Planning board member Ed Zipprich and alternates Barbara Boas and Linda Cohen pore over plans for a hotel proposed for the Red Bank end of the Cooper Bridge. A second-story floor plan, below. (Photos by Stacie Fanelli. Click to enlarge)
By DUSTIN RACIOPPI
Opening testimony by professionals of the Hampton Inn and Suites proposal, prompted some planning board members to balk at the idea of making the current two-opening driveway just one. Expressing concern for motorists trying to get across the “speedway” of Route 35, they pressed the developer to “make things right” at a busy and troublesome intersection.
Officials who will eventually vote on some 20 requested variances for the former filling station site also showed concern about the look of the six-story building so its roof line doesn’t resemble the the deck “of the old Queen Mary.”
A handful of professionals working on the 76-room hotel gave more than two hours of testimony to the board Monday, covering the hotel’s basic functions, showing conceptual graphics and outlining traffic flows.
While the proposal to replace the current two openings at the site with just one entrance and exit was well-received, the traffic engineer’s proposal to allow a left turn out of the property made some board members cringe.
The site sits on the west side of Route 35, where two-lane highway traffic coming from Middletown broadens to three lanes, and motorists from Red Bank pour onto the highway from three directions heading north.
“To me, it’s a dealbreaker if you let somebody make a left-hand turn out of that property,” board member Guy Maratta said.
Engineer Gary Dean said allowing the left turn would keep hotel guests who want to head north from first heading south and then making illegal u-turns in the vicinity of the intersection, where Route 35, Riverside Avenue, Bridge Avenue and Rector Place meet.
But it’s not the board’s problem to worry about what drivers may or may not legally do, Maratta said. Its charge is safety, and the multi-laned stretch at that section of 35 is like a speedway, he said.
“It’s a very dangerous turn,” he said.
Mayor Pasquale Menna recommended the developers apply to the state Department of Transportation for permission to install a no-left sign at the exit of the hotel, which, if approved, would be enforceable by police. If not, a sign can still be installed, but only as an advisory. That would still satisfy the board’s concerns, Menna and Maratta agreed.
Still up in the air is the exterior appearance of the hotel.
Architect Lewis Silverstein presented two options to the board, each of which would require height variances. Both sported a brick-and-synthetic-stucco facade, but there are two possibilities for the top of the building. One would have the building at 82-feet tall, with mechanical equipment for the structure exposed. Another plan shows the equipment shielded from view by an eight-foot-high parapet.
The board was amenable to hiding the components with some sort of screening to keep it from looking “like the Old Queen Mary,” Menna said. Silverstein said the components need to be on the roof to release air and steam. Although surrounding buildings’ mechanics are exposed on the roof, Menna said this was a chance for the board to clean up the view of Red Bank, and some sort of screening is “a better planning option.”
Vice Chairman Dan Mancuso also suggested Silverstein tweak the plan to add brick to the rear of the building facing Middletown so it looks similar to the front.
Though the board kept quiet for most of the testimony, each professional met opposition afterward.
Prospect Avenue resident Stephen Mitchell, perhaps the most outspoken opponent of the plan, was at the microphone at every opportunity with a notebook in hand, pelting witnesses with questions and, out of line with procedures, statements. At the end of each speaker’s testimony, board procedures only allow for questions, and public comments are reserved for the end of all testimony.
When Mitchell, who says the hotel plan is too large for the site, said he’d work overtime to pay the legal fees for an attorney to counter some of the professionals’ findings, board member Stanley Sickels put a halt to Mitchell’s time on the floor.
“You’re making a statement,” Sickels said. “Why are you threatening us?”
When it was time for the project’s principal manager, Larry Cohen, to testify, Menna asked him a simple, yet burning question: is there a need for another hotel in this area?
“Yes there is,” Cohen replied. “We have studies that show that.”
He did not produce any studies.
Cohen, the principle manager for the applicant, Rbank Capital LLC, said the hotel would plug a hole in the area by offering a convenient place to stay for the transient business professionals. The hotel would be little more than a place to sleep, exercise a little and read a newspaper over coffee. There is no restaurant, bar, banquet area or large conference rooms proposed in what is classified as a “limited service hotel,” Cohen said.
“What we’re catering to is the business population,” said Cohen, of Old Bridge. “There is a large office clientele we’re looking to pull in.”
And if projections are accurate, Red Bank would stand to gain not only in collecting property taxes, but also through municipal occupancy taxes, which places a three-percent tax on hotel revenue, he said.
If the hotel maintains a 70- to 75-percent occupancy rate, Red Bank would be looking at an additional $75,000 to $80,000 a year in revenue, he said.
Construction at the 1.04-acre site would take about 11 months, Cohen said.
The hearing was continued to Wednesday, September 7.