To the editor:

Last Friday, at its annual redevelopment forum, NJ Future brought together redevelopment experts from New Jersey and across the country to share lessons about redevelopment. Highlighting the many nuances of what works and what doesn’t, one speaker got to the heart of what Flemington is doing wrong.

 “Adopting the redevelopment plan is the first step, not the last step”, according to Joe Getz of JGSC Group.” After declaring an area in need of redevelopment and adopting a redevelopment plan, many towns, like Flemington, think they have done everything they need to. Nonetheless, they forget that reaching out to find qualified redevelopers is one of the most important parts of the process.

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“Whoever shows up,” Getz said, “may not be who you need” to get a good plan implemented. And Flemington has a good plan – one honed over decades of consistent policies that respect the local history and culture.

Sadly, unlike the extreme vetting we hear so much about today, Flemington has failed to do even the most modest vetting of the qualifications of the Cust team, and so we now know nothing about whether there will be a market for this eight- to nine-story high rise behemoth project in a county that has been losing population for more than a decade. Since when is oversupply the answer to a weak market? And why is Cust getting carte blanche, despite the borough never seriously attempting to find truly qualified redevelopers - the kind that have done such projects many times before? What is going on here?

As both millennials and their boomer parents seek out the charm of walkable downtowns, surely the best answer for Flemington is not tearing down our historic downtown and replacing it with buildings so out of scale with our county seat. Cust would replace its town and country charm with buildings far larger than the four- to five-stories now being developed in Somerville, which has a commuter rail station in walking distance. And unlike other towns that carefully investigate all the impacts of redevelopment, Flemington has apparently considered none of these.

It is troubling that Flemington Borough Council has expressed no concern about whether they are unleashing a traffic nightmare on the downtown, already burdened by rush hour through traffic, and apparently will approve a redevelopment agreement without knowing any of these details. Likewise for the market study, a key element of successful redevelopment that is also missing here.

Mayor Phil Greiner and Council appear not to care about the fiscal impact of the project. Relying on statements by the developer that he will cover the costs of the development, a payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) will be granted and the borough will learn later whether this is good for Flemington, its residents and its schools.

A lack of experience with redevelopment is no excuse, when the borough has capable and respected redevelopment attorneys in their corner. However, the Pied Piper approach that this developer has taken, wooing small groups of elected and appointed officials to embrace his plan before it ever saw the light of day at a public meeting, is among the greatest travesties in a process that is as far from transparent as can be imagined.

“Only I can fix this” is a mantra heard all too often during the past year, both at the local and national level. But if Cust is truly prepared to make this as good for the borough as it is for his investors, Council should refuse to sign the agreement that will tie up our downtown for nearly a decade.

The adopted Master Plan and redevelopment plans, which allow the entire hotel block to be built to a four- to five-story height, are in scale with the borough character and its demographic and economic potential. Before the borough approves a contract with any redeveloper, they should demand what other towns routinely require:

  • Show us the market study that proves there is a market for this massive development in a county losing population.
  • Show us the traffic impacts of full development on our street system, which will continue to have heavy regional traffic regardless of the redevelopment.
  • Show us the money – what’s the fiscal impact on the borough, the county and the schools?

Redevelopment experts agree that adaptive reuse of historic buildings is a key branding and marketing element in downtown revitalization. Yet Jack Cust is attempting to substitute his vision for that of the borough and it is a fatal vision for Flemington. The only real chance that Flemington will become a monumental failure is signing the proposed Cust agreement and waiting to see what happens. Since he has made no economic or fiscal or traffic promises to the borough, we have nothing to count on or to measure his success by. And throughout Hunterdon we all will have to live with the borough’s mistake.

The answer? Advertise for qualified redevelopers and find out if any are interested in developing according to the adopted master plan and redevelopment plans, which allow development of hundreds of thousands of square feet of new space. Unless Council does that, they will never know if they could have had the best of both worlds – pairing old and new.

Flemington already has a brick-strewn vacant lot where Cut Glass used to be and there appear to be no active plans to change that. How many times will the borough fall for the arguments that our downtown is better off without these historic sites? When will the borough again embrace the Master Plan that can bring major development to the hotel block without destroying our character? Until they seek out qualified redevelopers, there will be little hope for a good outcome for the borough.

Frank Banisch, President, Banisch Associates, Inc.