RED BANK: WALGREEN’S TO REVISE PLAN

josephine menna 012314Josephine Menna, an aunt to Mayor Pasquale Menna – who recused himselfqueries Walgreen’s lawyer Marty McGann. Below, site owner Aaron Rassas confers with his team during a break. (Click to enlarge)

By JOHN T. WARD

aaron rassas 012314The developer of the proposed Walgreen’s pharmacy in Red Bank yanked the plan from what appeared to be certain defeat Thursday night.

With a motion pending to reject the proposed 14,200-square-foot store, the lawyer for the developer Marc Steinberg asked the borough planning board for time to revise the proposal to meet concerns that the building would be too close to the streets at the longtime site of the now-closed Rassas Buick dealership.

“I think I’d feel like I was living in a prison if I had to look at that,” said board member Barbara Boas, referring to a 135-foot-long, 30-foot-high windowless wall that would run along Garfield place, just four feet from a sidewalk.

The wall was mentioned often by the 15 residents who commented on the plan, which has been the subject of five lengthy hearings since mid-September. Thursday’s hearing ran three hours, including a break.

Traffic, too, figured prominently in the objections that were raised, as one speaker after another noted that even the state Department of Transportation has given a failing grade to the nearby intersection of Broad Street and Pinckney Road. Walgreens’ would make it worse, they contended.

Through it all, though, Steinberg won near universal praise for having listened to neighbors and  accommodated their concerns. Two residents, in fact, had gone from opponents to backers since the plan was announced last summer.

Citing what she called Steinberg’s “true spirit of cooperation,” early opposition organizer Melissa Grieves said she is now “without reservation in favor of” the proposal.

“I’ve kind of gotten to the place where it’s the evil you know versus the evil you don’t know,” said Little Silver resident Sarah Jindal, “and I’m pretty happy about the evil I know.”

Professionals hired by Steinberg focused often in the hearings on how the Walgreen’s building and landscaping would constitute both an improvement over the car lot that was there for decades, and what neighbors might have to put up with if another type of business were to build there without requiring variances, as Walgreen’s was seeking.

What is this?

“This is a massive improvement at the gateway to your community,” said Walgreen’s planner Michael Tobia.

But despite hours of testimony about the project’s impact on traffic, planning board members could not reject it on that basis, board Attorney Michael Leckstein told them. And traffic hardly figured into the board’s deliberations, as vice chairman Dan Mancuso quickly moved to have the board reject the plan over setback issues.

The red brick building would be four feet from the property line on the Garfield Avenue side, where 15 feet is required, and 10 feet on the Broad Street side, where the zone law requires 50.

“My issue is that I feel the variances for side- and front-yard setbacks are extreme,” he said. “I think they’re too much.”

Boas seconded the motion, and it quickly became clear that the proposal was in trouble. Board member and borough Administrator Stanley Sickels said he was “torn,” believing the plan made sense and would provide needed tax revenue to the town, “but my neighbors are saying it will have an adverse impact.”

Board member Lou DiMento also said he was torn, and Len Calabro, without elaboration, said he was opposed, as was Councilman Ed Zipprich.

With the matter about to go to a vote, Steinberg lawyer Marty McGann rose to ask for more time and a chance “to come back and see if some of those people who are ‘torn’ – to see if we can untear them, so to speak.”

Mancuso withdrew his motion and the board scheduled a sixth hearing on the case for February 19.

Mayor Pasquale Menna has recused himself from the case because he has an aunt, Josephine Menna, who lives in the neighborhood.