Mayor Reveals Surprises About Evolving Union Hotel Plan

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Developer Joe LoPiccolo said yesterday that he still has a plan to save the Union Hotel. Credits: Curtis Leeds
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Joanne Braun has been a frequent critic of the Cust plan. Credits: Curtis Leeds
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Yesterday's Borough Council meeting was held in the old Historic Courthouse. Credits: Curtis Leeds
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Flemington Borough Council at yesterday's meeting. Credits: Curtis Leeds
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FLEMINGTON, NJ – Expecting a large public turnout, officials moved their regular Borough Council meeting to the old Historic Courthouse yesterday, where the mayor revealed that Jack Cust’s plan to redevelop the Union Hotel and surrounding properties continues to evolve.

Although some objected, council again named Cust as its designated redeveloper. The borough’s previous agreement with Cust had expired; the new agreement will be effective through Dec. 31.

Mayor Phil Greiner said he expects Cust will submit a revised plan and that Borough Council will vote on the plan before the end of the year.

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However, council’s acceptance of the plan won’t be the last step in the process. New ordinances and a revised Master Plan will be necessary, and those will require public hearings. And whatever Cust plans to build will also need Planning Board approval also subject to public hearings.

Yesterday’s raucous meeting – where Greiner gaveled for order several times and borough attorney Barry Goodman also cautioned some who were speaking without recognition from the mayor – revealed some substantial potential changes to Cust’s evolving plan.

Cust may seek to preserve the hotel. Previous plans called for the historic Union Hotel to be demolished, a key point of contention for those who oppose the redevelopment plan. But Greiner said Cust had brought in a new architect to examine some of the buildings, asking him, “How might it work if we keep this building?” Cust is also considering preserving the building at 90 Main St., Greiner said. That’s where Flemington DIY is now located.

Officials may expand the “area in need of redevelopment.” The mayor didn’t elaborate on the extent of the possible expansion, which officials may consider as a way to maintain the necessary economies of scale that Cust would need if he preserves some buildings, rather than demolish them.

Another developer may be waiting in the wings. Joe LoPiccolo said at the meeting that he has a plan to save the hotel. LoPiccolo was the first redeveloper chosen by Borough Council for the project. When he failed to buy the property, he lost that designation four years ago and Borough Council sought new proposals. In a brief interview, LoPiccolo said he’d still like to work with the borough and would also consider partnering in some way with Cust to get the hotel preserved. If Borough Council doesn’t accept Cust’s plan, LoPiccolo said he’ll again submit one of his own.

Richard Giffen was named to the borough’s Historic Preservation Commission. Giffen is a structural engineer who has publically argued that his inspection of the Union Hotel suggests that it remains structurally sound and can be saved. His presence on the commission lends a voice of authority to counter those who say the hotel’s condition precludes economical preservation.

Many opposed council’s vote to extend the agreement with Cust. “It’s ironic that were doing this here,” in the Historic Courthouse that was preserved in 2002, Giffen told officials. Former county freeholder Marcia Karrow accused council of “ripping the community apart,” and suggested council “go back to square one” and seek new proposals for redeveloping the area.

“We’ve been through two rounds of requests for proposals,” the mayor answered. He said seeking new proposals would discard the opportunity to negotiate with Cust. “It’s not that this (plan) is perfect in every way,” Greiner said, “but we should consider it.

If council were to vote against Cust as the developer “there’s a good chance he’ll walk,” said Councilman Alan Brewer. “We’re not voting on his plan tonight ... I believe cooler heads will prevail. He’s listening. let’s keep him listening.”

Responding to residents’ concerns that Cust’s plan will result in property tax hikes for increased sewer or water improvements, the mayor insisted that residents will not bear the cost. “If the project won’t pay for itself, all by itself, we don’t want it,” he said. He called it an “integrated solution” but also cautioned that demolition of the hotel could be road blocked by state officials.

Resident Tony Previte argued in favor of the Cust plan. “Cust is homegrown,” he said. “He’s not Donald Trump. This is not the Taj Mahal.” And he argued that when the Union Hotel was first built in 1814, it’s likely that some residents complained about “the big monstrosity.”  

Editor's note: This article has been updated to more accurately characterize the atmosphere at the meeting.

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