By JOHN T. WARD
Only 17 or so Red Bank residents turned out on a rainy night for a forum on downtown parking Thursday.
And to the chagrin of the merchant group that sponsored it, few of them seemed to agree that the need for a new parking garage, let alone massive new development to go along with it, has been proven.
Elected officials, prospective redevelopers of the White Street parking lot and members of the event-hosting Red Bank Business Alliance appeared to outnumber residents by almost two-to-one at the event, held in the auditorium of the middle school.
Still, despite “master of ceremonies” Mike Simpson’s agenda, the event never reached its ultimate objective: a discussion about what should be built on the 2.3-acre, town-owned lot, and how it might be paid for.
Several audience members spoke in favor of development that would both make parking easier and bring new residents into the heart of town. But others were not happy with the five plans for White Street submitted by would-be developers under a solicitation issued in January by the borough council.
“I viscerally hate every one of these proposals,” said Marybeth Maida, of Branch Avenue, who suggested steering high-rise residential development to Riverside Avenue, where it already exists, and turning the White Street lot into a park.
Her suggestions that the town look into using trolleys to move visitors around, or to reconfigure parking, as Atlantic Highlands had done, had Simpson and jeweler Joel McFadden, also of the RBBA, battling to rebut her.
“Wait, wait, wait,” I want to address that, McFadden said as Simpson began speaking. McFadden told Maida that the business base in Atlantic Highlands is shrinking, and that taxes there are much higher than in Red Bank.
“We in the Red Bank Business Alliance believe that a [parking] deficiency exists, period, and I don’t want to use this evening to debate line items of specific reports in the past,” Simpson said early in the meeting, citing two 1992 studies and the 1995 Master Plan.
But consensus on that point was elusive, too.
“Is there any empirical data we can look at today” specifying the extent of the deficit, Liam Collins of Wallace Street asked. “We’re just saying it’s obvious that we need more parking, but for some of us who live here, it’s not so obvious.”
“If we take White Street and double or triple” the existing 273 parking spaces, “it’s got to be a good thing,” said Fisher Place resident Jon Hutton. “But what I haven’t seen is a consensus that we need it.”
The event was marked by sometimes fractious mini-debates on such issues as whether Red Bank Catholic students were hogging vital parking spaces during the day and how the Globe Street garage came to be controlled by Riverview Medical Center.
Hobbymasters owner Alan Placer sought to get the discussion back on the agenda track.
“We have a two-hour window to talk to these developers and help them tweak their plans with what we want, because they’re going to go out of here today and change things around,” he said. “Let’s not waste it all talking about ‘do we need parking?'”
But frustration was in the air. Resident Ben Forest complained about “the person holding the microphone [McFadden] telling the person who’s speaking, ‘you’re wrong.'” And developer Roger Mumford, who asked for a show of hands that indicated the number of residents in the audience, called the event “depressing.”
“It’s talk and talk and talk,” he said. With five proposals from “incredibly capable” builders, and a sixth by downtown property owner John Bowers for a garage-only solution, there’s $100 million in potential assets on the table that would generate at least $1 million a year in revenue for the borough, he said.
“Red Bank is underperforming. It’s like a Ferrari going nine miles an hour,” Mumford said. “You need an independent, credentialed, experienced group of people” to plan for the future, as Morristown, Westfield and other towns have done, he said. Otherwise, “in 30 years, those of us who are still here, probably not me, will still be having the same ridiculous conversations.”
The borough council’s parking committee, headed by Councilman Mike Whelan, is also planning a forum, one in which residents and others can comment on five concept proposals presented to the committee by developers on June 14. No date for that event has yet been announced.