes Secaucus different and more exciting is the vast potential it offers.

"In most other areas, the study was used to revitalize downtown areas," he said. "In Secaucus, we’re taking an area that has the potential for significant development."

If implemented, this will mean condemning buildings through eminent domain, meaning that the town, HMDC, or other entity can force property owners to sell land that is not developed or maintained, in order to redevelop it for a higher standard use.

"Our ratable base has always our strongest point," Elwell said. "It has allowed us to continue all of our recreation and senior programs. It is how we could build an amphitheater in Buchmuller Park. It is how we managed to elevate our high school to 75th in the state [according to New Jersey Monthly]. But to keep up those good things, we must continue to gain ratables, and this transit study may give us the tools to do that as well as create more open space."

NJMC officials still had to put together some of the financial impacts of the proposed plan by press time, but said these details and others would be made at the presentation – where representatives from NJMC, NJ Transit and the consulting firm Clarke, Caton and Hintz are expected to be on hand to answer questions.

"This will not be a public hearing," Elwell said. "Those things may come later if we decide to move ahead with various aspects of the plan. The idea of this is to show what could be done in that area."

Elwell said the presentation is being done in Secaucus in order to keep residents apprised of possible future plans that will affect them.

"This will give an overview of what is being proposed," he said. "The commission is hoping if it works to incorporate the plan into its new master plan due out in January."

A dramatic new south Secaucus

The study was part of the New Jersey Transit Village Initiative that partners with numerous state agencies to develop or redevelop areas near transportation hubs. Under this approach, such areas could be redeveloped with layers of housing, commercial centers, retail outlets, entertainment and pedestrian-friendly development, and attractive landscaping that will allow people to live within walking distance of transportation.

The revised Secaucus Transfer Station Area Vision Plan was completed in August and will be presented to the public in Secaucus at the special Sept. 17 meeting in Town Hall.

The study area is adjacent to the Hackensack River, Laurel Hill Park and the Anderson Creek Marsh. The Secaucus Greenway – the town’s proposed riverfront walkway – will run through a section of the area.

The study area includes the entire southern section of Secaucus, which – when roadway improvements are complete – should provide access to the New Jersey Turnpike, Meadowlands Parkway, County Road and Route 3.

The study noted that the Transfer Station will permit easy access to Manhattan and other parts of the New Jersey with river views at one section and a view of the Manhattan skyline at another.

The study recommends the construction of 1,850 residential units and a plaza-like business district with a park-like common area. The plans, if adopted as proposed, would also include the construction of new streets – including work on the Jersey City Water Works, that city’s water system.

"[A] viaduct runs under Secaucus and carries water into Jersey City," Elwell said. "This plan called for a boulevard that would have the pipeline run down the middle along a greenway."

Some of the recommendations in the study fit in with the zoning changes made in the area several years ago by the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission, which decided that redevelopment sites should include areas for research, distribution and industrial uses.

The plan had specific local land use goals that included seeking long-term solutions to traffic congestion, development of small scale commercial elements for Secaucus residents, preserving and protecting environmental areas, creation of new recreational opportunities for local residents, maintaining a balance between development and open space, encouraging tree plantings, and examining the potential for development in areas adjacent to the train station.

Under this proposal, much of the warehouse area along Castle Road would be slated for development, while existing businesses structures along Seaview Drive would remain. An area along the southwest corner of Secaucus commonly called "The Anderson Tract" would be preserved.

The two largest property owners in the area are Hartz Mountain Industries and Triple G. Associates, although Huron Realty, Hawk Realty, Hudson County, the Town of Secaucus, and others own sections of the area as well.

One of the more significant changes will be the construction of a new roadway called Aqueduct Drive, which will include a pedestrian walkway as well and green landscaping over the divided roadway that will enhance open space.

Mayor Elwell noted that another significant change that will accompany the overall plan is an even more expansive new grade separation (bridge over rail tracks) near where County Road comes into contact with New County Road.

Under this plan, the majority of the waterfront will be maintained as wetlands or parkland.

The study said sites open for development include upland (non-wetland) property to the south of the Main Line railroad and land near the transfer station. Of the 386 acres in the study area, Laurel Hill County Park occupies 116 acres, and wetlands 114 acres.

