NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ — Last night’s city Planning Board meeting smacked of the film “Groundhog Day.”
A subsidiary of the New Brunswick Development Corporation, better known as Devco, won approvals during the May 25 special meeting for a $173 million, 22-story performing arts center tower on Livingston Avenue. The Cultural Center redevelopment project stands to yield two theaters, rehearsal spaces, two floors of office space, 18 stories of apartment units and a seven-story parking garage on neighboring Bayard Street.
So why the comparison to the 1993 movie in which Bill Murray’s character perpetually relives the same day? This was the third time—unofficially, at least—that the board green-lit the project.
The planning board first approved plans for the performing arts center in April. Then officials determined that Steven Lujan, a board member who voted in favor of the application, should have recused himself due to his work for the New Brunswick Parking Authority, a partner in the project.
A New Brunswick official has since said Lujan planned to exit the board.
When Devco, the redeveloper, returned before the panel on May 1, a resident pointed out prior to the vote that another member, Manuel Castenada, works as an adjunct professor for Rutgers University. The college has contributed $17 million to the initiative and will ultimately own a portion of the building, which will be used by its performing arts students.
The board attorney said the connection wasn’t a “direct conflict of interest.” Castenada voted to OK the project.
But when the board reconvened last night, city officials said Castenada shouldn’t have heard the application.
“We thought it was a good thing to do to go back, take a deeper look at it after the meeting,” said Glenn Patterson, the city’s director of planning, community and economic development. “When we did look back … there probably was an issue there, and it’d be best to come back and redo the hearing.”
The removal of Castenada meant the board didn’t have a quorum on May 1, Patterson said. In turn, he said, the meeting didn’t happen—at least officially. Testimony from the April meeting, however, has been placed on the record.
Before last night’s meeting, the board attorney asked members in attendance if they believed they had any conflicts. No one said they did.
In each of the three meetings, Devco and its representatives delivered, more or less, the same presentation. Plans haven’t changed since the first round, they said.
“This is a vastly tremendous project for the city, its future and for the downtown cultural district,” attorney Thomas Kelso, who attended the meeting on behalf of the redeveloper and “all interested parties.”
After construction is finished in summer 2019, the performing arts center will become home to the Crossroads Theatre and the George Street Playhouse. Christopher Paladino, president of Devco, said their existing Livingston Avenue spaces—which will be demolished—had become “terribly inadequate.”
The American Repertory Ballet will also migrate to the Hub City and take up residence in the center.
The new rehearsal spaces should result in more ticketed performances per year, Paladino said. He said the first year stands to bring an additional 50 or 60 shows, along with people and money to boost downtown businesses.
Middlesex County will own two floors of office space. Pennrose, a residential developer, will own and manage the apartment units, officials said.