Revised Union Hotel Plan: Some Happy, Some Not

Changes to Jack Cust's redevelopment plan for Main Street would preserve the Union Hotel.

FLEMINGTON, NJ – The plan to redevelop the Union Hotel and its surrounding properties – and the costs, traffic and scope of the plan – occupied much of the discussion at Borough Council’s regular meeting last night.

Some of the exchanges became heated.

Mayor Phil Greiner described recent changes developer Jack Cust has made to his plans, including saving most of the exterior walls of the Union Hotel and the building at 90 Main Street, as “pretty self-explanatory” and not requiring “a large town meeting.” Those changes will likely be incorporated into the redevelopment plan and discussed again at a future meeting, he said.

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“I was surprised” by the changes, Greiner said. “They do make the project a little less appealing financially to the developer. They add to the expense and they reduce the revenue ... after its developed.”

But preserving the landmark hotel and 90 Main Street building “certainly adds to the value of the project” for residents, he said.

The revised plans’ details were revealed in three separate preview meetings, Greiner said, that included members of Borough Council, the Planning Board and Historic Preservation Commission, but that avoided having a quorum of any group at any one session.

 “We all hoped we would land here,” Councilperson Brian Swingle said. He called it “a good middle-of the road position ... overall, it’s a good plan.”

About Cust, Councilperson Marc Hain said, “Obviously, he’s been listening” to those who opposed demolishing the hotel.

 “What really got me was Spring Street,” Councilperson Kim Tilly said. Because of the proposed changes, it would now be a “strictly residential street. It doesn’t have the store fronts” that had made it “look like part residential, part strip mall.”

“I guess there’s one in every crowd, and I’m it,” said Councilperson Susan Peterson. Preserving the hotel and 90 Main Street “are a start,” she said.

“But I ask, ‘How long to get the scale and proportion right? Another year?’ I’m growing impatient,” Peterson said. The building at 78 Main Street – also known by the name of former tenant The Potting Shed – “should be kept for sheer physical beauty, not sacrificed for a corner of a plaza.”

“I will continue to safeguard the existence and appearance of historic elements,” Peterson added. “Historic resources are assets.”

Spring Street resident Lois Stewart said architectural renderings released by the borough “don’t show anything about Spring Street,” something resident Richard Giffen called “deceptive.”

In an interview after the meeting, Greiner said those plans remain with Cust, but will be posted when they are available. In an email this morning, Cust said they hadn’t yet been finalized and would probably be ready “in a few weeks.”

Resident Alice Schwade said that “compromise means concession from both sides ... I think what they’ve done looks great.” She hopes preservationists recognize that negotiations on the redevelopment project are “a two-way street.”

Lambertville attorney Bill Flahive, who is on the Board of Directors of the county’s Chamber of Commerce, said the Chamber continues to support the project. “Preservation and progress are not mutually exclusive,” he said.

Resident and former councilperson Al Brewer said that it was “no surprise” that Cust and Council reached a compromise.

“We can expect that there might be other movement with negotiations with Mr. Cust in the future,” he said. Brewer urged continued negotiations.

“As long as we’re talking, there’s hope we can get to a compromise that we can live with,” he said.

Resident Robert Shore said he “couldn’t disagree more” with Brewer. He called Borough Council “feckless, weak, impotent” and said the group “had nothing to do with these changes, and it had everything to do with other forces.”

Shore was apparently referring to Friends of Historic Flemington, the non-profit group that has argued for adaptive reuse of historic properties, rather than demolition.

 “I’m just thankful that we never gave up our fight,” said Joanne Braun, one of the group’s founders. “We were told it couldn’t be done and now it’s partially being done.”

Braun would like to see more preservation, and said  78 Main Street “needs to be included and saved.

“Why demolish a beautiful gem you already have to build something new in the same spot?” Braun asked. “It doesn’t make sense.”

Resident Michael Harris said the challenge is not just to save historic buildings, but to consider who will pay for the project. “We’re going to end up paying for the infrastructure” to support the project, he said. Harris also argued that without knowing how many bedrooms the plan’s 250 condominium units will contain, it isn’t possible to calculate the impact the project will have on schools.

The mayor insisted that infrastructure costs will be borne by the redeveloper, and railed against references that the project will be eight stories high.

“We tell you in black and white that it’s seven stories, and everybody passes around that it’s eight,” Greiner said. We tell you in black and white ... that the developer is paying for the cost for sewer and water and yet people still come in here and talk about how the taxpayers are going to pay for it. Whether we put it in black and white or not, people are saying what they want to say.”

Traffic was another concern. Resident Jack Koontz has argued that Park Avenue should be made one-way, in part because of traffic at Steve’s food store. Koontz, who lives on the avenue, said he’s lost four cars parked on the street and council is “lollygagging” on a solution.

Bob Schwade, who lives at the other end of Park Avenue, said he’s had a car hit three times – and twice were hit-and-run incidents.

“My insurance company told me they’re concerned about that,” Schwade said. He said the road has been “turned into a highway” and that complaints could result in legal trouble for the borough.

“You have to pay attention to us and understand that our concerns matter,” Schwade said, and the mayor answered that the problem is close to resolution.

But Koontz exceeded the three-minute time limit for comments, and was visibly upset when the mayor and borough attorney Barry Goodman told him his time to speak had ended. Koontz’s frustration continued even after the meeting, when he exchanged words from the sidewalk with Brewer. A borough patrol officer told Koontz to go home, and he complied.

But the evening’s most heated exchange happened when Shore referred to Swingle by his surname only.

“It’s Councilman Swingle,” the mayor said.

“Robert, I’m serious. I do not expect people to come in here and refer to these people by their last names like it’s some kind of a street chat," Greiner said. "Please, please show your respect. Please reciprocate.”

When Shore asked for 15 seconds of additional time to speak because he’d been interrupted, he was gaveled to sit down by the mayor.

“Please sit down, Robert,” the mayor said. “You need to show a little bit of respect and you refuse to do it.”

The borough has been sued for allegedly not applying its three-minute public comment rule consistently.

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