Oak Tree Road study recommends mixed use

Recommendations developed by planning intern after 10 weeks


EDISON — A series of recommendations developed through intense survey work over the past 10 weeks will be incorporated into larger plans for the Oak Tree Road area in Edison.

The recommendations, which broadly center around mixed-use development and the utilization of underused space, were developed by a graduate student intern from New Jersey Institute of Technology, Ulka Panchal, who is currently pursuing her master’s in planning, with the support of Jay Elliot, assistant director for the township Department of Health and Human Services.

Panchal reached the township through the NJIT Housing and Community Development Scholars program, which is coordinated by the state Department of Community Affairs. The township needed to apply and be selected for the program, and Panchal also needed to be selected.

“I really liked Ulka’s résumé,” Elliot said. “I really thought that she could be beneficial to us here, and I hoped she would like this program and like us. The good news is, by the end of [the application] process, we were both selected, and here we are.”

Panchal said she decided she wanted to work with Edison because it was the only program offering real experience in city planning, her chosen field of study, as opposed to programs that stressed other aspects of community development, such as social work.

“Some of the agencies were not concentrating on the planning part of projects, they were concentrating on social work … I don’t belong to that field, so I was looking for something which would help me in my field — planning and architecture,” said Panchal.

Elliot said township planner Brandi Forbes had been concurrently working on redevelopment plans for the Oak Tree Road area, and that Panchal’s work will be incorporated into Forbes’ work, saving the planner time on doing the on-theground survey work that Panchal and Elliot had conducted. Oak Tree Road was selected as the focus for this study, said Elliot, because about 20 percent of the township’s population lives on or around the 2.3-mile stretch of road.

“I think Oak Tree Road is probably the closest, if not even closer, to being a downtown section of Edison,” said Elliot.

Ulka noted that in her surveys of the area, one of the primary ways that Oak Tree Road could be improved would be to utilize space that she felt was being underused, noting that the area had parking lots far larger than the buildings’ services actually required. This space, she said, could be used to make public spaces and outdoor eating places, which dovetails with nearby businesses that sell food and drink but aren’t necessarily restaurants.

Even when doing this, Panchal said, there is still an abundance of parking, because many people around Oak Tree Road walk, and so encouraging offices would make more efficient use of the parking that remains. This, she said, was because offices would use the parking during the day, and then the restaurants and other businesses, which she said primarily cater to evening customers, could use the space during the night.

“I’d recommend mixed use on lower levels and office space upstairs, because we can share those parking spaces,” said Panchal.

She also pointed out that the increased office use could bolster the local businesses by drawing in customers.

“I wouldn’t recommend too many shops, since we have enough. What we need now are users,” said Panchal.

Another aspect of Panchal’s recommendationswas the overall improvement of aesthetic conditions in the area, with survey work revealing that many back lots were poorly maintained, with litter and weeds remaining unchecked. This, according to Elliot, could be addressed right away, and he said it had been. The pair simply talked to local business owners in the area and pointed out the condition of their back lots. Elliot said that almost overnight, the owners began taking better care of the grounds.

“We went store by store and asked them to cooperate. They all did. We received no resistance — I don’t think anyone said no. … Beyond that, you ride through now and it’s [cleanup and maintenance] become a daily routine,” said Elliot.

This fits neatly with another aspect of Panchal’s recommendations, which involves landscaping the more barren areas to make the place more inviting and aesthetically pleasing.

Elliot said the work he and Panchal did provided the necessary homework and legwork that gives insight into redevelopment in the area. He said he hopes that ultimately the work will contribute to an overall improvement in the Oak Tree Road area’s quality of life.

“We’re trying to make this an area where people want to come to live in,” Elliot said.