To the editor:
Flemington Borough Council released a statement on Friday that a newly-revised redevelopment plan would “preserve” the Union Hotel. I’m aware the Borough-owned property at 90-100 Main Street will also be saved. These are two of four historic buildings originally targeted for demolition by the borough’s designated redeveloper. While this is welcome news, significant questions remain.
From the beginning, those in favor of the proposed project claimed the iconic buildings were “blighted” and beyond repair, while ignoring the fact that the project’s eight stories and urban density more than doubles the approved 2015 Master Plan.
This project remains ridiculously out of scale for our rural county seat, being more suited to the commuter rail connected City of New Brunswick. And it encroaches on our historic district, one of the largest in the state. We are told economic feasibility is the driver, but like so much of this redevelopment plan few such details have been offered by the redevelopment committee, which includes Mayor Phil Greiner and Councilpersons Brian Swingle and Brooke Liebowitz.
It’s notable that over the past 15 years numerous small scale redevelopments of historic buildings have been done successfully in Flemington - without taxpayer financed 30 year Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILOTs) or burdening rate payers with tens of millions in sewer and water infrastructure improvements that will take decades to pay for. Why can’t developer Jack Cust, with his experience and clear economies of scale, manage to do the same as the “little guys” and turn a fair profit with a plan that conforms to the 2015 Master Plan?
As a commercial property owner in Flemington and a Raritan Township residential property owner for more than 15 years, I’m concerned about the tax and utility cost implications of this blatant millionaire welfare. The project’s questionable economic benefits offer taxpayers poor bang for the buck, eroding our already weak tax base.
Saving a couple of historic buildings does not address the real issues with the current proposal besides inappropriate height and density. Despite Borough Council’s approval of the developer agreement and clear support for the project, there has been no traffic study to demonstrate how the narrow historic grid, with one-way and no through streets, can handle the capacity of a 900 car parking garage. And what will be the impact of this traffic on the neighboring residents’ quality of life?
As with the previous two failed Union Hotel redevelopers, Mayor Greiner and Council have signed a developer agreement with no due diligence regarding the developer’s personal financial capabilities or his ability to finance a project many times more substantial that he’s ever done. A bank would never lend tens of millions without this information and without a personal guarantee, so why is the borough effectively doing the same with its PILOT and funding of utility infrastructure upgrades?
The developer agreement calls for a two-phase project that allows eight years for completion with no guarantees phase two will be built and, when push comes to shove, no recourse for the borough. Market conditions could change. Is this the instant gratification so many are seeking, including the borough retailers and restaurateurs who claim to be struggling?
If properly managed by Borough Council using Requests for Proposals (RFPs), as was last done in 2012 before the redevelopment area was expended beyond the Union Hotel site, a series of smaller scale projects not requiring enormous infrastructure upgrades and years of construction disruption could happen virtually right away, simultaneously. This spreads the risk and minimizes disruption. The borough putting its eggs all in one basket with a single enormous project, with the poorly constructed, one sided agreement it has negotiated, is very, very dicey.
I’m all in favor of adaptive reuse of our exceptional historic building stock and appropriate new development that conforms to the 2015 Master Plan. But I call on Mayor Greiner and Council to take a smarter, more expeditious and more fiscally responsible approach to the Borough’s redevelopment. Let’s not miss an opportunity to do something great.
Gary Schotland, Raritan Township