By JOHN T. WARD
A proposed 35-unit apartment building rejected by the Red Bank zoning board last week may end up getting built anyway.
The borough council on Wednesday night began a process that could lead to the construction of the Element apartments on West Front Street, opposite Riverside Gardens Park, without the developer having to appeal the zoning board’s denial of last Thursday.
And the council was acting, said Mayor Pasquale Menna, on a request made by the developer less than 24 hours after the zoning board rejection.
The Element plan called for an elevated sun deck on the building’s west side, with tenant parking underneath. Below, a view of the site from the project’s proposed White Street access driveway. (Architect’s rendering. Click to enlarge)
By a 4-2 vote, with council members Cindy Burnham and Ed Zipprich voting no, the council approved a resolution directing the planning board to determine whether the site, a vacant lot at 55 West Front Street, meets the criteria for designation as a “non-condemnation redevelopment area.”
Here’s the resolution: RB 16-90 032316
The designation was one created under state law signed by Governor Chris Christie in 2013, and allows municipalities to identify areas for redevelopment without using eminent domain, or public taking of property. But it also allows property owners to request the redevelopment-area designation, said Menna.
With the council’s approval of the resolution, the planning board is now expected to review the site as part of its pending review of the nearby White Street parking lot for suitability for redevelopment into what is widely assumed will eventually be a parking garage. The board, which was tasked with that review two months ago, has yet to hold a hearing on the issue, and none is included on the agenda for its next meeting on April 4.
Designating the Element site as a redevelopment area could lead to the creation of a new “overlay” zone specifically for the property, said Menna — an outcome that prompted critics to charge that the council was verging on illegal “spot zoning,” or tailoring the land use law to benefit specific land owners.
“This really smells,” said Ben Forest, of Locust Avenue. “I mean, this is a week later, and we’re doing this? I guess it’s legal. I’m not a lawyer, but it’s, on the face of it, quite disturbing, actually. Are there some connected people here, pulling strings?”
Steven Hecht of Branch Avenue pressed Menna to explain how the property meets the definition of an “abandoned” site, given that it has owners who recently sought to build on it.
“It has been stagnant for many years,” Menna said.
“This is not an ‘area.’ It’s a single lot,” said Bill Meyer, an attorney who owns 12 Monmouth Street. “I don’t think the fact that zoning board denied [the developer] a variance is a reason for the council to set this up. This is sort of an end run to spot zoning.
“I don’t think there’s anything precluding the development of the property, except for maybe the motivation of the developer to develop it himself or to sell it at a price that allows it to be developed by somebody else,” Meyer said.
Menna, however, said the 2013 law has been widely used in Montclair, Teaneck, Jersey City, Hackensack, Somerville and elsewhere to revive stagnant areas.
“Asbury Park is doing it every day,” he said. “This is a tool for us to be creative.”
The proposed structure, located opposite Riverside Gardens Park, was shot down by the zoning board on a motion by presumptive Democratic council candidate Erik Yngstrom, who said it was too dense. Menna, a fellow Democrat who was in the audience, was sharply critical of the decision afterward, and repeated his misgivings at length during the council’s semimonthly meeting.
The rejection, he said, put Red Bank at a disadvantage in its competition with Long Branch, Asbury Park and other towns for ratables and businesses.
The Element project was proposed by 55 West Front LLC, owned by Joseph Shabot, Ralph Braha and Steven Zakaria. The entity’s attorney, Rick Brodsky, was in the audience Wednesday night but did not speak on the issue.
The site, formerly home to a nursing facility owned by Meridian Health and demolished in 2008, won approvals in 2007 for a 27-unit condo project, and those approvals are still in effect. But market changes have made the condo project no longer viable, developer’s representative Debra Tantleff told the zoning board.
The property has frontage on both West Front Street and White Street. The plan approved in 2007 allowed for vehicles entrances and exits on White Street only, whereas the more recent plan called for egress on both streets, though the West Front access would allow only right turns into and out of the property.
Added traffic on West Front was among the factors cited by zoning board members in the rejection.
Yngstrom, an attorney who was present at the council meeting, declined to criticize the council action.
“The zoning board made its decision. Now it’s with the council,” he told redbankgreen. “By law, they can do this.”