See UPDATE below
By JOHN T. WARD
Pent-up frustration over the apparent fate of a former Red Bank mansion erupted at the first pandemic-era meeting of the Red Bank Historic Preservation Commission Wednesday night.
Commission member Kal Pipo ripped the planning board for allowing the the demolition of a Victorian mansion two doors away from Riverview Medical Center – and said Mayor Pasquale Menna “sounded like he was the lawyer for” the hospital at that hearing where that decision was made.
Additionally, a former co-owner of the house rebutted assertions about the history of the house made by her sister, who sold the property to Hackensack Meridian Health Medical Center five years ago.
In February, 2019, the planning board approved a hospital request to raze the sprawling former mansion and apartment house, located on a bluff above the Navesink River at 95 East Front Street. The borough issued a demolition permit nine months later, but the now-vacant structure remains intact.
A hospital spokesman did not immediately respond to a redbankgreen request for comment on the institution’s plans Thursday. No development plan has been filed with the borough, town officials said.
UPDATE: In a statement issued Thursday evening, Hackensack Meridian said it has “no immediate plans” to develop the property, but “any future usage of the property will be vetted and publicly discussed by all relevant public officials and boards as well as the residents of Red Bank.”
During the commission’s Zoom meeting Wednesday night – its first session since February – member Gary Saphire reported that he had met with hospital officials in the hopes of saving the structure, but “it was a foregone conclusion that they’re going to demolish the house.
“They were just intransigent,” insisting that it cannot be adapted for a new use, Saphire said.
Pipo called that stance “disingenuous. To me, it’s just a bunch of baloney.”
He asked HPC member Barbara Boas, who also serves on the planning board, to explain why that board had approved a “cart-before-the-horse” demolition in the absence of a development plan.
Boas said she couldn’t recall the meeting in detail, but said the planning board is constrained by legalities that give it less “wiggle room” than the HPC.
“The law says you have to approved the demolition of a house unless [objectors] prove something?” Pipo said.
“There was nothing that could be done about it,” Boas said.
“The record speaks for itself,” Menna told redbankgreen in response to a request for comment Thursday.
At the 2019 meeting, when the planning board voted 6 to 3 in favor of the demolition, Menna said that “anyone who reads the Department of Health guidelines knows [the house] can’t be retrofitted,” as hospital officials had argued.
The hospital, he added at the time, is “here to stay,” provides more jobs than any other employer in town and is engaged in competition that requires expansion.
HPC Chairwoman Michaela DiBernardo Ferrigine said the commission had not been notified in advance of the hearing on the hospital’s request.
“Why that happened, I don’t have an answer,” she said. “However, I still feel there’s discussion that can be had. The house right across the street is owned by a doctor and was rehabbed” for use as medical offices, she said, referring to the property owned by Dr. Negin Griffith at the southwest corner of East Front and Washington Street.
Ferrigine said she was awaiting receipt of an engineer’s report promised by Riverview officials. Meantime, plywood that had covered some windows has been removed, “and thus begins the process of demolition by neglect,” she said.
According to research provided to the HPC by former owner Grace Greenberg, the house may have been owned by descendants of James P. Allaire, founder of the Howell Works bog-iron forge in Wall Township — now preserved as Allaire Village.
But Greenberg’s sister, Susan Greenberg, an oncologist affiliated with Riverview, disputes that assertion. In a September 19 letter to the commission, she contended that she “had never heard” of a link to Allaire, though her parents had owned the house before leaving it to her and her two sisters.
She said both generations had made renovations to the house “without addressing historic considerations.”
Later, after she sold her share in the property, her sister Grace explored tearing down the house to replace it with “a hotel, housing or other mixed usage.”
In addition, Dr. Greenberg wrote, “after many years of negotiations,” her sister sold the house to the hospital “at a premium price with the full knowledge of possibilities that the building may be razed.”
“It would be unseemly to withhold possible historic value and data from buyers and then only later to create a conflict,” Dr. Greenberg wrote.
Hackensack Meridian Health bought the property, along with the red brick office building at 91 East Front Street next door, for $2.65 million in July, 2015.
In response to a redbankgreen request for comment Thursday, Grace Greenberg did not directly address her sister’s comments.
“My daughter, Rachel Greenberg, did the investigation as to the prior ownership of the building,” she said via email. “I have always hoped the hospital would value the historic aspect of the building.”
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