By JOHN T. WARD
One tapped a consulting firm to set up a redevelopment agency to oversee downtown projects. The other initiated a process under which the former VNA Health Group headquarters could be replaced with high-density housing.
• At its semimonthly meeting Wednesday night, the council approved a $15,000 contract with Government Strategy Group to set up a redevelopment agency.
As reported by redbankgreen, the idea for the agency came from a Management Enhancement Report that was critical of shortcomings in municipal governance. GSG also wrote that report, which was commissioned by the council and made public in June.
Several audience members were critical of the move. Dan Riordan, of Elm Place, said that in his view, the borough has “taken advantage of too many development opportunities. I don’t think that should be our goal.”
Bill Meyer, who owns a Monmouth Street retail and office building, noted that a parking study is now being conducted by another consultant, and said redevelopment “should not even be considered until we get some feedback from that study.”
Joe Hartnett, one of GSG’s consultants, said complaints aired earlier in the meeting about downtown problems proved the need for outside assistance in guiding development in the district.
“How’s it worked out for you so far, the last 15 years, relying on the business administrator” to also oversee development issues, he asked the council.
Countering assertions that the redevelopment agency would make decisions about construction and debt issuance without public input, Hartnett, a former city manager for both Rahway and Montclair, said both were untrue. “You are not giving up control, ceding the vision” for the town, he said.
By a 5-1 vote, the council approved the resolution appointing GSG to set up and manage the agency on “pre-operational” basis. Councilman Michael Ballard, who heads the governing body’s finance committee, was the sole no vote on the measure.
He told redbankgreen afterward that it was his clear understanding when the borough sought and hired a new business administrator, Ziad Shehady, that the redevelopment oversight would be managed in-house, not by a contractor.
“It was in the advertisement [for the job] specifically,” Ballard said. The route taken by the council, he said, would add both cost and complexity to the process.
Local school board president Fred Stone, noting the potential impact of redevelopment on schools, urged the council to give the district a seat at the table in the effort. Mayor Pasquale Menna said that would be “part of the design” of the process.
• The council also introduced a proposed ordinance that could see the former Visiting Nurse Association office building on Riverside Avenue radically transformed with housing. The measure must first go to the planning board for review before a possible adoption vote, scheduled for November 7.
The proposed changes, outlined in a 31-page, borough-mandated redevelopment plan by engineering firm CME Associates, sets suggested new design and other parameters for an overlay zone on the site, located at the corner of Bodman Place.
They included density bonuses of up to five units per acre for meeting specific environmental criteria or affordable housing provisions.
In his comments, Riordan said the changes would allow for development that’s “way too dense,” allowing an increase to the equivalent of 90 units per acre, from the current 16. His assertion was unchallenged.
Saxum Real Estate, of Parsippany-Troy Hills bought the three-story, 38,000-square-foot VNA site in January for $7.4 million. Saxum was required to pay for the CME report, Menna said previously.
The designation would be comparable to the one granted to the owners of 55 West Front Street in 2016. A 35-unit luxury apartment building is now under construction on that site, located across the street from Riverside Gardens Park.
No plans for the VNA site had yet been filed with the borough planning office. Menna has previously said that Saxum officials indicated they would not seek to build a high-rise structure, and that whatever went up would not be as tall as the seven-story Colony House apartment building opposite the site on Bodman Place.
The property is located in the waterfront development zone, which permits up to 40 residential units per acre for properties abutting either Riverside Avenue or the Navesink River.
In December, 2016, Saxum bought the former Smith Barney building at 55 Broad Street, for $4 million. In promotional materials, it touts the site as the Vault, a multi-tenant office building. No plans for that project have been filed yet either, borough officials said.