Sunday, March 20, 2011

Accessible apartment complex for disabled veterans to open in NJ

From The NY Times:

A new apartment building designed to suit the needs of disabled veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is to rise in Raritan Borough.

But first, peace had to be negotiated between borough officials and developers.

The concept of veterans’ housing grew out of a compromise, reached during court-ordered mediation that resulted from a lawsuit filed by Premier Development of Westfield against the borough and its planning board. Premier had been rebuffed by the board on a proposal for a 25-acre site on Route 202 once occupied by Federal Steel.

Back in 2005, the borough had approved Premier’s plans for a project called Willow Walk, for 422 units of age-restricted housing. Four years later the bottom fell out of the market for such housing, and the State Legislature passed a law allowing towns to consider lifting age restrictions on previously approved projects.

Premier asked the town to do that; the planning board said no, maintaining that what the town really needed was more affordable housing for those living on fixed incomes, not the 400-plus market-rate rental units that Premier proposed.

The developer sued; the judge sent the opposing parties to a mediator.

“After a few difficult sessions,” said Jo-Ann Liptak, the borough’s mayor, as well as its unofficial historian, “the idea just came to me. We were sitting there, waiting for the retired judge who was running the mediation to show up, and we got to talking about the history of this area during World War II.”

That history is extraordinary, and people do like to talk about it: As was noted last year in an HBO miniseries, “The Pacific,” 1940s Raritan is said to have contributed the greatest percentage of its population to the war effort of any community in the country.

The series also dramatized the story of John Basilone, a borough native who won the Medal of Honor for heroism as a Marine Corps gunnery sergeant during the Battle of Guadalcanal on Oct. 25 and 26, 1942, and was later killed in action at Iwo Jima.

Raritan stages an annual parade in honor of Basilone; it has done so since 1981, when Mrs. Liptak was in third grade, and her class was taken to see him memorialized in a large bronze statue. The children, moved by the experience, persuaded the man who was then mayor to institute the parade. And Mrs. Liptak’s abiding memory of the event acted as a catalyst in this instance. “It just occurred to me,” said Mrs. Liptak, who now officiates at the annual parade, “that the Willow Walk site would be a great place to establish housing for today’s veterans and war heroes.”

There is a steady stream of new veterans arriving in the area to receive treatment and rehabilitation at the Department of Veterans Affairs medical center in nearby Lyons, said Susan Rubright, a land use lawyer who represented the borough’s planning board in the negotiations.

And there are already some 15,000 veterans of various wars residing in the area.

“We saw right away that the market was there,” said Michael Sommer, a senior vice president of Premier. Once the subject of housing for veterans was broached, an agreement was quickly struck to set aside for veterans’ use 20 percent of however many units were built, under income guidelines set by housing officials. The units would not only be “affordable” but also “fully accessible” according to standards of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

The homes will be marketed by the borough, working in partnership with the state branch of the Veterans Affairs health care system. “We will be getting that going as soon as ground is broken on the project,” for which no date has yet been set, Mrs. Liptak said earlier this month.

Among the other details that had to be worked out in negotiations before the Somerset County Superior Court approved the deal:

¶The size of the overall Willow Walk project was reduced, to 363 units from 422, at the borough’s insistence.

¶The four-story building open to veterans, and others with disabilities, will have 73 apartments.

¶Buildings on the perimeter of the site were stepped down in size and height, to harmonize with the surrounding neighborhood.

¶All amenities at the complex have been designed to be accessible to the disabled, including a lap pool that will be equipped with a lift.

¶One-, two- and three-bedroom designs will be offered throughout the complex, including the veterans’ building.

Mr. Sommer of Premier described his company as “thrilled” at the way the matter had been resolved. He also said Premier was working with the borough planners to create a memorial plaza in front of the veterans’ building.

The Basilone parade route will be changed to include a service to be held at the plaza, Mrs. Liptak said. She added that the local historical committee, of which she is a former board chairman, was discussing the idea of creating plaques depicting the lives of some distinguished local veterans.

There are several other projects in the New York region aimed at providing homes for veterans of the current wars, including one on Long Island. In that instance, the charitable arm of a builders’ group has created a handful of houses that are being marketed to veterans at a third of market-rate price.

Also, a national nonprofit group, Homes for Our Troops, has begun retrofitting homes of disabled soldiers in the region to make them accessible.

But officials from the veterans’ medical center in Lyons, who often help newly disabled war veterans seek appropriate housing, said they were unaware of any other large-scale accessible-housing project devoted to veterans in New Jersey.