ON DECK: A TRADER JOE’S AND A GARAGE?

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It is perhaps the single most contentious issue in Red Bank: whether the downtown needs a parking garage.

Merchants, in general, say yes. They complain that a shortage of street and lot parking is choking their businesses and undermining broader efforts to capitalize on the town’s sterling reputation as a cultural and shopping destination.

Building a garage that significantly increases the number of parking slots in the central business district is the best thing Red Bank could do to preserve its stature among New Jersey downtowns and stave off threats from Pier Village in Long Branch and other emerging marketplaces, proponents say.

But many residents say no way to a parking deck — not if they have to pay for it with higher property taxes.

Efforts by the Democrat-controlled council to convert the borough-owned White Street lot to a parking deck attracted large, angry crowds in 2001 and 2005. The latter attempt called for a 570-car, $11.8 million structure. Both times, the idea was shelved.

The solution, many agree, is some form of public-private deal in which a developer carries the financial risk and the town gets both revenue and more slots.

Finally, a plan along those lines may be in the works. And it involves a high-profile retailer that has done this sort of thing before elsewhere.

redbankgreen has learned that representatives of Trader Joe’s, a wildly popular chain of specialty food stores with affordable prices, met with borough officials two weeks ago to explore the possibility of building a store with a parking deck above it on the White Street lot.

Borough Business Administrator Stanley Sickels confirms that he and former Red Bank RiverCenter Executive Director Tricia Rumola met with a representative of Trader Joe’s and two others from a development firm affiliated with the grocer.

Sickels says he participated in the meeting “at the request of RiverCenter.” At that meeting, he says, “Trader Joe’s expressed an interest in coming to Red Bank,” and wanted to know about the history of the town’s efforts to get a garage built.

“I basically gave them stuff about the prior proposals,” he says. “I told them what I thought our needs were, based on prior efforts. They basically described their needs.

“I suggested they prepare something I can present to the council,” Sickels said.

Sickels stresses that no formal plan was offered, and that Trader Joe’s made no mention of timetables. “They may come back, I don’t know,” he said.

Moreover, any deals involving the sale or lease of the property would have to be put out to public bid, Sickels notes.

But this is the first time a developer has asked to meet with him since he 2005 proposal died, Sickels said.

Mayor Pasquale Menna, who said did not know of the meeting until redbankgreen told him about if last Friday, says he has not met with any parties interested in developing the White Street site since he took office in January.

But what’s perhaps most striking about this news is that Trader Joe’s appears to view public and/or public-private parking as integral part of an expansion strategy now being played out.

Sickels said the officials he met with “did tell me about other efforts they’ve made” regarding public-private parking solutions, including one case on Long Island in which the company built a parking garage that houses their store as as well as a municipal building.

Just two months ago, the company announced plans for a new store in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, that will go into a renovated building next door to a new municipal parking deck.

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The approach is apparently needed because of the chain’s tremendous popularity. We’re told that the nearest Trader Joe’s to Red Bank, in downtown Westfield, has its own rather small parking lot, and abuts two municipal parking lots, all of which are frequently jammed.

A number of news and feature articles about the chain in recent years have spotlighted how consumer demand has often overwhelmed available parking at Trader Joe’s stores. Just last week, an article in the Charlotte Observer reported that a new store in a Charlotte suburb was creating problems for customers of other stores who couldn’t find parking, even though the store has its own 270-car lot.

Trader Joe’s is privately held (according to a 2004 Business Week article, it’s owned by Theo Albrecht, a German billionaire behind Europe’s Aldi supermarket chain) and based in Monrovia, Calif., a suburb of Los Angeles. Its website lists 283 stores in the U.S., including seven in New Jersey.

It’s also a destination store, say people who know it. A redbankgreen reader in Westfield says her friends from Hoboken always stock up at Trader Joe’s before returning home from a visit.

Mary Eileen Fouratt, RiverCenter’s chairwoman, told redbankgreen late last week that she had no knowledge of the meeting, but “would love it” if Trader Joe’s came to town.

Tom Fishkin, owner of Readie’s Fine Foods and a RiverCenter officer, says he’s heard rumors of Trader Joe’s interest, but doesn’t know what to make of them.

“There’s been a lot of talk going around, but I don’t know,” he says, noting that he’s also heard talk the store might be interested in being part of the West Side revitalization effort. “Tiffany was going to be here two years ago. Now they’re talking about opening in November, so sometimes these things come to fruition.”

We haven’t yet heard from Trader Joe’s on this issue.

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