CRANFORD, NJ – Furious residents and business owners filled the municipal chambers on Wednesday evening as the Cranford Planning Board heard a presentation from Harbor Consultants regarding the redevelopment of a portion of North Avenue East.
The redevelopment evaluation spans from Bar Americana to the Riverside Inn and includes the Cranford Fire House, Marino Seafood and more. Some of the included buildings and one parking lot are municipally owned. Others, like Swan Dry Cleaners, have been closed for years.
The study, posted on the township website on Monday, sparked strong protests on social media by including local businesses, particularly the Riverside.
“The commissioners specifically wanted Block 195, Lot 10 (the Riverside Inn) excluded from the study area,” Mayor Thomas Hannen Jr. said before the presentation began. “Unfortunately, an oversight resulted in it being included. I take responsibility as mayor for not going over each block and lot number to make sure that was not included. At some point in time, if the owner would like to be included for whatever advantages it may provide, they may reach out to either myself or Deputy Mayor Ann Dooley and we’ll be happy to include them.”
Hannen also asked that residents carefully review the study and provide feedback.
“Please allow us to go over this, give us your input,” he continued. “This is about your downtown. We’re looking to enhance that area so businesses like the Riverside and Chinese restaurants can be enhanced and enhance our downtown. Your input in this process will be very important.”
The study was presented by Harbor Consultant’s Michael Mistretta, who stressed that this is a draft study dating back to 1985.
“There’s documents dating back to 1985 that speak to a redevelopment of our downtown,” he said. “Our study piggybacks on 33 years of planning efforts that the township has spent hundreds and thousands of dollars on as to what our vision is for our downtown area.”
He cited reports stating a need for higher residential development, structured parking, affordable housing and repairs for flood damage from Hurricane Irene.
“You have a buildup of forces over the years that have led to tonight,” Mistretta said. “It’s all designed to meet as much as possible of the goals that we’ve been talking about as a community for over 30 years.”
Mistretta also questioned the exclusion of the Riverside, saying the township needs to look into property lines, titles, etc.
“If one got redeveloped, what’s the impact on the other?” Mistretta asked. “That particularly affects Bar Americana, the three properties in the middle and the Riverside.”
However, Hannen and Dooley repeatedly emphasized that the Riverside was not intended to be in the report.
“All five members of the township committee sat in that room and said not the Riverside,” Dooley said.
Others questioned why any of the operating businesses were included in the report at all. Business owners from Marino’s and Chapman Bros. addressed the board, expressing anger and disbelief that they were not notified of this report before it was executed and only learned of it this week.
“What does happen to us?” Michael Tears, co-owner of Marino’s, asked the board. “What do you want us to do? You’re going to buy us out?”
“We’re looking for you as a business owner to give us feedback on this plan,” Hannen responded. “Nobody’s looking to buy you out, nobody’s looking to close you down. But we need feedback. This is the area that you have chosen to make your livelihood. Help us make that neighborhood better so more people want to come into your restaurant. If you just leave it the way it is, you’ll continue to experience the business level that you have. If there’s a way that we can improve this, you’ll be making more money, as well as the other businesses in the area.”
“Let’s say you redevelop and make a much better building,” Tears rebutted. “You redevelop and everything’s great. What now? Whoever owns that now will raise our rent so much that we’ll go out of business. We’ve been here since 1945. I don’t think anyone on the board was living in 1945. But you guys want to just sell out, who cares? How are we going to work? I don’t understand what’s wrong with the building now.”
Jenny Smith, co-owner of Chapman Bros., echoed Tears’ concerns and said the fact that business owners were not notified of the report is “shady.”
Dooley agreed that the business owners not being notified was wrong, claiming it is an “embarrassment.”
“I will agree with every single person who said that it’s the first time that they found out as a property owner that this was happening,” Dooley said. “That’s an embarrassment. I do know that our DMC [Downtown Management Corporation] wanted to go speak to the business owners as a first step and that did not happen, because while this was still in draft, people wanted it up on the website before it went to final. And that’s just how it happened. It was not a hiccup, it’s an embarrassment, and if I’m ever involved in anything like this again, I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen. I apologize to everyone in this room who has an ownership in this room, but let’s focus on what this is tonight, which is a simple discussion to see whether it should go past this report.”
Ralph Brunette, owner of 25 North Avenue East, was represented by attorney Rob Simons. Simons told the board he is surprised by the language in the report and that it is inconsistent with the law to designate the area as a “condemnation area in need of redevelopment.”
“We will vigorously and vehemently oppose any redevelopment designation for not only Mr. Brunette’s property, but this entire area,” Simons said. “It does not meet the statutory criteria. Certainly, if it comes to that, we will be prepared at the appropriate time with appropriate testimony and expert witnesses in support of our position.”
Other questions grew more contentious, accusing the planning board of conducting this process without putting the appropriate steps on meeting agendas and accusing Dooley of accepting $1,000 in campaign funding from Harbor Consultants and awarding them a no-bid contract after the election.
According to the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission, Harbor Consultants donated to both parties running for election to the township committee in 2016.
“The Democratic Committee gets that money, I do not get that money,” Dooley said. “Don’t know about it, never met Mike Mistretta before this year.”
Members of the audience began to trickle out as the time neared 10 p.m., three hours after the meeting began. According to Hannen, the next step is for the DMC to review the report, engage with the business owners, and determine whether it should go forward.
After the DMC completes those steps, the report will go back to the planning board, which will make a recommendation to the township committee, which will then make a decision.
“We won’t talk about it anymore until the DMC has an opportunity to review it and give the planning board some suggestions,” Hannen said. “I’m sure they’ll have a sub-committee come back to the planning board in a public meeting and tell us what they like, what they don’t like and so forth.”