Work currently underway or planned for the area includes the reconstruction of Castle Road, the construction of the Turnpike access ramps, and the construction of Allied Junction (the commercial element of the Transfer Station, located on that site).

The plan would make use of the exiting New County Road Extension and construct additional roadways south of it for the grid work design for the residential element of the project.

Riverfront Landing, Station Square

The plan’s recommendations center on distinct development areas. They include the Riverfront Landing site – the residential portion that will focus towards river views – and the Station Square, which will focus on Manhattan views and the transfer station. All new development will be within a five-minute walk of the train station.

The residential development, according to the study, will likely be the first phase. This will include multi-story residential and townhouses, with mixed uses at the waterfront – including possible boat launch.

This site will take advantage of the view of the river and the park frontage.

The Station Square District concept will feature buildings like those found in a more urban center with the most density of construction nearest to the station. This square will have a park-like common area at its center and will include a hotel and conference center, two- to five-story commercial buildings, ground-level retail, and mixed use local office space with residential above. The square itself would be located at County Avenue.

A stairway from one side of the square will provide pedestrian access to the train station. The planners said this square could serve as the front door to the train station.

Pedestrian traffic will have two access points to the station, according to this study’s recommendations – one at Laurel Hill Drive (near the Main Line railway) and the other from station square.

The plan also envisions mixed use development along Castle Road and New County Avenue Extension with business on the first floor and residential above.

"This plan is showing us something we can be proud of," Elwell said. "Ten of the state’s 11 rail lines are going to meet at the Transfer Station here, and we will be greeting people who come in. I have a feeling that over time, Secaucus will become a center of transportation that is even more important and grander than Newark. We will see people coming through here from Rockland County and Western New Jersey. Many people will likely relocate in Secaucus or choose to work here based on what they see here. We want to make it as appealing and grand as possible."

Secaucus Transfer opens to weekend service

Among significant pomp and a parade of local, state and federal officials, weekend service began at the new Secaucus Transfer Station on Sept. 6.

"Daily service is scheduled to start sometime in December," said Mayor Dennis Elwell during a telephone interview. "It hinges on when PATH service is restored to lower Manhattan."

Elwell joined a VIP train in at the Rutherford Station early on Saturday and headed into the Secaucus station with the officials – including U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, for whom the Rail Station building has been dedicated and named.

In his remarks, Launtenberg predicted that once the station is fully operational, travel time for many New Jersey passengers to midtown Manhattan can be reduced by 15 to 20 minutes.

Gov. James E. McGreevey, who also joined the train with Elwell and Launtenberg, celebrated the station’s opening as a key ingredient in his smart growth initiative, an effort that would help contain new development to areas previously developed rather than reducing the state’s stock of open space.

The 312,000-square-foot station links the Main, Bergen County, Pascack Valley, Port Jervis, Montclair-Boonton, Morristown, Gladstone, Northeast Corridor, North Jersey Coast and Raritan Valley lines of NJ Transit’s commuter system.

"Like most mayors, I would like to take credit for the Secaucus station," Elwell said in prepared remarks. "This project was strenuously opposed for seven years when it was first proposed. Original estimates called for twice the population of our town to use the station daily. There were concerns about traffic, safety and maintaining the small-town character of our community. Our residents feared a negative impact. But with weekend service now begun, there is no opposition from our community."

Elwell said this is because of the cooperative effort of the state and federal government, as well as the elected officials who sought to meet Secaucus’ needs.

"Senators Lautenberg, Corzine and Torricelli, as well as Congressman Steve Rothman, deserve the credit for helping to secure the needed funding for the project," Elwell said, also attributing credit to the Governor, state Sen. Nicholas Sacco, Assembly members Anthony Impreveduto and Joan Quigley, as well as members of McGreevey’s staff.

"But while the project connects numerous train lines," he said, "the connection that has been most important to Secaucus is the one between our town and Governor James E. McGreevey’s Administration."

Elwell said that a direct turnpike interchange and two new bridges over rail lines have eased concerns about safety and congestion, and that NJ Transit has worked hard to

alleviate the impact of closing the Harmon Cove Train Station. – Al Sullivan


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