New redevelopment planned for French Street business district neighborhood

354 Seaman Street, where the development is planned, has sat abandoned since a fire in 2012. Credits: Google Maps

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - ​Proposed​ redevelopment at the French Street business district is one step closer to reality, after it was approved unanimously at the December 18 zoning board meeting.

Developers are looking to ​build ​a ​mixed-use development at 354 Seaman Street, ​the current site of​ a boarded-up house ​that has sat abandoned since a fire in 2012.

The developers, J&F Villa, LLC., bought the property in September 2016. ​When​ completed, the mixed-use development will be three stories and feature five residential units and one commercial unit.

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The second and third floor will each have two units, each with two bedrooms, while the first floor will have the commercial space and ​a ​one-bedroom unit​ accessible to people with disabilities​.

A two-bedroom unit would be roughly $1,300 a month in rent​, and there would be no on-site parking for any of the tenants.

But despite unanimous approval from the board, city officials still expressed their concern with some aspects of the project.

For one, a residential unit can’t be at the first floor, sharing that floor with a commercial space, according to city ordinance.

“The first level of residential units has to be handicap accessible,” said city planning director Glenn Patterson. “Why instead of putting a unit on the ground floor when it’s not permitted, isn’t an elevator provided to make the second floor and potentially third floor accessible​?​”

Given the limited space of the property, ​an elevator wouldn’t be possible, ​responded James Clarkin, the developer’s attorney.

The site will only have a 25 foot width and 100 foot depth, Clarkin said, and attempts to purchase the neighboring properties to allow for more room have proven unsuccessful.

One neighbor, a residential owner, said they like the area and weren’t willing to sell, according to Francisco Garcia, J&F Villa’s owner. The other neighbor, a business owner of French Street, said he wasn’t interested.

With the costs associated with adding a new elevator, the developer might as well add another floor, which would require additional red tape to navigate, according to site engineer Ronald Sadowski.

And so, whichever tenant rented out the first floor, one-bedroom unit would use a separate entrance, going around the building to get to the door.

“New York City recently had this issue, they’re called poor doors. When they had low income units in the more expensive stuff, the people had to go through one door, the right tenants went through another door,” Patterson said.

“A lot of people were upset with that,” Patterson said. “This is not a low-moderate income thing, but you’re going up the ally and getting in through the back door, that’s what the ordinance is trying to prevent.”

The first-floor, one-bedroom unit would be handicap accessible, but not necessarily occupied by a​ tenant with disabilities.​

To ​access the apartment, a resident would have to go through a narrow alleyway, Patterson said, which might not be the most welcoming environment.

At one end, the building will be less than two feet away from the neighboring property, according to Larry Johnson, a representative for the developer, but this is relatively common for “townhouse” neighborhoods.

Other properties owned by the developer include 173 French Street and 340, 342 and 346 Seaman Street.

​Because the French Street property is at a corner, it hasn’t had the need for an alleyway entrance, Patterson said.

As for the lack of any parking, developers said they ​assume tenants would u​se ​public transit which frequently travels through the French Street corridor.

In addition, a bike rack is being considered for the property, Sadowski said.

Editor Daniel J. Munoz,

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