2024 State of the Town Address
I have the privilege of delivering the 2024 State of the Town address.
First and foremost, I’m happy and proud to report that the state of our Town continues to be exceptionally strong. Westfield has never been better positioned for sustainable long-term success.
I am proud of the significant accomplishments this Council made on many fronts last year, which I hope you had a chance to review in my update last week. These accomplishments include a historically low tax rate, major investments in public safety, ordinances addressing stormwater runoff, historic preservation, pedestrian and traffic safety, progress on our affordable housing obligations including housing for at-risk veterans, and laying the groundwork for an exciting future for our downtown that will ensure a vibrant, safe, and affordable community for future generations.
If you missed my last update, please refer to the website to see the extensive 2023 accomplishments.
None of this progress would be possible without the dedication, enduring commitment, and resiliency of all those who make our work possible – our Town employees, resident volunteers, and our business community. I would like to recognize all of you and express my gratitude for our partnership and shared vision.
Before I move on to the specific goals for 2024, I'd like to officially welcome our new Council members tonight and reiterate that we are committed to collegially working together in the best interest of Westfield, just as we have always done, including during the first two years of our tenure when the Council makeup was the same as it is tonight. We will continue to provide multiple opportunities for ongoing input on the issues that residents seem to care about the most -- namely, redevelopment, field solutions, and public safety -- which I'll detail as I discuss the year's goals.
Turning to 2024, I want to reiterate the key objectives that have served as the foundation for me and my four long-term colleagues here on the dais – all of us today celebrating our sixth anniversary in office – priorities that we hope will also be supported by our new Council colleagues in the spirit of collaboration.
Since 2018, our consistent objectives have been to:
- Maintain exceptional fiscal oversight
- Prioritize public safety
- Expand Town Parks & Recreation offerings for residents of all ages and abilities
- Champion quality of life issues
- Increase resident engagement and continue to foster a culture of inclusivity
- Responsibly manage development and advance downtown revitalization initiatives
1) Maintain exceptional fiscal oversight by:
- Seeking new sources of revenue and operating efficiencies to lessen our reliance on residential property taxpayers to balance the budget.
- Conservatively managing our debt levels while maintaining surplus (savings) levels that enable our AAA-bond rating.
- Leveraging development revenue to accelerate Town capital projects and ultimately school district priorities without further taxing our residents.
2) Prioritize public safety
For the past two years, our main objectives have been to address and reduce the number of auto thefts and related home break-ins in Westfield, as well as improve traffic and pedestrian safety. To that end, we are:
- Accelerating the immediate purchase of ten additional License Plate Readers to supplement the 15 LPRs we installed in 2023, which have proven to be a critically important tool in deterring auto theft. We are doubling down on what we need to do to stay ahead of criminals.
- Accelerating our investment in substantial pedestrian safety improvements, including the installation of pedestrian-activated beacon lights at Boulevard and Grove in the next few weeks, with others to follow at known problem intersections.
- Initiating a Safe Roads for All public safety plan, with your input, funded by a recently awarded $100,000 US DOT grant, which will incorporate a Vision Zero component with a goal to eliminate pedestrian accidents.
- Developing a high-visibility education campaign to reduce distracted driving and speeding.
- Introducing a neighborhood street lighting initiative with a goal of addressing all street light outages with PSE&G by July 1 and identifying pedestrian crossings where enhanced lighting is needed.
Longer term, we are committed to:
- Sustaining the highest police department staffing levels in Town history, and the highest fire department staffing levels in 17 years after recently restoring nine-person shifts.
- Proceeding with plans that began in 2015 to construct a new main firehouse on Central Avenue, where our Westfield Fire Department can operate most effectively, paid for with a combination of grants, PILOT revenues, and bonds.
- Improving long-standing pedestrian and traffic safety conditions for the 11 intersections related to One Westfield Place, as well as on Prospect Street related to The Sophia, that are enabled and funded by developer revenue.
3) Continue to enhance Town Parks & Recreation offerings
While disappointed in the outcome of the Edison Fields referendum and not delivering a solution for the Westfield High School athletes and marching band, the critical need for fields remains. That said, we are moving ahead with the following next steps in our Town-wide field improvement plans:
- Establishing a new working committee to devise a recreation plan for Tamaques Park, comprised of representatives from the Recreation Commission, sports leagues, Lifelong Westfield, and Tamaques neighbors, in order to fully inform decisions around parking, safety, access, amenities, circulation, and lighting – including assessing the potential for permanent relocation of the Westfield Ice Rink and field improvements.
- Implementing significant improvements to the Houlihan/Sid Fay field complex, including additional parking, restrooms, security lighting, and ADA compliance to be completed this year, largely funded by revenue from the recently approved cell tower being installed in the Conservation Center.
- Continuing discussions with the Board of Education about consolidating field maintenance among Town and school district parks and fields:
- Under a new DPW Director, following the recent retirement of Greg O’Neil, the department will reorganize to allow for more dedicated parks and fields resources.
- The school district and Westfield taxpayers will mutually benefit from the centralized and efficient approach that can be achieved through economies of scale.
- This approach will also enable greater attention to general park cleanup such as bathrooms, trash pickup, improved markers, trail maintenance, etc.
- Replacing playground equipment and resurfacing tennis courts at Memorial Park, and ongoing improvements to Brightwood Park and Mindowaskin Park in partnership with Friends of Brightwood and Friends of Mindowaskin.
4) Champion quality of life issues by:
- Paving approximately 15 miles of road this year as part of our innovative paving program. By the end of 2026, approximately 80% of the Town’s roads will be repaved in only eight years, and 50% of the paving costs will have been paid for by the utilities.
