By JOHN T. WARD
The owners of the vacant downtown lot at 55 West Front Street are scheduled to try once again to win approval for a 35-unit apartment building that the zoning board shot down almost a year ago, triggering a series of measures that split the borough council for much of the year.
The lot, with frontage on West Front, extends through to White Street, where a narrow strip of land, slated for tenant parking and driveway access, runs alongside the former Liberty Hose firehouse, below. (Photos by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge)
The application is the sole item on the planning board’s agenda Wednesday night — rescheduled for the Presidents’ Day holiday on Monday.
It calls for a four-story, 43,000-square-foot structure that features a recreational deck for tenants, with parking at ground level beneath the deck and elsewhere on the site.
The property, once home to a now-demolished Meridian nursing home, was OK’d for 27 condo units in 2007. But the owners — Ralph Braha, Steven Zekaria and Joe Shabot — never moved ahead on that project, which was stalled by the economy. Then returned in early 2015 with a plan for rental units, citing a change in market dynamics.
But the zoning board rejected the plan last March on a 4-3 vote, with one board member who had previously voted for the condos calling it “too big.”
Mayor Pasquale Menna, angered by the decision, immediately moved to enact a redevelopment zone designation for the site, allowing the owners to try again under a New Jersey statute that “provides for the redevelopment of an underutilized parcel.”
Critics called the effort spot zoning, and it alienated Menna from fellow Democrats, Councilwoman Kathy Horgan and Councilman Ed Zipprich. They sided with independent Cindy Burnham, prompting a series of 3-3 votes on which Menna had to serve as the tiebreaker in order for the measures to advance.
Now, with the designation in place, the site’s owner can bypass the zoning board, where standards for approval are stricter, and instead be heard by the planning board.
Developer’s representative Debra Tantleff told redbankgreen recently that the 2015 proposal is “irrelevant,” though she declined to specify how it differs from the current one, except to say that the changes are limited to “nuances.”
Here’s board Engineer Ed Herrman’s letter reviewing the various documents submitted with the application:55 W Front Engineer’s Review 011317
And here’s a traffic report submitted by a consultant for the property owner: 55 W Front Traffic Impact 120517
The meeting is slated for Wednesday, 7 p.m. in the council chambers. The borough council will hold its semimonthly meeting the same day at 5 p.m. instead of the usual 6:30 p.m. start to accommodate the planning board, said borough Clerk Pam Borghi.