RED BANK – An abandoned VNA building and a pair of dilapidated gas stations sit at an entrance to town.
Properties like these and others scattered throughout the borough have prompted the governing body to introduce local legislation calling for the creation of the Red Bank Redevelopment Agency.
This collective of seven commissioners, all of whom would be appointed to seven-year terms by Red Bank Mayor Pasquale Menna (with the consent of the borough council), would be an official borough board overseeing the progress of current and future development projects and rehabilitation efforts in town.
According to Menna, the formation of this agency is a by-product of the critical 42-page assessment ordered by the borough and delivered this past summer.
Titled the Management Enhancement Review, the report described Red Bank’s municipal operations as “ineffective” and “dysfunctional.”
Since its public presentation, Menna has worn the report as a badge of honor, noting how no similar study had been commissioned in the borough’s history.
The report, Menna said, was to be used as a road map that could guide the governing body and borough officials toward a more prosperous future, pointing out obstacles along the way and suggesting methods to maneuver past them.
One of the issues highlighted in the report was an accumulation of improperly used or underutilized borough properties.
“Back in the 1950s there were two lumber yards right near the train station. Two lumber yards in the center of our downtown that are not coming back. The market should be allowed to dictate what goes there,” Menna said.
If the problem remains unaddressed, Menna believes it could hamstring Red Bank from competing economically with other attractive hubs of commercial and residential growth, like the Asbury Park waterfront, Pier Village in West Long Branch and the ever-evolving landscape at Fort Monmouth.
“Red Bank is changing in a myriad of ways. We have all the workings of a small metropolitan area, but the coordination of these activities is mired in 1907 government creations,” Menna said. “We have to confront changes in the area and the economic pressures from surrounding developments. We need to create a consistent redevelopment plan that ties in municipal-owned properties with other properties that are underutilized or misused altogether.”
Borough administrator Ziad Shehady said the goal of this agency’s launch is to allow Red Bank to be more proactive with its development, rather than reactive.
“What we want to do is seek opportunities,” Shehady told The Two River Times Tuesday. “We want to look for redevelopment that isn’t happening in areas of need, or areas that are underutilized, and seek professionals and developers who can lead those projects. We just don’t have the bandwidth to do that effectively right now.”
Shehady pointed to stalled development efforts, such as those Route 35 gas stations and an approved plan for the construction of 18 townhomes on a parcel located between Harding Street and Clay Street known as the Azalea Gardens project, as red flags that speak to a need for the Red Bank Redevelopment Agency.
“These appointed officials can reach out to seek and vet professionals who are capable of mitigating the problems encountered during the development process,” Shehady said. “Our borough officials work incredibly hard, but problems arise that require a lot of follow-up. This is where an agency can shine.”
But how far will the reaches of this new borough board extend?
Red Bank citizen activist Ben Forest posed the question at the Feb. 13 council meeting.
“This (agency) would be a board of appointed officials and they shouldn’t have the final say over projects in the borough. That should be left up to our elected officials on the council. Both Mayor Menna and the council assured me that would be the case,” Forest told The Two River Times in a Feb. 19 interview.
With a mayor and council in lockstep about repurposing misused and underutilized properties throughout Red Bank, including a partnership with NJ Transit to transform areas by the train station near Bridge Avenue and Monmouth Street into a transit village, as well as further enhancements to the arts and theater district along the Monmouth Street corridor, among other mixed-use ventures, Forest said he recognizes the benefit of having such an agency in place.
“The town could certainly benefit from a higher level of informed development. The council, they aren’t experts in the field. And the council needs that level of expertise that appointees could lend,” said Forest, who is an elected member of the Red Bank Board of Education, and stressed he was not speaking on the board’s behalf.
This article was first published in the Feb. 28-March. 6, 2019 print edition of The Two River Times.
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