FLEMINGTON, NJ – The Union Hotel wasn’t on the official agenda at tonight’s Borough Council meeting, but it was certainly on the agenda of the public who wanted to speak to officials.
Speakers included those who were practiced in defending historic properties. Among them were Mike Gronksy, the president of the Union Forge Heritage Association. That group created the Solitude House Museum in High Bridge and the Turner House in Union Township. Also speaking was Stephanie Stevens of Readington, a former chair of the county Cultural and Heritage Commission. Stevens is credited with helping to protect the historic 1759 Vought House in Clinton Township.
And it included Joanne Braun. She told Borough Council that she typically doesn’t speak up at public meetings, but that she couldn’t be silent this time. She told council about her Save the Union Hotel Facebook page, and an online petition that readers can sign to voice their support for its preservation.
“To tear down the center of your National Historic District is unconscionable,” Stevens said. She said that when she saw the plan by Jack Cust to redevelop the hotel and its surrounding properties she was “appalled – it looked like urban renewal ... That hotel was the center of the world in 1935” when it was the site of Bruno Hauptmann’s trial after the kidnapping and death of the son of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh, Stevens said.
“I don’t think Cust has the right to knock down a whole historic district.”
“Not everything that’s old can be saved or should be saved,” Gronsky told council. “Not everything (that’s) 150 years old is historic. But the hotel is historic ... hopefully preservation and new devlopement can go hand-in-hand,” he said, “without one overtaking the other.”
Kenneth Cummings, who is vice-president of the county’s Historical Society, said Cust’s plan “decimates” the historic district and “ignores the charm of the historic district.” He cited the county’s Comprehensive Economic Devlopement Plan, which recommends promoting, among other things, the county’s history as a magnet for tourism.
Resident Chris Englehart suggested a public “informal meeting” with Cust to share concerns. She referred to the Historic Courthouse and hotel and said, “They’re like twins, joined at the hip ... we don’t need a multi-story, generic hotel in our town.”
Richard Griffen is a structural engineer who said he’s working on New York City’s Second Avenue subway project. Ten years ago, he did an analysis of the Union Hotel for its then-current owners, and he said that it can be saved. He suggested preserving the front and two sides of the hotel’s facade, demolishing an adjacent building, and then tying new construction in with the old.
Former Councilman Joey Novick said the issue is really about money and profits. If the wrecking ball actually strikes the hotel, Novick said, “The river of tears will flood the streets.”
Several residents, including Lois Stewart, Jerry Jones and Steve Tuccio, said Cust’s plans are “out of scale” with surrounding buildings.
Lee Roth, a borough attorney who 15 years ago redeveloped his 91 Main Street offices and won a county planning award for his effort, urged preservation mixed with caution.
“We all assume that the new developers are financially able,” he said, “as was assumed in the past” with previous developers who were unable to get the project underway. He recommended a timetable to ensure performance “so were are not left with torn down buildings or a half-finished project.
“And move quickly,” Roth said. “You should be able to have a deal in 60 to 90 days if you work at it.”
There was plenty of optimism, too. Council President Brian Swingle and Mayor Phil Greiner each said, separately, that Cust is aware of the public’s concerns, and Swingle said that Cust would consider alternatives if those options also considered the financial impact.
“None of us can speak for Cust,” Greiner said, and Cust’s initial conceptual plan was developed without any input from officials. But if a developer’s agreement is put in place with Cust, Greiner said the borough can create design standards so that the finished project fits with its surroundings.
“Hope is not a strategy,” Greiner said. “You can’t wait for someone to do precisely what we want.”
Greiner said that many residents support Cust’s plans, and that the developer is “sensitive to concerns. We need to balance it out.”
Councilwoman Michelle Oberst, who is on the borough's redevelopment committee, promised Cust would not be given a "free rein" and encouraged suggestions. Councilwoman Carla Tabussi assured that the borough's Historic Preservation Commission would be closely involved with reviewing the plans.
Jamie Wright, who is on the HPC, said the project has the potential to “transform Flemington.” HPC chair Elaine Gorman was even more optimistic. “I’m very confident that the whole community will benefit from this project,” she said. “You’ll like what you see.”
Borough Council’s agenda did include a vote to create a new board to manage the Business Improvement District and extend the borough’s $16,000 agreement with BID consultants Administrative Resources. Both were approved by the voting members of the council.