LAMBERTVILLE, NJ - On Jan. 31, 2020, during her State of the City address, Lambertville Mayor Julia Fahl announced a facilities consolidation proposal that included selling off three municipal sites – city hall, the public library and the police station.
In her speech, she cited, “structural deficit, looming debt, crumbling city facilities” as the main reasons for the proposal.
Since that time, Fahl’s plans to consolidate these buildings into one new facility at the Phillip L. Pittore Justice Center (the ACME building) have faced scrutiny from some residents. In February, a grassroots, unregistered organization, Lambertville United, formed in opposition to the proposal.
Fahl eventually indicated she was pulling back on some of the plans, but the two candidates she supported for city council lost their primary bids on July 7 to opponents whose campaign slogan was “Stop Overdevelopment.” Then, on July 29, the city announced that the contract of Alex Torpey, the city business administrator, who had supported the consolidation, would not be renewed.
The proposal for the police station site intersects with the city’s new settlement with the Fair Share Housing Center (FSHC). The mayor has viewed the plan as part of the agreement with the FSHC, but critics see Fahl using affordable housing to push the larger consolidation effort forward.
Perhaps the most consistent critic of the mayor’s plans has been Sierra Club Director, and Lambertville resident, Jeff Tittel.
In April, Tittel penned a letter to the attorney general and Department of Consumer Affairs, calling the plan “reckless and arrogant,” to which Fahl responded with a letter posted to the city’s website saying, “Throughout this letter, Mr. Tittel works to imply that the work of the city to provide affordable housing is a nefarious plot to push a larger development agenda.”
Tittel replied with a press release saying, “This is not 100 percent affordable housing – it isn’t even 20 percent affordable housing. She just wants to move five units of affordable housing to the police station site as an excuse to build a five-story market rate building for her developer friends.”
Since April, Tittel has written three additional press releases – one critical of councilwoman Madeline Urbish, who was one of the municipal candidates who lost in the July Democratic primary, and one disparaging Torpey.
In the most recent release, Tittel called Torpey Fahl’s “enabler and enforcer,” and claimed that the police station site “is contaminated, in the floodplain of Alexauken Creek and within the 300-foot buffer of the C1 stream,” while also expressing concerns over proceeding during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A review of state Department of Environmental Protection records indicates the site, on top of an old auto body shop, is not on the state’s list of Known Contaminated Sites, but the city has also not tested it. Roughly one-third of the site is within the 300-foot buffer, and a small portion of the property is classified as a Moderate-to-Low Risk Flood Zone, according to FEMA designations.
The city had reached an affordable housing agreement with FSHC on May 22, 2018, just weeks before the primary election between former mayor David Del Vecchio and Fahl, which Fahl won. However, in November of that year, many residents came out to a special mayor and council meeting to oppose the inclusion of the Closson Farmstead, which encompassed the Holcombe House where George Washington stayed in 1777 and 1778, in an overlay zone that potentially would have produced about 10 affordable homes.
Removal of the Closson property meant negotiating sites that could replace the 10 lost affordable units with FSHC. After Fahl took over as mayor in January 2019, she eventually earmarked the police station site as a potential area for redevelopment and proposed a “mixed-income inclusionary residential building on the site,” which would allow for five affordable units.
Another five would come about via an accessory apartment program. Both were included in a new agreement with FSHC.
In a separate interview, Tittel said, “It was Mayor Fahl who decided to change that plan. The city was court-protected for five years.”
Fahl replied to that claim in an interview saying, “The historic preservation commission came to me at the beginning of my term as well as Mayor Del Vecchio while he was still in office. In order for us to address their concerns over the Holcombe house, we had to open up the agreement again.”
Special Court Master Michael Bolan wrote in a May 7 letter to Superior Court Judge Thomas C. Miller that he recommended the court’s approval of the new settlement. In its June 23, 2020, order approving the agreement, the court gave the city until Dec. 31 to adopt a redevelopment plan for the police station site.
Tittel took issue with the Dec. 31 deadline, which he pointed out is a day before the two primary-winning candidates, Steve Stegman and Benedetta Lambert, would take their positions on city council (they are unopposed in the November general election). Tittel insisted the deadline came from the city, not the court.
Tittel said he would prefer the units be built on the city-owned space behind the CVS on the corner of Cherry and N. Main Streets and, if necessary, in between the Catanzareti Pizza building and N. Main. He also suggested the city could purchase five homes currently under foreclosure to fulfill obligations.
An April 23 post on the FSHC blog noted a lease on the CVS property until 2027, in addition to which all of the land along N. Union Street behind the CVS is in a High Risk FEMA flood area. But Tittel remarked that the lease did not affect all of the CVS property, and recommended that the city could even build units on the north side of the Closson site next to Lambert’s Hill and not interfere with the historic site.
Fahl explained that it was difficult to make everyone happy and that the newly negotiated option is one that will not cost the city as much as the others.
“Mayor Fahl removed these different sites, because she wants to turn Main Street in Lambertville into Metuchen with mid-rise housing – that’s her goal,” Tittel said.
Fahl disputed that claim.
“My goal is not to change the historic value of Lambertville,” she said. “I don’t understand why Jeff Tittel is using his title as director of the Sierra Club to wage what is clearly a personal vendetta against my administration. It has nothing to do with the environment."