By JOHN T. WARD
Over the objections of two council members and several residents that “it doesn’t smell right,” Red Bank’s governing body furthered plans for both a possible downtown parking garage and a proposed apartment building Wednesday night.
And without a word of public description or discussion beforehand, the council also started a process that could lead to designating a large swath of the town as an “area in need of rehabilitation,” which one official said would make it easier for developers to avoid variances when their plans don’t comply with the zoning law.The vacant lot at 55 West Front Street is now officially “in need of redevelopment” following council action. Below, an aerial photo showing the property and the White Street lot below it outlined in red. (Photos by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge)
The actions, taken under the umbrella of the 2013 New Jersey Local Redevelopment and Housing Law, have separate aims, officials said.
• In one, resolution 16-189, the council adopted a joint finding by the planning board last week that two properties — the 2.3-acre borough-owned White Street municipal parking lot and privately owned 55 West Front Street — constitute a single “noncondemnation area in need of redevelopment” under the law.
Officials have said the designation was needed in regard to White Street to advance a possible solution to a downtown parking deficit. The designation for 55 West Front was requested by its owners, Joseph Shabot, Ralph Braha and Steven Zakaria, immediately after their proposal to build a 35-unit apartment building there was shot down by the zoning board in March.
As it has been for months, piggybacking the apartment project onto consideration of the garage remained controversial, drawing some of its sharpest criticism yet. Branch Avenue resident Steven Hecht said the inclusion of the three-quarter-acre 55 West Front “still doesn’t smell right.”
Citing the findings by planning consultant Anthony Rodriguez of CME Associates that the site qualifies as needing redevelopment based on “a lack of maintenance” and other factors that make it an “attractive nuisance,” Hecht said, “the proper recommendation would be to go to the owner and have that private property cleared up and made no longer a nuisance.”
“What makes this property so special?” architect and planner Ed O’Neill of Herbert Street asked the council. “I don’t see the importance of this. It seems to me from the outside that this is what’s colloquially referred to as spot zoning. It seems that the zoning board is being usurped.”
“This town is not in need of any kind of redevelopment,” said Ben Forest, of Locust Avenue. “We should be patient, and not allow ourselves to be blackmailed by the urgency of doing everything now.”
Forest, who has been critical of the pairing throughout the process, added, “it seems like there’s an invisible elephant in the room that no one’s talking about. There’s something I don’t know who knows who, but it seems a little odd.”
Councilman Mike Whelan defended the action.
“Technically, once we approve this, they do become separated,” he said of the sites, with distinct redevelopment plans created for each, subject to future council hearings and votes.
Council members Linda Schwabenbauer, Mark Taylor and Whelan voted in favor of the action, while Kathy Horgan and Cindy Burnham voted no.
Horgan, who was on the zoning board in 2007 when it approved a plan, never built, for 27-unit condo project at 55 West Front, said she was “worried” by the council’s action.
“We’re spot zoning here,” Horgan told redbankgreen after the meeting. “I don’t see why it’s related to the White Street parking lot.”
• Immediately after voting on the above resolution, the council voted on resolution 16-190, though no one on the dais said what it was about, no information about it had been posted online, and none of the supporting documents were laid on the table where agenda items are laid out.
About an hour later, after Branch Avenue resident Steven Hecht asked what the resolution was about, Mayor Pasquale Menna called planning and zoning director Glenn Carter to the microphone to explain it.
The intent, Carter said, is “to make the development review process more efficient” for developers, who continually find themselves faced with investing huge sums in plans that are subject to up-or-down votes.
“Nobody wants to go through the zoning board,” he said, “because you have to prove your case to very high standards,” and at great cost if the plan is rejected.
He alluded to the RayRap project at the five corners on the edge of downtown: the architect for that project told the planning board last week that developer Ray Rapcavage had spent more than $200,000 only to have it vanish when the zoning board rejected his proposal last December.
Instead of a developer “coming in with every parking space and every drop of water” already accounted for in a detailed plan, Carter said the rehabilitation law would enable an “alternate procedure” that allowed for informal meetings with the zoning board to tailor plans to the town’s liking.
Attached to the resolution was a map Carter prepared showing a large area of town to be considered as “in need of rehabilitation.” He said the area met one of the key criteria of the state law: that at least half of its housing stock be 50 years old or older.
Excluded from the zone, according to the map, are the year-old, 91-unit West Side Lofts at Bridge Avenue and West Front Street; the equally new Station Place apartments on Monmouth Street at West Street; the Wesleyan Arms senior housing project at Wall and Pear streets; and Grandville Towers. Each is surrounded by or abuts properties that are included in the proposed zone.
Menna said the same approach had been used in the early 1990s, when all of Shrewsbury Avenue was similarly designated as being in need of rehabilitation. That resulted, he said, in the conversion of the old River Street School, which had been vacant for 30 years, into the River Street Commons, a senior-citizens housing facility.
Hecht, however, was critical of the action, and Bill Meyer, owner of a commercial building at 12 Monmouth Street, said the plan would create “an end-run around the zoning board.”
The vote result was the same: 3-2 in favor, with Horgan and Burham voting no.
“I didn’t understand what this was about, and it was not made clear to me,” Horgan told redbankgreen afterward.
“This is just the first step in a very long process,” Schwabenbauer said. “The first vote is just to let it breathe, to give it life.” She said she would “do a lot more research” before voting to adopt Carter’s suggestion.
Like the matters that preceded it on the agenda, the proposal now goes to the planning board for review before it can be scheduled for an adoption vote by the council.