FLEMINGTON, NJ – Councilperson Susan Peterson has repeatedly explained what she thinks has prevented the plan to redevelop the Union Hotel and its surrounding properties from being implemented: Redeveloper Jack Cust and his Flemington Urban Renewal LLC cannot move forward until the existing lawsuits – which target the borough – are settled.
After all, she reasons, Cust already has approval from the borough’s Planning Board.
The suits have been filed by Friends of Historic Flemington, a non-profit group that advocates “for the adaptive reuse of Flemington’s historic buildings as critical components of a thoughtfully designed and properly scaled downtown redevelopment,” its website states.
Now, pressure is building on several fronts for the Friends to settle those suits.
The latest to join the fray is Flemington Community Partnership. The group, funded by a special property tax assessment on businesses and multi-family homes in the borough’s business improvement district, now says its board believes “it is unfair for a small minority group to continue to negatively impact our small businesses and our economic outlook with a blighted empty building on our Main Street.”
FCP has launched an online petition that seeks the public’s support for, “An immediate transparent, fair and reasonable negotiation to settle the lawsuits that are preventing this project from moving forward.”
According to the petition, the FCP Board unanimously recognizes the efforts – including those of the Friends – that have resulted in “positive changes” to the plan. “We have a better project because of these discussions and the community input,” the group states.
Mayor Betsy Driver, on social media and in a letter to the editor, says “the time is now” to move forward. She cited a recently closed restaurant as “another in a steady stream of small business investors who chose Flemington and were let down by a town being held back by people who don’t see value in development that fits.”
Driver praised the Friends’ efforts and said, “they won their noble battle. Their work is what reduced the height of project from over 90 feet to more fitting 54 feet.”
Driver writes that changes made by Cust over the last nine months have “worked to bring the project in line with what I think – and what I thought – was the desire of the small group of plaintiffs.” She said the plans – although not perfect – now meet “most of the goals I envisioned for our Main Street in this project: it saves 78 Main Street, it retains the streetscape elevation along Main Street, and it reduces the future potential traffic impact on the nearby residents.”
But like some others, Driver says the borough remains “hostage to a small group of people using the courts and non-profit status that markets themselves as historic preservationists,” preventing Flemington from succeeding.
For his part, Cust says there is a “workable solution.” He wrote in his letter to the editor, that “There remains a workable solution that meets everyone’s objectives and can eliminate the rising cost of legal fees.”
Gary Schotland, writing on behalf of the Friends’ group, called the revised plans “intentionally deceptive.”
Schotland called the presentation of the revised plans at the Sept. 23 Council meeting “very troubling,” arguing that Flemington Mayor Betsy Driver, Councilman Jeff Doshna and Councilwoman Caitlin Giles-McCormick coordinated with the redeveloper “to give an unannounced 15-minute presentation,” allowing supporters to prepare in advance but denying critics the same opportunity, which “suppressed public participation.”
“The Friends of Historic Flemington have always been in favor of redevelopment that adaptively reuses historic buildings, along with new structures in scale with the historic district,” Schotland said. “The Borough’s approved 2015 Master Plan allows for construction up to three stories, with four in certain circumstances. We believe that is appropriate.”
Cust called building to the Master Plan “a bankrupt scenario” and said that Redevelopment Areas such as Flemington’s are intended to “allow a developer to routinely deviate or exceed the Master Plan. This provides incentives to attract developers to invest and redevelop distressed areas of towns.”
Schotland said that the Friends submitted a settlement letter last month “documenting additional significant concessions” but didn’t receive a response from the Borough. “The latest ‘proposed’ redevelopment scheme addresses none of the many remaining issues,” he wrote.
Cust claims he has made a “significant” reduction in the size of the project, Schotland said, “primarily by reducing the height to six stories from the original eight.” But Schotland argues that a “detailed architectural analysis” shows only an approximate 2 percent reduction in overall square footage, which includes a 15 percent increase in the number of apartments compared to the original eight-story plan.
“His glossy renderings are intentionally deceptive” because they fail to “put the true scale in perspective. There has been no compromise.” The Friends would like a physical 3D model of the project, Schotland said, and, “If the project is to move forward, it’s time to significantly reduce the size to something that fits the historic district.”
Cust’s proposal to the Friends is: Let’s talk. He promised to “accommodate any request to meet” with them. “Resolutions are best attained with face-to-face communication,” he said.
Cust said he has “a formal written response” to the last Friends’ proposal, but has “intentionally delayed” publicizing it “because we continue to be optimistic” about a settlement.
But Cust said that if a settlement isn’t reached by next Wednesday, “then in the interest of transparency to the public, we will provide our responses … in an open forum.”