Housing Project Could Occupy Former Hoffman Pavilion Site

Representatives of Pennrose stand near a rendering of the age- and income-restricted housing project proposed for 75 Neilson St. in New Brunswick.

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ — A 66-unit residential building for low-income people who are 55 or older is one step closer to taking root near the city’s downtown, despite objections from members of a nearby church.

The New Brunswick Zoning Board of Adjustment approved the site plan and several variances for the project last night, during its March 27 meeting in City Hall.

The green light represents a restart for an undertaking by the Housing Authority and a private development and management company, who received approvals for the project in 2010 but failed to secure necessary state funding. Their push to construct the building coincided with the demolition of the Hoffman Pavilion, a similar public-housing project that the groups demolished that same year.

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“We’re kind of coming back deja vu, if you will, to look at this project,” said attorney Thomas Kelso, who represents the applicant, Pennrose’s Hoffman Housing Associates.

The housing authority owns the site, 75 Neilson St., and the federal government also has a stake in it. It touches Hildebrand Way and John Street and is near several churches, the Bravo supermarket and additional public housing.

Developers plan to build 61 one-bedroom units and five two-bedroom units. The six-story structure would consist of stone, brick and paneling, and it’d include 14 parking spaces in an underground garage, two elevators, indoor trash storage, a community room for support services and laundry facilities on each floor.

Pennrose reduced the scope of the project since its prior approval. Those plans called for 72 affordable units.

Developers went back to the drawing board to accommodate a culvert that’s crucial to managing storm water in the flood-prone area, Kelso said.

They also revamped certain parts of the vision in an attempt to secure as much as 75 percent of the project’s capital funding from the state, said Noah Freiberg, who works for Pennrose. To do that, they need to hit a number of criteria—and officials said they’re hopeful that the outcome will be a positive one this time around.

“Without that credit, an affordable project of this scale just isn’t feasible through conventional financing,” Freiberg said.

The application for state financial support is due in early May. If all goes well, construction could begin next spring, Kelso said.

The building, which remains unnamed, would take the majority of its residents from the New Brunswick Housing Authority’s waiting list. A smaller portion would apply for housing directly to Pennrose, which would operate the residence with full-time staffers.

To be eligible, those individuals would need incomes that fall below the area’s average. Many would likely earn between $15,000 and $20,000 per year, representatives said. No one earning much beyond $42,000 could lock down a one-bedroom apartment.

Pennrose received a number of variances for elements of the site last night. Some were “locked in,” board officials said, from its prior approval. New plans lessened the impact of some issues and increased others, representatives said.

Glenn Patterson, the city’s director of planning, community and economic development, said much demand exists for this type of proposal.

“The city does have a policy where it thinks building housing like this is a good thing,” he said.

But not everyone is pleased with the pending development.

More than a dozen members of the Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church attended the meeting in opposition to the proposal.

Rev. Eric Billips said the church, which has operated in the area for more than 200 years, has struggled through a dearth of nearby parking in recent years. The church had hoped to buy this lot and convert it into a parking lot, he said.

What’s more, the proposed 14 parking stalls could further hinder on-street parking in the neighborhood, he said. For Mount Zion, that’s troubling because many of their elderly congregants find it difficult to park in downtown garages and then walk a block or more to the church, Billips said.

“While we realize the need for decent and affordable housing for seniors and other residents of the city,” he said, “we also feel that we must provide support for houses of worship and other institutions that add to the quality of life in the New Brunswick area.”

Mount Zion moved to the site years ago and received a parking variance from the board, Kelso noted. Billips, who was not affiliated with the church at that time, said that further highlighted the negative consequences of giving developers leeway.

“The parking challenges with which we contend threaten the sustainability of our congregation and our present location,” he said.

A number of churchgoers followed Billips and asked questions about the site. They expressed concern that the board and applicant had underestimated how many potential residents might bring cars.

But they also said they hope to work with the housing authority and, if it comes to fruition, the building’s future residents.

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