In a recent candidate statement (July 16, 2020), Eileen Kelly, the Ward 1 Republican candidate, contended that Council lacks transparency around the Broad Street West (BSW) redevelopment, and that the result may be that Summit would become Morristown. Only three weeks earlier (June 24, 2020), the Summit TAP published my Ninth Status Report, which included the most recent information on where we stand with BSW redevelopment. This issue is too important to residents to permit fear-mongering and implications of secret deals to undermine public confidence in what has been, and continues to be, a bipartisan and transparent process.
I have served on Council since 2016, including serving two years as Council President (2018-2019), and as such, I have been involved in every recent decision associated with BSW redevelopment. I would like to ensure that we are working from a common set of facts and a common understanding of why certain actions were taken so that we retain the people’s confidence.
Let me say at the outset that some may think redevelopment is unnecessary, or that it is a bad idea for Summit, and I respect that position. However, our decision to proceed with BSW redevelopment was due to the consensus that developed through the 2016 Master Plan process – a review which was required by law. The process had a great deal of transparency, including multiple public workshops, teams of residents generating recommendations for different sections of the Master Plan, hundreds of electronically submitted comments, and public hearings held by both the Planning Board and Council. The result was an agreement that additional development should occur in town, and that that development should be focused on the Broad Street corridor.
Many residents hoped that BSW redevelopment would provide for missing amenities, such as an entertainment option, supermarket, and a variety of housing for empty nesters and young people. Additionally, those of us who are concerned about the fiscal health of this community recognized that 10 acres of prime real estate should not be generating only $40,000 in municipal taxes.
In March 2017, Council took its first step on Broad Street redevelopment by engaging Topology as our redevelopment consultant. The Council President at that time was Mike McTernan, who led Council through the initial steps of the process. I say this to point out that BSW redevelopment has been a bipartisan effort, and that credit for where we now stand must be shared with many. Frankly, from my perspective, the project and process have been, and should continue to be a non-partisan, effort.
During my years as Council President, we held multiple public workshops that were moderated by Mayor Nora Radest to elicit ideas and feedback from the public as to, among other things, the scale of the project, the types and uses of buildings, parking, and sustainability. Council created a subcommittee to lead the effort. The subcommittee comprises the Mayor and members of Council, Planning Board and City staff. Those of us on the subcommittee have spent, to date, hundreds of hours reviewing the public’s wants and needs, vetting the qualifications of and interviewing more than a half dozen developers who offered their own ideas for development, editing a redevelopment plan, and making recommendations to Council and the Planning Board on designating a single developer group (L&M/Toll Brothers). It is important to recognize that this subcommittee is comprised of individuals, who, in their “other lives” have been involved in commercial real estate and finance, have advised on planning and architecture, have advised on environmental issues, have counseled cities on legal matters, and have worked on other redevelopment projects. It is this team that instructs the City planner and the City redevelopment attorney as to what should be negotiated. However, the key here is to understand that whatever is negotiated still needs to go through the regular Council process with a public hearing and vote. In short, there can be no secret deals.
I mentioned above the City’s redevelopment plan—this document is very important to the process. Here’s a link to the City’s redevelopment page that has this plan and other relevant documents: https://www.cityofsummit.org/608/Broad-Street-West-Redevelopment. The simple way to put it is that this plan governs what anyone can do in this area. It’s generally the “rules of the road” for redevelopment in BSW. This plan, which was adopted in 2019, was vetted through multiple public meetings in Council and the Planning Board. And, it is this plan that provides the safeguards necessary to avoid changing the fundamental nature of this community. The reason is simple. There are restrictions in this plan regarding what is permissible as to density and height, as well as setting minimum requirements for open space, public amenities, affordable housing, sustainability, and a host of other issues. Let us also be clear that, for those who don’t want any development in that area, this plan calls for a more intensive use of the area as well as allows for variances if other amenities are provided. But, as I pointed out above, this is what the community at large said it wanted in the Master Plan process.
In 2019, we also conditionally designated L&M/Toll Brothers as the developers. This is the only agreement with the developer. The agreement simply set up an escrow account so that the developer could pay for certain City planner/attorney costs and established that we would need to negotiate with them toward a final redevelopment agreement based on the redevelopment plan. In relationship terms, it’s like getting engaged. It is a “conditional” designation because we still need to negotiate a final redevelopment agreement. It may be that, in the end, we will not reach agreement with them. As I have pointed out in the past, my position is that, unlike other communities that need redevelopment to restart dormant local economies, we are not in that position. However, we know that the developers are still very much interested in this project. So, after the initial shock of the pandemic, when Council President Marjorie Fox, Councilwoman Susan Hairston along with other members of Council, Mayor and City staff, were addressing multiple issues regarding safety, health, closures and re-openings, in late May the subcommittee began conversations with the developer.
As we go forward, the City will need to engage the services of financial advisors to evaluate the developer’s financial offers. The engagement of such services will require Council approval. However, the real meat of the deal is the redevelopment agreement, which -- even in best case scenarios -- is several months away from being ready. This agreement, which will outline all of the details of any construction, will need to be voted upon by Council as well as the Planning Board.
BSW redevelopment is a complicated project with many moving parts. The pandemic and its potential consequences for how people live and work have only added challenges to how we think about it. Those of us who have been involved recognize that what we do will impact future generations.
We live in period of skepticism and cynicism toward those who serve in government. There is good reason for this. We see individuals who hold high office commit crimes and not get punished. However, here in Summit, I think those of us who have been elected have tried very hard to earn and keep the trust of those who elected us. I hope that I am correct. If I am, I hope that the public understands and trusts us when I say that we are being as transparent as possible. Ultimately, you, the residents, will decide when you see for yourselves what is actually proposed for construction and what it will mean for our community if we go forward with this project.
Be safe and be well.
David Naidu - Summit Common Council, Ward 1