Architect Mike Simpson discusses a schematic he created to illustrate that a 650-car garage atop four stories of stores and apartments, with nearby green space, could easily be created in the White Street lot. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge)
By JOHN T. WARD
After nearly three hours of public comments Wednesday night, the Red Bank council approved a zoning change that could result in a parking garage in the heart of downtown.
Now, answers to long-deferred questions on what such a facility might look like, and who will pay for it, can begin to take shape, said business and government officials who endorsed the measure.
Environmental commission vice chair Kate Triggiano addressed the audience. Resident Tom Labetti, below, with downtown merchants during a break in the council hearing. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge)
At issue was a zoning ordinance up for final adoption that would implement zoning parameters recommended by the council’s parking consultant, Anthony Rodriguez of CME Associates.
But Rodriguez’s plan for the 2.3-acre borough-owned White Street parking lot, which now holds 273 parking spaces, was subjected to some modifications before the public comment period began. Chief among them: a requirement that any development plan for the site must yield a net gain of 500 parking slots on the site, increasing the minimum number to 773, from 550 called for in earlier versions.
Downtown merchants, through the Red Bank Business Alliance and Red Bank RiverCenter, manager of the downtown special improvement district, had pressed for an increase in the minimum number of spots out of concern that a large restaurant created in the new facility could eat up many of the new parking spaces.
In response to a resident’s question, Rodriquez said the developer would have to deliver no fewer than 773 “public” spaces, however many the builder might reserve for tenants.
Here’s the plan, not including changes approved by the council Wednesday night: white-street-lot-redevelopment-plan-2016-25
The new zoning for the site also calls for ground-level retail fronting on White Street, as well as housing in a structure that could be as much as eight stories tall — three floors higher than the downtown’s tallest building.
While the plan received more of the type of pushback it has seen repeatedly over six months of council and planning board hearings, nearly all of the commentary was in favor of of using the lot to solve a parking deficit that architect Mike Simpson told the council was first evident at the turn of the 20th century, in a Dan Dorn photo showing local business officials searching for a parking space in a Model T Ford.
Simpson showed concept plans he drew up to illustrate, he said, that “you can have a four-story garage that doesn’t take up the whole” existing lot, while accommodating green space, a wider sidewalk, and a pedestrian connector between Monmouth and White streets, as well as stores and residences.
“You can’t create a giant behemoth that’s going to swallow downtown Red Bank,” Simpson said. Instead, he wrote in a bullet point on a slide, “you create a central public destination for parking” that reduces the “endless” hunts for spaces.
Here’s a sampling of some of the other commentary:
• RiverCenter executive director Jim Scavone said merchants “are willing to deal with the disruption” of a construction project that could reduce available parking for up to two years, “but only for the right garage.”
• Bill Meyer, a lawyer and owner of a Monmouth Street retail and office building, argued that the town, as the owner of the lot, was wasting time and exposing itself to potential litigation by not developing the site solely for parking, and doing so without bringing in private developers.
“I agree with everyone who says we need a garage, but the process isn’t focused on parking, it’s on getting something for a developer,” he said. “We’re losing control of this whole thing.”
• Landlord John Bowers, whose family owns several White Street buildings and the nearby City Centre strip mall, pressed the council to go straight to construction on a 500-car garage with no retail or housing, using prefab garage materials, which he said could be assembled in four months.
Moreover, he said in a financial analysis presented to the council, parking fees alone could cover the debt service on a project that he estimated would cost $17 million.
Urging the council to create a parking authority to oversee the facility, Bowers also insisted that “the costs associated with the garage should land on the downtown, not the residents.”
• Councilwoman Linda Schwabenbauer said the course that the council was pursuing “doesn’t preclude the option of a borough-built garage.”
• Industry magazine publisher Anthony Barbera, who owns a number of downtown buildings with Rick Stavola, cautioned residents wary of the plan that “if the garage doesn’t get done, your taxes are going to go through the moon” as a result of plummeting assessments on downtown properties.
• Frank Corrado presented the council with a list of suggested modifications to the plan recommended by the environmental commission, which he chairs. These included increasing the open space requirement to 25 percent of the site area, up from 10 percent, and reducing the maximum height to five stories.
“We really feel that whatever goes in here needs to be transformational,” Corrado said.
• Commission vice chair Kate Triggiano noted the use of the lot for some of the town’s most popular events, including the Halloween parade and two food festivals a year, and said that should be kept in mind as the project takes shape.
“The White Street lot is the natural heart of the town,” she said. “Let’s make it the most beautiful thing the town has ever seen.”
• Jenn Stewart of Morford Place said she and other residents were worried about the financial impact of a failed implementation or sharp economic downturn.
“I don’t feel that anyone has assured the residents that we won’t get stuck with the bill,” she said.
Stewart also said that “residents have been hearing that there’s already been a developer picked, or that the [request for proposals] will be carefully tailored to a particular developer.”
Mayor Pasquale Menna replied that “there is no developer, there is no plan.”
Councilman Mike Whelan, the governing body’s liaison to RiverCenter, told redbankgreen before the meeting that neither he nor anyone he knew of on the governing body had had any discussions with a prospective developer of the site.
Council members Ed Zipprich and Cindy Burnham asked to have the vote postponed to a future date, but the motion failed. The adoption vote on the ordinance had Whelan, Schwabenbauer and Mark Taylor in favor, with Burnham and Zipprich opposed. Kathy Horgan, who has consistently voted with Zipprich and Burnham on related matters in recent months, was absent.
With the approval, the borough is now cleared to solicit proposals from developers, said Andrew Baer, a land-use lawyer hired by the council to steer it through the process. In addition to designs, the plans are also expected to address questions of financing, ownership and revenue to the borough.
The council would then be positioned to choose a plan and enter into an agreement with the developer, who would need both planning board and council approval before a project could be built, said Baer.