By JOHN T. WARD
Red Bank moved another step toward a possible answer to its chronic parking woes Wednesday night, but only after Mayor Pasquale Menna cast a pair of tiebreakers that put him at odds with fellow Democrats.
Menna’s votes were necessary after the council’s two lone Democrats joined with its sole independent in raising objections to a $6,500 contract for a concept plan covering the borough-owned White Street parking lot, where merchants and town officials envision a parking garage.
The debate also exposed rare friction between Menna and Red Bank RiverCenter, the semi-authonomous agency that promotes downtown business interests.
CME has been the council’s go-to vendor on the parking issue for several years. It prepared a June, 2014 report —CME White Street Lot Report 061714 — on the town’s options regarding parking. And last month, CME planner Anthony Rodriguez concluded that the 2.3-acre White Street lot was “obsolete” after the firm was hired to determine if the lot met the criteria for designation as a “noncondemnation redevelopment area” under a state law signed by Governor Chris Christie in 2013.
But the issue of whether to advance to the next step quickly became entangled in side issues at the council’s semimonthly meeting Wednesday night. One concerned RiverCenter’s participation.
RiverCenter, which favors a parking garage on White Street, last year agreed in principle to cover up to half the anticipated $80,000 cost for pre-construction soil and environmental analyses to determine what’s beneath the asphalt of the 2.3-acre site.
That agreement has never been formalized, however, and is hung up over a request by RiverCenter that it get its money back if construction on a garage doesn’t begin within two years of signing, according to executive director Jim Scavone.
Councilwoman Cindy Burnham, the independent, objected to authorizing the CME contract in the absence of that agreement. She said she didn’t want taxpayers to get stuck with the tab.
Administrator Stanley Sickels said the borough’s share of the costs would be paid for from the parking fund, which is generated by parking fees, not taxes. But Burnham was unyielding.
The issue also produced a tense back-and-forth between Menna and Scavone after Menna said he was “perturbed” that a proposed agreement “has been kicked around for a year.”
“RiverCenter says every day that we have a parking problem,” he said.
Scavone, at the microphone, said that RiverCenter “is 100-percent behind a garage, and we also are committed to supporting the next step.” But Menna, he said, had told him in June, 2015 that “it would be no problem getting us a guarantee,” and yet none has been forthcoming in several drafts of an agreement.
“We’re not even saying if the answer is ‘no’ that we won’t sign the memo,” Scavone said. “We just haven’t gotten an answer.”
Simultaneously, Democratic council members Kathy Horgan and Ed Zipprich, revived their objections to recent actions that have mixed discussions of the White Street property with the future of a privately owned vacant lot at 55 West Front Street.
A proposed 35-unit apartment building at that site was rejected by the zoning board in March. Within a week, at Menna’s request, the council had added the site to the White Street lot for consideration as redevelopment candidates.
Horgan and Zipprich objected to allowing the borough to create an escrow fund so that CME’s billings regarding 55 West Front would be covered by the developer, rather than the borough.
“I just don’t like the fact that 55 was included,” said Burnham.
“This just reeks of spot zoning,” said Zipprich.
A motion to table the CME contract resulted in a tie, with Burnham, Horgan and Zipprich in favor and Republicans Linda Schwabenbauer, Mark Taylor and Mike Whelan against. That led to the first of series of tiebreakers by the mayor, who only votes in the event of a draw.
A motion to approve the CME contract yielded the same result.
During the public comment period, resident Ben Forest asked the council if he’d missed something: “Are we building a garage?” he said.
Borough Attorney Jean Cipriani said the CME report would create “a starting point for discussion as to what the plan should be. It’s certainly contemplated very loosely that that would include a parking garage.”
Afterward, Menna told redbankgreen that RiverCenter “getting its money back is not the only issue” holding up that agreement, but he declined to identify others.
“They’re all resolvable issues,” he said.