By John Burton |
RED BANK – The borough Zoning Board of Adjustment may have said “no” but the Planning Board said “yes” – after a little nudging from the Borough Council – for the upscale multistory apartment complex intended for the downtown.
The borough Planning Board voted unanimously Monday evening to endorse the Element, a 4-story, 35-residential unit development proposed for 55 West Front St., currently an approximately three-quarter acre, long-vacant property across the street from Riverside Gardens Park. The site had been home to a Meridian Health Care extended stay rehabilitation facility, demolished in 2008.
The project faced opposition on a number of fronts over the approximately one- and-a-half years it has been making its way through the various processes that have now led to approval and future construction. But what helped secure the project’s future was the borough council’s vote late last year reclassifying the property as a non-condemnation (not requiring using eminent domain) redevelopment zone, as defined by a 2013 state statute. That statute is intended as a tool for mostly urban municipalities to bring about redevelopment for blighted and abandoned properties, that often become a public safety issue and a tax- and service-burden for those communities. Mayor Pasquale Menna, who has supported the zoning change to this property, had said previously this law has been used effectively in Long Branch, Asbury Park, Newark and Montclair, among other communities around the state.
The borough council and zoning board had also approved the same designation for the White Street municipal parking lot, which caused far less controversy. The plan there is to develop the parking lot site for a future garage or mixed-use facility with a parking component to address the long-debated downtown parking shortfall.
West Front Street Partners, LLC, working with TANTUM, a Jersey City real estate development firm, had initially appeared before the borough zoning board for approval, needing variances for a parking deficiency and other relief conditions. The zoning board last year denied the application, citing the project’s size and impact on area traffic as reasons for the board’s rejection. However, nearly a decade earlier, the board had approved a 5-story, 27-unit condominium development that wasn’t built because of the downturn in the economy.
Following the board’s denial, Debra Tantleff, founding principal with TANTUM, said she lobbied the mayor and council to invoke this statute as an alternative to appealing the board’s denial to state Superior Court.
Redefining this location became a point of contention, dividing the borough council and planning board and becoming a campaign issue in last year’s borough council election. Proponents said it was a way of moving a much-needed project forward, developing an unsightly spot in the heart of the downtown. Opponents saw it as a blatant giveaway to a developer, and more troubling, an undermining of the authority of the zoning board, an autonomous quasi-judicial land use entity.
At Monday night’s meeting both points of view were aired by board members and the public.
“I’m disappointed in my town undermining the zoning board,” said Ben Forest, Locust Avenue. He argued that this amounted to spot zoning, illegal in this state. “I know it’s legal now,” given the rezoning under state law, Forest said. “But just because it’s legal it doesn’t make it right.”
Bill Brooks, Tower Hill Avenue, echoed Forest’s objections telling the board “I don’t think this was done correctly.”
But John Bowers, Colts Neck, who owns and manages commercial and residential proper ties in the borough (and is the landlord for offices used by The Two River Times on West Front Street), said “I think the overall project is kudos.”
Some board members expressed reservations. Barbara Boas said, “Deep in my soul I’m very conflicted by this.” Boas had said last year she felt uncomfortable with rezoning the site for the developer. But in the end Boas voted to approve it.
“I think the applicant has complied with everything we asked for,” willingly making changes to the plan, said board member Stanley Sickels.
Menna expressed a similar view, reminding those in attendance that he had some issues with some architectural aesthetics believing it was “too stark.” But the architect, Lance Blake, made some alterations, Menna said, and “I think they’ve come full circle.”
Tantleff expects to break ground on construction by late fall 2017, with plans to be completed before the end of 2018.
The expected rents for the apartments are roughly $2,200 for the one-bedroom units and $3,000 for the two bedrooms, Tantleff said.
This article was first published in the March 9-16, 2017 print edition of The Two River Times.
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