By JOHN T. WARD
Democrats Kathy Horgan, Ed Zipprich and Erik Yngstrom, above, will be joined by Michael Ballard, below, on January 1, giving them a council majority and control of the parking agenda. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge)
In the aftermath of an election in which Democrats regained the council majority after losing it two years ago, the governing body appeared to closing in last week on the selection of a private-sector builder to redevelop the 2.3-acre borough-owned parking lot on White Street.
Still on the horizon, however, are the possible the commissioning of a parking study, the suggestion of which has been hotly contested in the past year; and the writing of a new redevelopment plan, after the first one had to be scrapped in the face of litigation.
At each step of the way, there are knotty questions and opposition.
At the council’s regular bimonthly meeting last Wednesday, an unexplained agenda item identified only as ‘White Street Parking’ was quickly moved to executive session, a non-public discussion reserved under state law for matters of negotiation and litigation.
“Since that does involve some negotiations, probably the better way for us to do that is to retire executive session, discuss it and come back in,” Mayor Pasquale Menna told the audience, offering no detail on the underlying issue.
At the urging of Branch Avenue resident Marybeth Maida and other audience members who asked for more transparency, Menna said the public would be informed if any formal action was expected afterward. Later, with audience members waiting in the borough hall foyer and the council still behind closed doors, business Administrator Stanley Sickels emerged to announce that there would be no immediate action.
On Thursday, Republican Councilman Mike Whelan, who heads the council’s parking committee at least until January 1, told redbankgreen that the agenda item was part of an effort “to get from two developers to one,” a reference to the continued winnowing of builders in contention for a contract to redevelop the White Street lot.
Whelan, who has been a strong advocate for redeveloping the site with housing and stores as well as a parking facility, said Menna “made the right decision” in calling for an executive session, and that “progress was made” toward a selection, possibly at the next council meeting, scheduled for December 13.
“I think we might be headed in the right direction,” he said. “I think there’s some momentum.”
Yet to be addressed, however, is a redevelopment plan to replace the one adopted a year ago, but rescinded in September in the face of a legal challenge financed by former Councilwoman Cindy Burnham.
“There’s no redevelopment plan, and designating a redeveloper without a redevelopment plan does not do any good,” Menna told redbankgreen recently.
As a step toward the creation of a replacement plan, Democrats, led by party chair and Councilman Ed Zipprich, intend to call for a parking study, he said recently via email.
A study was part of the platform that Zipprich and his running mate, Michael Ballard, ran on, defeating incumbent Republican Linda Schwabenbauer and her running mate, Dana McArthur in the November 7 election.
That plan called for a “parking needs assessment” that would be used to implement “short-term, inexpensive solutions” while the borough begins long-term planning for a White Street garage that reflects the remaining parking deficiency.
“While a White Street parking garage may be inevitable, there are other less expensive solutions that a Parking Needs Assessment would reveal, such as numbering, colorcoding, signage, hours, licensing, permitting, and enforcement that would improve the parking situation in Red Bank, with or without a parking garage,” it says, in part.
Many merchants and other redevelopment proponents, however, have resisted calls for study as unnecessary and a waste of precious time as shopping destinations in Asbury Park, Long Branch, Holmdel and elsewhere threaten to permanently steal away regular visitors.
They say that two 1992 studies established that there was a deficiency back then, and that empirical observation tells them the problem has only gotten worse.
““We in the the Red Bank Business Alliance believe that a [parking] deficiency exists, period,” RBBA member Michael Simpson said at a forum the group hosted in July.
Both prospective developers, however, said at an parking forum in September that new analyses would have to be conducted in order to attract financing for their projects, which carry estimated price tags of $65 million for the BNE plan and $80 million for the Yellow Brook plan.
“The traffic studies Red Bank has done are dated and they are not qualified studies,” Yellow Brook’s Mumford said. “They are not worth the paper they’re written on.”
At Wednesday’s council meeting, several audience members urged the governing body to commission a “comprehensive” study that looks at the entirety of the downtown parking system, including placement of permit spaces, signage and more, rather than focusing narrowly on White Street, which now has room for 273 vehicles.
“My main concern here is that there not be a mad rush” to come up with a plan that doesn’t consider changes in the siting of permit spaces, parking by students and downtown employees and other issues, said Locust Avenue resident Ben Forest.
Bill Meyer, who owns a commercial building on Monmouth Street, said the council needs to establish, as a “benchmark,” what a garage-only plan for the site would cost.
The process the council has followed so far, he said, “leaves a lot of people with the belief that we’re sort of getting railroaded” into taking on a bigger project that would itself generate additional pressure on parking and traffic.
“We would have a parking garage already had we not gone on the folly of this redevelopment plan,” he said.
On Tuesday, proponents of a so-called “garage-only” approach are expected to press Red Bank RiverCenter to pay for half the cost of a comprehensive study, or up to $40,000, redbankgreen has learned.
Downtown property owner John Bowers, who has funded concept plans that he says would enable the town to quickly build and retain ownership of a profitable garage on White Street is leading the push, he said, because “the whole parking is a valuable asset that has to be managed.”
Meanwhile, the post-election interim has been marked by fingerpointing over the failure of the council to make more progress on parking.
Red Bank RiverCenter executive director Jim Scavone told the council that he was “shocked and saddened” by comments directed at the agency by Menna in a recent Two Two River Times article, in which Menna was quoted as saying that if the garage effort is dead, “then RiverCenter killed it.”
Led the downtown promotion agency, merchants have demanded that any new new garage add no fewer than 500 public parking spaces to the existing 273-space capacity on White Street. That requirement was inserted at the eleventh hour into a redevelopment plan for the site adopted by the council last December.
Menna, who frequently sided with Republicans but was not called to vote on the redevelopment plan’s adoption, said the 500 figure was “completely unrealistic” and became “the Achilles heel of what transpired in ensuing months,” because it gave rise to Burnham’s lawsuit, which contended that the so called “net 500” provision was arbitrary, he told redbankgreen last month.
Redeveloping White Street “was never meant to be the Christmas present that would solve all of the issues” for downtown merchants, Menna said. Rather, he said, it was intended to be a step in the right direction toward meeting the demand for parking.
On Wednesday, Scavone said that “from the very beggining, [RiverCenter] said we would support any project as long as we felt that the true goal was to solve the parking problem.”
Now, he said, “we beg you, we plead with you, to solve the parking problem that the business community feels every day.”
Whelan, who lost his run for a state Assembly seat in the November, has a year remaining on his council term, but expects to be bounced from the parking committee. He told redbankgreen last week that he had hoped to see more progress on parking in 2017, but was proud that he was able to “bring this to the front burner and take ‘no’ off the table” after years of inaction on the issue by Democrats.
“People forget: I never had four votes,” he said, noting that he had to win Menna’s swing vote to break ties in favor of his proposals.
Now, he said, his foremost fear is that the Democrats will pursue a garage-only solution, without any supporting residential development to “breathe life into” the district. He number-two fear, he said, is that nothing will get built.