By John Burton |
RED BANK – Business owners and residents again addressed the chronic downtown parking shortfall and its possible solutions this week, reaching no consensus but giving voice to the community on the issue.
The Red Bank Business Alliance conducted what participants labeled a town hall-style meeting Monday evening at the Red Bank Middle School, putting options on the table and getting opinions as the borough council awaits proposals for a parking garage.
“We need to solve this problem,” said Joel McFadden, an alliance member who owns and operates Joel McFadden Designs, a jewelry design business at 32 White St.
The downtown business community has long advocated for a garage in the area to solve the parking shortage, which, with customers complaining about their inability to park, is impacting local businesses’ bottom line.
McFadden told the audience in the school’s auditorium he regularly gets phone calls from customers who ask if they can come to his shop on Sunday or after 6 p.m., because of the difficulty and inconvenience of finding available parking. This situation is having an impact throughout the area, McFadden maintained.
Compounding the situation is the Count Basie Theatre, which has a planned expansion, and the impact of Red Bank Catholic High School students who drive, McFadden added.
“We think it’s important to talk about what can be done,” said Michael Simpson, a local architect and planner, who has some experience dealing with the issue during his years in Red Bank.
“It’s a century in the making,” Simpson pointed out of the parking situation, with the rise of the automobile. In 1999-2000 the issue again came to the forefront when then mayor Edward J. McKenna Jr. and borough council planned to bond for $11 million to construct a garage at the White Street municipal parking lot. Those plans were eventually abandoned as the governing body faced fierce opposition from residents who feared their taxes would spike to help businesses they didn’t necessarily patronize.
Now, though, the matter is once again on the front burner. The council adopted an ordinance late last year that designated the White Street municipal parking lot as a property in need of redevelopment and has advertised for requests for proposals (RFPs) from private developers for ideas on constructing a possible mixed-use facility with retail and/or residential units, along with parking decks.
The RFPs are due by Tuesday, April 26, at 10 a.m.
James Scavone, executive director of Red Bank RiverCenter, which manages and advocates for the borough commercial Special Improvement District, said “our ideal” would be a municipal-owned and operated parking facility that provides a net gain of 500 parking spaces to accommodate the district’s need.
“Our preference has always been a garage and just a garage,” as opposed to some other type of facility, Scavone said. A mixed-use facility would need additional spaces to address the district and the facility’s needs. Borough officials have said any such facility may have to be as tall as eight stories to cover that need, leading some to voice objections over that size and scope and recently leading to a lawsuit opposing that large of a complex.
“We are willing to work with the borough,” Scavone said, to find alternatives that may be amenable to all the parties.
The vacancy rate for commercial properties in the downtown is about 6 percent, according to Scavone.
But that number is deceiving, maintained John Bowers, a commercial property owner (and landlord for 75 West Front St., where The Two River Times has its offices). Bowers said the upper levels of those commercial buildings, usually designated as office space, are all too often unrented because potential tenants can’t provide parking for clients and employees. That affects the landlord’s profitability. And that, Bowers and others Monday night stressed, means their properties aren’t as valuable as they could be, which in turn affects the tax rate commercial properties pay.
With commercial property values not at the levels they should be, the tax burden increasingly shifts onto residential properties. So, Bowers argued, a garage would make the commercial sites more valuable, helping offset residential property taxes.
Bowers said he would like to see a municipal garage. That would be profitable for the borough, he and others argued. Currently the Red Bank Parking Utility collects $1.6 million annually from metered spaces.
But the idea of a taxpayer-shouldered debt to construct and operate a garage didn’t seem to meet with much approval from residents in attendance.
“I don’t buy necessarily that my taxes will go down if you build a parking garage,” countered borough resident Bruce Whitaker.
Bowers conducted an independent study, done with local architect Stephen Raciti, indicating a garage facility could be constructed for $16.5 million.
“What we want is a project that costs the residents nothing,” that would be self-sustaining, and could be managed by a governmental parking authority, McFadden said.
“The purpose of this meeting is to get voices heard,” explained Alan Placer, an alliance member who manages Hobbymasters, 62 White St. This will be the first of a series of conversations.
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