The former Sunoco station on River Road, as seen from Cedar Avenue this week. The site is being used to store materials for an unrelated New Jersey American Water project. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge.)
By JOHN T. WARD
The former gas station the town has targeted for the proposed municipal complex has a new owner, who apparently wants to build two dozen townhomes on it.
When Mayor Ben Lucarelli unveiled the consolidation plan to a packed meeting in October, he said borough officials had tried repeatedly, without success, to get anyone at gasoline giant Sunoco to respond to inquiries.
The borough’s goal, he said, was to negotiate a purchase of the 28,000-square-foot site, located at the corner of River Road and Cedar Avenue. Failing that, he said, the town might use eminent domain law to take the site, which was vacated by Sunoco in late 2011.
The site is key to the domino-effect consolidation plan, which calls for:
• selling the police station and community center complex on Fisk Street
• shrinking the public works yard on Allen Street by half, and selling 10 new lots to be created on the remainder for residential development
• relocating the community center to the existing borough hall on River Road, where the public library would remain.
A new three-story municipal building would put borough administration, the police department and holding cells under one roof at the former Sunoco property, according to a January 10 presentation of concept plans to residents.
But M&M Realty Partners of Piscataway acquired the site in between those two meetings. The firm paid Sunoco $1.3 million for the property on December 28, according to a deed filed with Monmouth County.
M&M is the same firm that proposed building an Investors Savings bank branch on the site in 2016, when a partner said the firm had a contract to buy the site, pending approvals. The bank proposal stalled in September of that year over planning board concerns about traffic flow and building design, and M&M never followed through with a revised plan.
Then, last week, during the rollout of a controversial affordable-housing plan before the planning board, came further news. According to a brief mention in a housing report written by Heyer, Gruel & Associates of Red Bank, M&M in February “sent the Borough correspondence proposing to construct a three-story 24-unit family rental development of which 4 units would be affordable housing” on the site.
The report continues:
The Borough had already considered the land for affordable housing in the context of an extended deliberative process throughout 2018 and 2019. The Borough considered the proposal, but concluded that the best use was still a mixed use concept as previously determined. Since the site is over 20,000 square feet in size, it would conform to the proposed minimum lot size within the proposed overlay zone. In terms of stories, it would conform to the Borough proposal of 3 stories. The M&M proposal however, would not be in conformance with the Borough proposal to require commercial use on the ground floor and the maximum density permitted. Since the Business District is the core of the Borough’s downtown commercial area, it was deemed important by the Borough to maintain a walkable commercial core. This goal requires the maintenance and enhancement of the area rather than diluting the business district with residential development on the ground level.
Under a proposed affordable-housing zone that would overlay the western business district straddling River Road, the site could yield 13 units, of which three would have to be set aside for low-and-moderate-income tenants or buyers, according to the Heyer report.
The status of the proposal could not be learned this week. M&M partner John Taikina did not respond to a redbankgreen request for comment, and borough officials did not immediately respond to an Open Public Records Act request filed Wednesday by redbankgreen seeking the correspondence on the issue.
M&M’s acquisition of the site raises a host of questions about its impact on the plan championed by Lucarelli. Among them: will the firm pursue the housing proposal, or attempt to build something else on the site? Can it leverage the town’s “unmet need” for 370 affordable units, to win approvals, given that the borough itself also wasn’t planning on having first-floor commercial uses on the site? And if M&M does develop the site, where would that leave the consolidation project?
The borough’s moves have largely been shrouded by state law that allows local governments to conduct negotiations over real estate, among other matters, in executive session, or out of public view.
Last week, Lucarelli told redbankgreen that the borough had had “some preliminary back and forth” with M&M, but had not yet begun formal negotiations to acquire the Sunoco site and was waiting to hear back from the firm about meeting dates.
But there is a plan B if a deal can’t be reached, said Lucarelli: eminent domain. The borough council adopted a condemnation ordinance for the site in October, he noted, “but we haven’t acted on it,” he told said.
“The borough wants to do everything it can to avoid an eminent domain action,” which could trigger “two years of fighting it out” over appropriate payment to M&M, Lucarelli said. “But if push comes to shove, the law states that is a path” the town can take, he said.
Additionally, he said, the borough has a plan C. The borough “is considering another piece of property,” he said. “We have three or four sections of River Road, and we’ve got it down to two sites.”
He declined to identify the sites, but said they had been disclosed in a bond authorization related to the financing of the Sunoco site acquisition and other, unrelated capital projects.
A February 25 update to the ordinance, which added $1.6 million to previously approved spending on various projects, says the money could be used for the acquisition of properties on River Road in tax blocks 25, 29, 30 and 31. The particular lots being targeted are not specified, however.