- Accelerating the work of the Raritan Valley Line Mayors' Alliance to advocate for additional one-seat ride service into NYC now that post-COVID ridership numbers have stabilized.
- Finalizing the Redevelopment Agreement for the American Legion project, which will provide 22 housing units for at-risk veterans, with anticipated ground breaking in 2025.
- Supporting additional initiatives such as the stormwater management work of the Westfield Infrastructure Resilience Committee (WIRC), strengthening our tree preservation ordinance, completing the update to the Historic Preservation Master Plan, and embracing our new agreement with the Westfield Senior Housing Corporation to increase support and services for our senior community.
5) Continue to foster resident engagement and a culture of inclusivity by:
- Increasing opportunities for resident input through public surveys and outreach, particularly related to areas such as recreation, community spaces for One Westfield Place, downtown events, and pedestrian safety.
- Expanding the visibility of the Human Relations Advisory Commission (HRAC) to promote inclusivity, celebrate diversity, and forcefully denounce racism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, and hate of any kind.
- Supporting and expanding initiatives and events that celebrate and unite our community, including AddamsFest, March To Yorktown Day, public art, and DWC events such as Sweet Sounds, Open Quimby, holiday events, and more.
- Prioritizing mental health awareness and education initiatives through the Mental Health Council.
And lastly, and most significantly:
6) Continue to proactively manage and support responsible development that not only advances our court-ordered affordable housing obligations, but also revitalizes our downtown economy
It’s no secret that development is top of mind for many of our residents, as it is in communities all over Union County and the entire state, as inclusionary housing projects are being constructed. In Westfield, affordable housing obligations and downtown revitalization continue to be the two factors driving development.
Most of the apartment buildings you see under construction are a direct result of our 2017 court-ordered affordable housing settlement and are just now coming to fruition. The resulting obligations from that settlement require that these projects, and many that will be proposed in the future, are considered “as of right” and must be approved or subject the Town to costly and risky litigation. As such, our commitment to you as elected officials is to ensure that these state-mandated projects deliver the best possible outcome for our residents.
This administration has strategically leveraged state redevelopment law and selective PILOT arrangements so that we have control to extract maximum public benefits, a voice in what buildings look like, how circulation issues will be addressed, and how the developer can invest in Westfield at large.
As an example, Westfield Crossing on South Avenue, our largest inclusionary project, is opening its first phase this spring and is a prime example of leveraging redevelopment tools and a PILOT agreement for the first time to deliver a better project and exciting public benefits. I’m happy to announce that their retail spaces have already been leased and the public plaza that the developer is creating and deeding to the Town is expected to be completed by year-end.
Two of the three North Avenue projects near my home should be completed and occupied by the summertime, and as a neighbor, I’m looking forward to the new sidewalk, landscaping, streetscape, and lighting upgrades that these developers are delivering to what has been a historically industrial and blighted area of North Avenue.
Downtown Revitalization/One Westfield Place
In 2018, my administration committed to taking on the difficult challenge of finding holistic solutions that would support our local businesses for the long term by expanding and diversifying our downtown economy, while addressing other challenges related to the diversity of housing stock, traffic congestion, parking, and infrastructure. We also sought opportunities to diversify and expand rateables so that we could stabilize property taxes. All of these objectives have been met in the award-winning One Westfield Place Redevelopment Plan, approved by this Council last March, and guided by a first class team of experts.
Tonight I’d like to provide an update on the project’s next steps.
HBC | Streetworks Development will be going before the Planning Board for site plan approval in the first quarter, where they will be providing updated renderings and architectural details, allowing the public to get more detailed information and provide public comment. We also anticipate an announcement about commercial tenants later this year.
This momentum is enabling us to announce tonight that we plan to accelerate the One Westfield Place public improvements timeline and aim to break ground on renovations to Quimby Street later this year. While Open Quimby has proven to be enormously popular, the concrete barriers restricting car traffic for events doesn't allow for the flexibility to restore parking for our Quimby Street merchants during off-peak periods.
The planned Quimby Street improvements will address these concerns by creating a permanent one-way, flexible festival street and will accomplish the following:
- Fully restore on-street parking
- Allow flexibility for the street to be opened/closed easily with electronic bollards replacing concrete barriers
- Provide beautiful streetscapes with large trees, cafe lighting, upgraded sidewalks, and street pavers
- Ensure accessible locations for loading, food delivery and service parking
- Upgrade underground infrastructure and drainage
- Enhance and expand outdoor dining for all Quimby Street restaurants/cafes
The Town, the DWC, and Streetworks will be co-hosting an information and feedback session for Quimby Street property owners and merchants in the next few weeks, and details and renderings will be shared with the public after the Quimby Street stakeholders have weighed in. Additionally, planning for the public spaces on the north and south side of the train station is well underway and we will be asking for your input on the programming of these spaces in the next few months.
I’d like to thank the many residents and business owners who have expressed their ongoing support for our vision, and similarly, express gratitude to those who have voiced concerns regarding aspects of One Westfield Place – which has ultimately helped guide positive revisions. I am optimistic that as more details of the plan are revealed that many of the concerns will be assuaged. We remain committed to keeping an open dialogue with the entire community, and ask for your participation as we continue to solicit public feedback.
In closing, I think I can speak for the entire Town Council as we reiterate our commitment to not only achieving these stated objectives for 2024 and beyond, but to inclusive and civil public discourse. By working together, we can continue to achieve great things for this town that we are all privileged to call home. Tonight, I’m proud to affirm the strength and vitality of Westfield, thanks to our residents, volunteers, employees, and elected officials working together to make it so. God bless our great community and country, and may 2024 bring health, happiness, and good fortune to you and your family. Happy New Year!
Town of Westfield, NJ