By John Burton |
RED BANK — Discussions over parking and proposed solutions have passions – as well as frustrations – running high among members of the business community and elected officials.
These emotions have been on display as the Borough Council considers proposals and debates the process for the White Street municipal parking lot, and stakeholders like Red Bank RiverCenter offer its assessment and criticism over the process.
Heightening interest, Borough Councilman Michael Whelan, who chairs the council’s parking committee and has been a driving force in addressing parking, told The Two River Times on Wednesday he anticipates having an announcement shortly for the council’s consideration involving the five proposals that are front and center in this discussion.
“I think we’ll have serious headway by the end of the week,” he said.
For Red Bank RiverCenter, the management and advocacy organization for the borough commercial Special Improvement District, the issue had recently reached something of a tipping point, causing the business organization to take the unusual measure of voicing its concerns by publishing an open letter to Mayor Pasquale Menna and the borough council. RiverCenter, in the form of a paid advertisement in the Aug. 3 edition of The Two River Times, announced it couldn’t support any of the five plans that had been submitted in response to the request for proposals (RFPs) the governing body advertised for in connection to the redevelopment of the borough-owned White Street parking lot that would include some remedies to address the downtown’s parking shortfall.
The major concern for RiverCenter is that none of the proposals offer a net gain of at least 500 spaces – something the business group has maintained was non-negotiable.
“We had tried to tell that to elected officials and we have been met with a brick wall,” said Jay Herman, a downtown business and commercial property owner and longstanding member of the RiverCenter’s board, speaking at the organization’s board of directors’ meeting on Aug. 16. Even at that number, Herman continued, “500 is a huge compromise compared to what we need.”
And that gave rise to another issue for the business organization. RiverCenter has been a leading stakeholder advocating for a means of addressing the decades-old parking shortfall in the downtown business district area since the organization was formed nearly 30 years ago. RiverCenter representatives feel they’ve been left out of the process, denied a seat at the table in the discussions of these White Street plans.
“We just felt fixing the parking was the single most important issue RiverCenter ever had,” Herman continued. “We couldn’t just roll over on it.”
“The thing that worries me the most is why are we left out of the process?” asked Ingeborg Perndorfer, a board member and downtown business and property owner.
“We felt we had no choice but to go public,” Herman said of the open letter and advertisement.
(Herman and other RiverCenter members said they felt the accompanying news story’s headline in The Two River Times – “RiverCenter Opposes Garage Plans” – and the headline in another online publication, mischaracterized the organization’s position. And because of it, “There has been some very negative reaction,” said RiverCenter’s Executive Director James Scavone.)
Councilman Edward Zipprich, who serves as the council’s RiverCenter liaison, told the board on Aug 16 there are factors involved that pertain solely to the governing body. Zipprich pointed out there is ongoing litigation that elected officials have to be sensitive to discussing publicly. That lawsuit was brought by former Borough Councilwoman Cindy Burnham, with the support of some area businesses, property owners and residents looking to derail the redevelopment because of the size and scope of the projects being proposed. Zipprich said officials have to tread lightly because, in addition to the lawsuit, “We only get one shot at this, one bite at the apple,” when selecting a development project and seeing it to completion.
In a follow-up interview this week, Zipprich said, “Yes, RiverCenter has been left out of the process because we’re talking about a redevelopment zone that was created by a majority vote (of the council).” And while that larger redevelopment process does include a parking component, Zipprich continued, “At this point the governing body has no choice but go through with this RFB process until it’s concluded.”
Whelan, who was not at the Aug. 16 meeting, said this week, “I would say to them (RiverCenter) they will be involved in the process when it’s time for them to be involved in the process.”
Much of the meetings conducted by elected officials concern the litigation or other matters that are handled by officials in sessions closed to the public, Whelan explained.
Whelan, a Republican who is also running for state Assembly this year, and Zipprich, a Democrat campaigning for borough council re-election, have locked horns on this redevelopment earlier in the process. Zipprich and his two fellow Democrats on the six-member council have come out against the proposals, calling them “Jersey City-style development,” critical of the size and scope of the projects, believing they would be out of character for the downtown. The Democrats have called for rejecting all five plans, conducting a new comprehensive parking study – one hasn’t been done in approximately 25 years – and seeking out a project that would address the real, current need. Whelan has accused the Democrats of political grandstanding, jeopardizing the community’s progress.
Zipprich told the RiverCenter board, “We (the Democrats) understand the need for a parking solution and that’s what we’re fighting for.”
While the initial open letter said RiverCenter can’t offer support for any of the proposals for the White Street redevelopment in their current form, organization representatives have met with one of the developers. Roger Mumford, who heads up Mumford Homes in Red Bank, is behind the project to preserve and renovate the historic T. Thomas Fortune House on Drs. James Parker Boulevard and is also developing a portion of the site for a residential project. He had met with RiverCenter, where he had offered to make additional modifications to his plan for the White Street property – including purchasing an adjacent lot to be included in the project and ensuring sufficient parking to address the project’s need and RiverCenter’s requirement. “Basically, he met all the parameters we have placed on him,” Herman noted.
The RiverCenter board, however, did not offer an endorsement of Mumford’s plan.
Zipprich took exception to RiverCenter’s involvement, meeting directly with Mumford, and meeting with only one of the five proposed developers. “At this juncture, it’s not their place to be talking to the developers,” Zipprich insisted. “It’s a borough process, it’s not a RiverCenter process.”
Whelan, however, didn’t share those concerns. “I don’t have a problem with them reaching out.” RiverCenter, like any borough stakeholder, could attempt to engage with the developers and it’s between them, Whelan, maintained, as long as there’s progress. “At the end of the day, I would like for the business and the resident community and the governing body to all agree on a project,” he said.
Mumford, a veteran builder who has been behind projects throughout the state and elsewhere, this week expressed frustration with the politically fraught process.
“This is not about building some huge parking structure,” Mumford said. “It’s about vitality, it’s about urban communities. It’s about the future of Red Bank.”
Indeed, these projects represent more than 500-plus parking spaces. Each of them includes residential and/or commercial components, along with parking facilities; admittedly large and expansive projects that will forever change the look and the life of that portion of the community, which can and certainly will be debated for the better or the worse, creating a new venue for new residents and possibly businesses.
In the end, the RiverCenter board unanimously supported a resolution that the organization “does everything in its power to get a proposal that has 500 spaces,” Herman said.
“We will continue the discussion in a way to get something done,” concluded Edmund “Ned” Gaunt, the board’s chairman.
Whelan said on Wednesday he planned to have something else to contribute on the topic this week. “It might not necessarily be a project,” he tantalized. “It might be a developer or two, narrow down the field a little bit.” It could, he continued, “set up a timetable of what the course of action would look like.”
This article was first published in the Aug. 24-31, 2017 print edition of The Two River Times.
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