On Thursday November 13th, the Newark Zoning Board of Adjustment stopped (at least for the time being) the continued spread of surface lots in the Ironbound. A property owner wanted to convert his parcel near Penn Station into a surface parking lot and required a D Use Variance. This variance was denied by a unanimous vote of the 7 of 9 board members present. This decision is the culmination of a process that started in February. Opposition was led by the Planning Land Use Group (PLUG) of which I am a member.
The parcel that was the subject of the application was the site of an old factory, though earlier in the year was demolished in anticipation of approval of the application. In Newark there is a blanket prohibition on surface parking lots as a primary use, though they are allowed as accessory uses. This blanket prohibition created an opportunity for the applicant to claim that surface parking must go somewhere. Given its location within 1,200 feet of one of the best connected transit hub in New Jersey: Newark Penn Station, this is an area that should be used for Transit Oriented Development.
In some ways, it is easy to see why the property owner would want to convert his land to parking. Throughout the years, the Zoning Board of Adjustment has handed out variances to 13 other properties within a short distance of Penn Station allowing a surface parking lot as a primary use. In fact, his land was surrounded by commercial parking on three sides. The land owner testified that he felt that no development was possible because no residents would want to live and no businesses would want to be located in this sea of parking. There is a major problem with this line of thinking; if nearby parking lots make businesses and residential units less desirable, thus necessitating an increase in parking, where does the parking end? This is cancerous logic and PLUG decided this was where we were going to draw a line in the sand.
This stand was not simply NIMBYism. Members of PLUG, myself included, testified that they desired to see development occur in this area. The general consensus among PLUG members is that the vision as laid out in the 2012 Master Plan is desirable. The Master Plan sees areas around train stations in Newark as being ideal places for increased intensity of development with a focus on residential development. The block in which the property is located is designated as Mid-rise Multi-family Residential. This would allow mixed use buildings up to 8 stories, and because it is within 1,200 feet of Penn Station, no parking would be required. PLUG wasn’t simply opposing change, but rather promoting the implementation of the Master Plan. With this decision by the Zoning Board, a precedent has been set supporting this positive vision.
This victory is important because there are other areas of the city that may be threatened by the expansion of surface parking. There is a lot of cleared land around the Broad Street station that could be converted into surface parking. Furthermore, two buildings in downtown were recently demolished and given the fact that they are adjacent to existing parking lots, the assumption is that the land owners want to convert them to parking. This would be following a pattern in the Ironbound where buildings are demolished and parking soon takes up the previously occupied space. These two lots are also within 1,200 feet of a train station. With this new precedent set in support of the Master Plan and its recommendations for land use around train stations, it will be more difficult for these lots to be converted to parking.
Although we were victorious at the Zoning Board, there is still work to be done. On the Saturday night after the decision, Cailie and I were walking past the site and it was still being used as parking for customers of Forno’s of Spain. The restaurant not only was using the site for parking, but actually had a light up sign directing customers in. The Zoning Board has spoken, but the land owner is not listening. Enforcement on weekends is tough since any code enforcement that exists in Newark is only active during business hours. Further work is needed before land use in the Ironbound changes for the better. With a continued effort, the hollowing out of Newark may be stopped and be replaced by high quality pedestrian friendly development.