By John Burton
RED BANK – The borough Planning Board’s endorsement of a study permitting redevelopment of two downtown properties is getting mixed reviews.
The planning board on July 6 held a public hearing on a report it commissioned to study whether two locations – one publicly owned, the other private property – qualify as areas in need of redevelopment under a state statute, paving the way for their future improvements.
The board voted 5-2 to approve the report, the first step in what is likely to be a lengthy process to allow for the redevelopment of the borough-owned White Street metered parking lot and the privately-owned 55 West Front St. site, that has been standing vacant for the better part of a decade.
There were those, however, who raised an eyebrow, and objections, to including a private property in the proposal to the borough Zoning Board of Adjustment.
Michael Simpson, a local architect, commended the board and report for its assessment of White Street to be redeveloped in the future as a garage, but had reservations about including the West Front Street site for similar consideration.
“I don’t understand how that property qualifies,” under this state law, Simpson told the board. He said the West Front Street property could certainly be developed, but it requires a plan that meets existing municipal zoning requirements. “To me that’s more of a business decision,” as to what the developer would like to accomplish.
Attorney Richard Pepsny represents 40 White Street, LLC – which owns the former borough-owned Liberty Hose Fire Company firehouse – and its principal, Mike Hughes, who will develop it. That property abuts the vacant West Front Street lot. Pepsny challenged the report’s findings that the West Front Street site was what state officials had in mind in this legislation and that the site must be “blighted” and pose a public safety risk to qualify. “It’s unsightly,” Pepsny said of the fenced-in but fallow and weed-overgrown vacant lot, “but it simply doesn’t meet the criteria.”
Pepsny said later last week that a Superior Court judge could consider this action as spot zoning – changing the zoning of an individual land parcel within a larger zoned area – which is illegal in New Jersey. He added that his client “is seriously considering appealing the decision” by the planning board to the state Superior Court.
By having the sites labeled as permitted for redevelopment, eventually, once the planning board and then borough council approved the study, it would in some ways streamline the approval process to develop the sites.
In the case of 55 West Front Street, the developer would not have to return to the zoning board to again seek a use variance to construct its planned apartment complex – a particularly high burden for a developer to meet under land use law. Instead, the developer would need to submit a site plan to the planning board, where the criteria for approval is more accessible.
Such a determination for the White Street site would pave the way for a garage. Mayor Pasquale Menna has said repeatedly over the years that a garage would have to “make sense for taxpayers,” hoping to eventually broker a public/private partnership with a developer, leading to constructing a garage for the downtown area.
Andrew Bayer, a redevelopment lawyer, said Menna and the Borough Council had asked the planning board to investigate whether these sites met the state criteria and hired Bayer to oversee the process. Bayer’s assessment is that the locations need only to meet one of the eight laid out in the state statute to be meet this qualification.
Anthony Rodriguez, a professional land use planner with CME Associates, a Howell firm which the borough retained to conduct the study, gave an overview of what the firm found. In his assessment, the 3.37 acres on White Street which the municipality owns and uses as a parking lot is an “inefficient and obsolete,” use of the property.
“It really represents yesterday’s solution,” to today’s problem, of addressing the chronic parking shortfall in the borough downtown commercial district.
For 55 West Front St., Rodriguez called it a “nuisance” site and one that “negatively impacts the streetscape” of the Front Street area.
“It diminishes the character of the neighborhood,” Rodriguez maintained.
But Pepsny countered the state law was intended to allow communities to address long-abandoned and neglected structures that have become a public hazard.
Board member Linda Cohen responded that in its current state, with litter and surrounded by a hole-filled cyclone fence, it creates an uncomfortable environment for visitors and residents of the area.
“It’s not a complete eyesore,” Rodriguez acknowledged, continuing, “it does impact public health, safety and welfare.”
Menna stressed this statute has been used effectively elsewhere, such as in Hackensack and that “Jersey City would not be the Jersey City of today,” without using this tool.
Board member Barbara Boas was not won over, as she and board member Juanita Lewis cast the negative votes. “I would promote the parking lot in a blink of an eye,” allowing for it to be redeveloped, Boas said. However, she added about the West Front Street spot, “This is a slippery slope,” that could come back and haunt the community.
The West Front Street site, measuring 3⁄4 of an acre, across from Riverside Gardens Park, had been home to the Meridian Extended Care facility, which was demolished in 2007. The current owners, 55 West Front Street, LLC, with three Monmouth County residents as its principals, had intended to construct a four-story, 35-unit apartment complex on the site, calling it The Element. The zoning board of adjustment in March denied the application, citing the project’s extensive size.
In response, Debra Tantleff, whose firm TANTUM real estate, Jersey City is developing the site for the property owners, said she approached the mayor and council about classifying the site under this state provision as opposed to the owners appealing the board decision in Superior Court.
In response to the board’s support of the report, Tantleff said last week “We’re very pleased,” with the progress. “This process takes longer; it’s a lengthier process,” to reach completion, she said, “but it is a collaborative process and the goal is to work together to execute the process so we can move forward in developing this building, the final product.”
This was the first step in the process, Bayer explained, with the next step being the borough council’s vote on it. The vote is expected to take place at the July 13 public meeting.
Should it be approved, the Front Street developer will have to submit a site plan and go through the approval process, Bayer and other officials pointed out.
Menna has said in the past that there have been preliminary discussions concerning the redevelopment of the White Street site but nothing is near fruition as of yet.
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