By JOHN T. WARD
Instead of trying to entice a private developer with high-profit-margin sweeteners like apartments and retail space, what if Red Bank addressed its downtown parking problem simply by building a “pure” garage itself?
That’s what landlord John Bowers wants to know, and he’s on a campaign to head off the borough’s White Street redevelopment effort before it leads both taxpayers and merchants over a cliff.
A black dotted line outlines the footprint of a five-story parking structure that, together with grade-level parking to the west, would yield 809 parking spaces, Bowers says. (Site plan by Stephen Raciti. Click to enlarge)
Residents and business owners are scheduled to gather Monday night at the borough middle school for a parking forum organized by the Red Bank Business Alliance. On the table: A borough-crafted redevelopment plan aimed at enticing a private developer to create a 773-vehicle garage on the site of the White Street municipal lot.
Bidding materials describing the project were made available for the first time on the borough website Thursday. Applicants may submit proposals including residential and commercial uses in a structure up to 100 feet tall as long as their project yields a net 500 new parking spaces for public use.
But Bowers, whose family business owns the City Centre strip mall on Water Street and a string of commercial buildings across White Street from the municipal lot, worries the borough’s path will lead to another dead end, as in 2001 and 2005, when opposition by residents halted garage proposals. And even if it avoids that fate, the council approach would saddle business with up to two years of site construction, during which there would be even few parking spots, he believes.
“Who can afford to have that lot closed for two years?” he asked Thursday in an interview with redbankgreen at the Danish Café.
Bowers believes there’s a simpler and better approach, and said he’s spent $10,000 to prove it. He hired an architect, Stephen Raciti, to create a concept plan to show residents and officials what the town might build on the 2.3-acre site.
Their plan calls a five-story, prefabricated, parking-only structure occupying 302 feet of frontage along the eastern portion of the lot, with the remaining 388-foot-long western piece used for at-grade parking. That would produce a total 809 parking spaces, for a net gain of 536, Bower said.
The concept plan is also trimmed with plenty of greenery, in keeping with the interests of the Environmental Commission, Bowers said. And because the garage has 12-foot clearances, its first level and the western portion of the lot could still be used for the twice-a-year festivals that draw tens of thousands of visitors, he said.
Based on conversations with the builder of the garage at the West Side Lofts and with a supplier of prefab garages, Bowers estimates his plan would cost $16.5 million. It could be erected in four months or less, he said. And his “extremely conservative” financial projections show that it would pay for itself without any increase in parking fees from current levels, Bowers said.
To keep the debt service from falling on taxpayers, Bowers said the town should create a parking authority, which would bond for construction and pay it down from user fees. He’s worked up numbers showing how it would pay for itself. Here are his financial projections Bowers garage pro forma 020217.
The trickiest piece of his plan is that it calls for the largely autonomous downtown promotion agency Red Bank RiverCenter to “backstop” the debt payments in the event of a shortfall.
Bowers, who served for three years as chairman of RiverCenter soon after it was formed as a state-charted “special improvement district” in 1991, believes the arrangement is both politically necessary to “make it painless to the residents,” and the right thing to do.
“Taxpayers say, ‘don’t ask us to pay for a garage for the downtown,’ and they’re right,” Bowers said. “How can the town ask Allen Place or Leroy Place to come up with money for the downtown’s benefit? The downtown should pay for it.”
If RiverCenter should have to raise its surtax on properties in the special improvement district it oversees, so be it, said Bower. He said he now pays $19,900 a year toward RiverCenter’s $539,000 budget, but would “gladly” pay twice that amount if there was a garage bringing in more customers.
He has the support of individual members of the Red Bank Business Alliance, and has been meeting with council members, the majority of whom he said are supportive. But so far, he’s failed to get much traction with RiverCenter, mainly because of pushback by Jay Herman, a principal in Downtown Investors who, by virtue of his holdings and the fact that “he’s the smartest person in the room,” has outsized influence on the RiverCenter executive committee, Bowers said.
Herman told redbankgreen that he, too, likes the idea of a “pure garage” with no other uses, and the creation of parking authority to build, manage and pay for it, “but RiverCenter has limited budget and can’t fully underwrite a garage.”
RiverCenter, he said, “can’t be paying for the garage or anything close to that,” though he would support the agency providing a “minor subsidy.”
“I think the differences between John’s view and mine only have to do with how much RiverCenter is at risk for,” Herman said. “We agree on the rest of it.”
But there may be daylight between RiverCenter and Herman on the issue. RiverCenter executive director Jim Scavone told redbankgreen that the organization has always preferred that the borough build and operate the garage, but yielded to indications by elected officials that “that was not an option” in exchange for assurances of a net 500-spot increase in parking.
As for the backstopping, the RiverCenter executive committee hasn’t had a formal discussion, Scavone said, “but we are certainly very open to having that dialogue with the borough. I don’t think that we would agree to 100-percent backstopping — the borough has, we believe, the responsibility to provide the infrastructure for the downtown — but we might be willing to participate.”
Bowers thinks his plan covers all bases.
“The politicians need to cover their asses,” he said. “They’re saying, ‘we have to explain to the residents that this won’t cost them anything — the what-if.'”
Here is Bowers’ letter to council members and RiverCenter about his proposal: Bowers garage letter 013117 .
Monday’s meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. at the borough middle school, at Harding Road and Branch Avenue.