Redevelopment

Apparent Conflict Brings Performing Arts Center Project Back to Planning Board

An architect discusses on May 1 plans for a downtown performing arts center in New Brunswick.

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ — A Planning Board member who voted in favor of the coming downtown performing arts center should have recused himself, according to the city.

That board member, an alternate named Steven Lujan, has made plans to step down from the panel after voting on the application, which gained the board’s unanimous support in April. Lujan has worked for the New Brunswick Parking Authority, a stakeholder in the project, which officials claimed represented an apparent conflict of interest.

“No discussions were had that were on the record with this board member,” said Aravind Aithal, the board’s attorney, referencing Lujan’s level of involvement in scrutinizing the application. “In the interest of justice, this board has decided to rehear the application.”

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The developer—a subsidiary of the New Brunswick Development Corporation, or Devco—returned before the board this week, on May 1, and once again won the required approvals through a unanimous vote.

Devco and its experts repeated testimony and added no new information. Plans for the project haven’t changed since it first got the green light.

The performing arts center would consist of 22 stories on Livingston Avenue, two “state-of-the-art” theaters for all kinds of performances, a shared lobby, several rehearsal spaces, offices and concessions and 207 residential apartments. It would also connect to a seven-level, 344-space parking garage on Bayard Street.

“While I may be prone to hyperbole from time to time,” Devco’s president, Christopher Paladino, said during the meeting, “this is the most significant redevelopment project in the history of New Brunswick.”

He also touted the extensive public-private partnership that was forged to make the project possible. A number of entities, from the city and Devco to Rutgers University and the New Brunswick Cultural Center, have signed on to push it forward.

Shortly before the Planning Board was set to vote again, a resident brought up what he alleged was another potential conflict of interest.

Rutgers University has agreed to contribute $17 million to the redevelopment project.

One board member, Manuel Castenada, works as a part-time adjunct professor at Rutgers’ Newark campus. The resident—Charlie Kratovil, editor of the activist community newspaper New Brunswick Today—claimed Castenada should recuse himself from hearing the application due to his relationship with Rutgers.

But the board’s attorney disagreed.

“We don’t have a direct conflict of interest,” Aithal said. “It’s not a tenured position—it’s a part-time adjunct position—and I would imagine it probably has nothing at all to do with this application.”

Taking the board attorney’s advice, Castenada decided to vote on the application.

Had he opted to step aside, the board would not have had a quorum. That would have prevented a vote, and Devco would have had to return again.

The $167.8 million redevelopment project would provide new homes to the George Street Playhouse and Crossroads Theatre. Their venues are slated for demolition this spring and summer.

It would also bring the American Repertory Ballet to New Brunswick.

Officials expect construction to end in July 2019.

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