By JOHN T. WARD
Invoking “demolition by neglect” and the prospect of “apartments” on the site, several dozen Red Bankers rallied Saturday to demand that the mothballed borough Senior Center be repaired.
They also momentarily drowned out the grandson of the center’s founder when he took issue with one of the handmade signs posted on the building.
The Shrewsbury Avenue facility has been closed for two years, first as a result of damage from a burst pipe in the fire suppression system, and later over safety concerns discovered during an inspection.
The riverfront property is the subject of pending concept plans being drawn up by an architectural firm for the borough’s Redevelopment Agency, an advisory body that’s reviewing all municipal properties with the aim of making recommendations to the borough council.
Seniors have not been able to assemble for the past year under pandemic restrictions. In January, the council approved a three-year lease at Trinity Episcopal Church, on West Front Street, to serve as an interim senior center once pandemic restrictions ease.
Backers, though, want the center removed from the Redevelopment Agency review, repaired and ready to welcome seniors once the pandemic passes, they said.
“We don’t need a redevelopment [agency] to decide whether to fix the Senior Center or not,” said Adrienne Bilaal, of South Pearl Street. “We want it fixed now.”
Noting the beautiful view of the Swimming River from its western side, former recreation director and present Housing Authority board member Memone Crystian invoked the site’s value to developers.
“Can you imagine how much we could make on this property?” she asked. “What sort of ratable it could become? And why would they pretend that they were not considering this,” she asked of borough officials.
“They were,” she said. “But then you, the people, started speaking, and you said you were against it.” As a result, she said, “the wording and the rhetoric is beginning to change.”
Marian Quinn, a borough resident since 1945, said the center had welcomed her late sister, who had “a wonderful, wonderful” time there.
“She was treated with dignity, she won prizes, she would come every day with her prizes. It was a wonderful place,” she said. “She had a life here.”
In addition, Quinn said, “I know for a fact that for many senior citizens, the only meal they had that day was one they had here. Please, I’m begging you, don’t let them tear this place down.”
Tyler Shaw, grandson of center founder Ethel Frankel, also spoke in support of saving the center, noting that he was present as a boy when ground was broken for the building in the mid-1990s.
But he objected to a sign behind the podium that read, “Keep our senior center building for seniors only,” and said his grandmother would not have wanted it, either.
“She would have let anyone into this building who needed a hot meal or a warm place to stay,” he said. The facility should be more of a community center, where children can learn from their elders and people with special needs can congregate, Shaw said.
“It needs to be open to the community, not just one group,” he said. “You’re talking about age discrimination, but now you’re discriminating against everybody else in the community who needs the same help from the community, what Red Bank was founded on – just having somewhere for people to feel safe and feel respected.”
At that point, members of the audience began chanting “fix it now,”drowning out Shaw.
“They had all that,” said Tiffaney Harris, a former Senior Center outreach worker who organized the rally, as she had one on January 9. She cited visits by Girl Scouts, father-daughter dances and more.
“We’re not saying this isn’t open for other people. We’re saying we want this building fixed, where it is,” she said “We don’t want any private partners. We don’t want a recreation center here. We do not want any apartment buildings.”
When it next meets, on March 23, the Redevelopment Agency is expected to review three concept plans: a renovation of the facility; one incorporating a community center into an expanded building on the existing location; and a revised version of a prior plan that removes the Senior Center from a potential community center at Count Basie Fields.
In attendance at the rally were Mayor Pasquale Menna and all six members of the council, who are scheduled to next meet March 24. None spoke at the event.
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