By JOHN T. WARD
A widely shared dream for generations, the so-called Broad to the River concept envisions opening up a panorama of the Navesink from the main downtown corridor.
At this point, however, the chatter appears to be little more than an attempt to revive an idea that’s hit a brick wall repeatedly over much of the last century.
The view north from behind the row of one-story shops on West and East Front streets. Below, a view of the property from Union Street. The borough owns part of the slope, as well as the path at left that runs to East Front Street through a breezeway. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge)
In the past month, at least three elected officials have suggested the time may be right for action. Among them is Mayor Pasquale Menna, who told redbankgreen Wednesday night that while he is “unaware of any potential developer with a specific plan, conceptually, there are people who might be interested.”
At issue is a row of small, shacklike shops on East and West Front streets that face due south along Broad Street, plus a two-story yellow brick building at 6 West Front that was once the Sheridan Hotel but has been vacant for at least a dozen years.
Of the six key properties, four are owned by East Front Street rug merchant Robert Ebner, who assembled his collection over about 17 years, starting in 1980, and saw a Broad to the River plan of his own creation lose momentum and die a decade ago.
Bracketed by Ebner’s properties are two owned by Judy George of Fair Haven, daughter of the late Vito Marascio, who had a barber shop there for many years before his death in 1991.
Despite their diminutive size, the structures – two of them topped by a giant billboard – “just totally block the energy” of what could be a gorgeous view, said Red Bank Visitors Center director Margaret Mass. Like Menna and others, she believes a river view from Broad would attract more visitors and businesses to town.
Getting rid of the buildings and replacing them with a public plaza would also be a throwback of sorts. At one time, the street now known as Broad was the only one in town that ran down the the river, according to a history published by the Red Bank Register in 1911. From that account:
The old road records at Freehold show that road road came from Shrewsbury, taking a slight turn at the brook where St. James church property is now located, then continuing to the top of the bank at the foot of what is now Broad street, and then turning toward the west and going down a gully to the river. This original road and the gully referred to in the road records formed what is now the road leading to the lyceum dock. This road was re-surveyed in 1792 and the road report put on record. On old maps this street running from Broad street to the river is styled “Commercial street.”
Restoring that view has been discussed since at least 1931, and last got a full public airing during the administration of late Mayor Dan O’Hern in the 1970s, said Menna. More recently, concept plans have been floated, some of which never saw the light of day. Ebner’s proposal, designed in 2002, called for a six-story apartment building with underground parking at the property’s northwest corner, fronting on Union Street. But it failed to gain traction and lost momentum.
Earlier this month, however, Councilman Mike DuPont, saying he had been “tinkering with some old ideas,” revived talk of Broad to the River. “I’d like to see if that’s a possibility,” he said at the January 14 council meeting, suggesting the governing body do “some sort of analysis to see if it’s a viable option.”
This week, DuPont proposed that the council authorize its engineering contractor, T&M Associates, to look into it. But when Council President Art Murphy asked why, Menna jumped in and said he would “take a look at the file” on past proposals and report back to the council before any official action was initiated.
One action that appears to be off the table, however, is the use of eminent domain, or the condemnation of property for private development. Menna says the town will not renege on its pledge, given in the form of a 2009 ordinance, never to use eminent domain for private development.
Still, to work, any plan would likely require the participation of the borough, which owns adjoining property to the east – the path down to Union Street through a breezeway on East Front – and part of the slope on the northern edge of the Ebner and Geoge properties. It would also likely involve giant homebuilder Hovnanian, which owns a parcel behind nearby stores with approvals to build a 15-unit residential project.
But it remains unclear whether Ebner or George would be willing to develop or sell their properties. George could not be reached for comment, and Ebner declined to speak to a reporter on the record.
Menna, however, said on January 14 that the time was “not unfavorable” for property owners to discuss possible plans with “other interested parties.” This week, he said that “discussions with some property owners have been fruitful.” He declined to say who he’d spoken to, except to acknowledge that he hadn’t talked to Ebner recently.
He said parties need to be brought together to talk, though when asked who would initiate the talks, he shrugged and acknowledged he was being “cryptic.”
Carol Lynn Chetkin, an art dealer who with her husband, Don, owns buildings adjoining Ebner’s, agrees that the property owners should be part of any proposal. “It’s best to have people sit down and discuss it,” she said.
Then again, the couple has seen a number of plans, and purported plans, come to nothing.
“It’s like the waves,” she said. “They come in and they go right back out again.”