SUMMIT, NJ - Even with the draw of a first outdoor summer concert of the season nearby and extra chairs set out in Council Chambers, the July 9 Summit Common Council meeting was a standing-room-only affair. The reason for the big turn-out? The Park Line Foundation was presenting its vision for phases two and three of the project. In the crowd were Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz, former Mayor Jordan Glatt, and much of the membership of the Summit Park Line Foundation. Mayor Nora Radest was not in attendance.
Before the presentation began, Council President David Naidu put the presentation's purpose into context: to provide answers to questions raised at December’s public workshop. He noted that all the Council members had been invited to and had walked the pathway around Henry Street and around Edwards Court. Naidu, along with City staff and Council, had seen a preview of the presentation and submitted input to the Park Line Foundation (PLF).
Naidu also laid out the “rules of the road” for polite, constructive, and concise public discourse. Only questions would be allowed during the first public session; comments would be permitted later in the evening.
Park Line Foundation Vice President Jay Brinkerhoff led by noting the Foundation hopes the City will enter into a contract for a pedestrian bridge over Morris Avenue, to be built at the PLF’s expense. He worked with City Engineer Aaron Schrager to develop an RFP, leading to the selection of Mott MacDonald, an “internationally recognized” engineering firm. They will evaluate conditions at the site, coordinate with utilities, and make recommendations for the bridge. He then introduced Bob Thomas, a consultant from Campbell Thomas & Company, a Philadelphia architecture firm known for community development, urban revitalization, and trail and greenway development.
The presentation included a diagram of the entire proposed Park Line with ten access points throughout town. It also illustrated improvements such as benches and landscaping already implemented in Phase One. There were also examples of features which might be implemented in the future, including buffers of fencing and-or plantings between the trail and communities on either side, gates, solar-powered lighting, and artwork. Thomas also described the proposed bridge, which would be built on the existing embankments and eight to 10 feet wide.
Robert Rubino, PLF president, reminded listeners that this project started in 2014 during his tenure on the Common Council, when Summit was able to obtain access to the property from the state at no cost. He described the Park Line goal as “connections”, links between Briant Park, downtown, and points in between. He expressed his hope that the trail would be enjoyed for a hundred years to come. Pointing out that the park has been part of the master plan since 2016, he called the pedestrian bridge the next logical step in amenities and safety improvements.
Ward 2 Council Member Greg Vartan led off the Council questions, asking for an estimate of the all-in cost for the completed Park Line. Thomas quoted an estimate of $1 - 1.5 million per mile, for a total of up for $4.5 million. To date, the PLF has raised about $400,000. Vartan also observed that Kari Phair, Summit Volunteer First Aid Squad chief, had not been consulted about access to the trail, and he suggested that all three branches of emergency response be consulted. Jeff Hankinson, a PLF trustee, clarified that emergency vehicles, though not a fire truck, could access the trail through multiple access points.
Responding to Ward 1 Council Member Matt Gould, Brinkerhoff indicated there were some eight or 10 homes on Henry Street and a few on Eggers Court which back up to the next phases of the trail. He pointed out both current access points are on private property and all future access would be on the City’s right of way. Gould’s question about parking struck a chord with the audience; the response was largely speculative.
Marjorie Fox, Ward 2 Council Member, asked about homeowners’ security, but also wanted to know why Council should approve a bridge before seeing a schematic design or guaranteeing its accessibility.
Brinkerhoff said security would be achieved by screening along the trail and the “effective work of our police department.” He explained the Foundation is asking for permission to begin the planning process for the bridge, which he characterized as an important to safety. Replying to a query about ADA accessibility, Thompson said the ADA requirement for trails is to meet ADA standards “where readily achievable.” Fox also asked about closing trails at dusk versus providing lighting. Thompson answered that lights encourage people to use a trail, but that an option is to limit use to “commuter use only” after dusk. Asked about snow and leaf removal, he answered that would be the city’s decision. Director of Community Services Paul Cascais estimated the maintenance cost would be about $10,800 annually cost for three-season maintenance, essentially similar to Summit’s other parks.
Mike McTernan, Ward 1 Council Member, returned to the issue of emergency access. Fire Chief Eric Evers verified that the route would accommodate a patrol car or ambulance but not a fire truck, but felt access was “adequate for what we think we need.” Police Chief Robert Weck agreed that, “We’re going to get where we have to get,” though he did say he’d like to see an additional access point behind the Celgene property, if only for emergency services. McTernan also asked about screening. Thompson described various options, including a “gate-ready” fence for homeowners desiring private access to the Park Line. Regarding lighting, Cascais said only the tennis courts are lit, and only until 10 p.m. Thompson showed an example of ground-level lights – where they’re most useful for walkers or bikers – that wouldn’t shine into nearby homes.
Ward 2 Council Member Stephen Bowman asked if there is a suggested number of parking spaces per mile for a “landlocked” trail such as this. Thompson said guidelines recommend a trailhead every one to two miles, and that perhaps there could be parking on Celgene’s property. He also pointed out this this “local trail” differs from, for example, one at the Delaware Water Gap, and would primarily be used by people walking or biking from their homes, not driving from out of town to get there. Also, short trails like this one draw few outsiders. Brinkerhoff added, anecdotally, that many Celgene employees have told him they like the idea of walking downtown at lunch time, rather than driving there.
Beth Little, Council Member at large, expressed her concerns that more details need to be developed to avoid building “a bridge to nowhere.” She wished for mockups to let residents see how screening would appear from their properties. Rubino agreed to do that. Little also asked about the costs of patrolling the park. Weck indicated anything within the City limits already will be patrolled, and he’s also spoken to Union County Police Chief Chris Debbie, about having County police patrol as well. He added he likes the idea of a gate to keep cars off the trail. Evers didn’t foresee incurring additional operational costs for his department.
When the floor was open to public questions, nine residents spoke up. Mary Jo Micucci-DeFonzo, Washington Avenue, was concerned about the Park Line’s effect on property values, an issue she also raised during the comments period. She felt adverse effects on values would be most keenly felt in East Summit, which has the City’s lowest median income. She cited figures from Washington State, where property values near a trail there grew more slowly than in the rest of town. Thompson quoted statistics from the Rails to Trail Conservancy showing that being within a quarter-mile of a trail increases property values, and is even an amenity touted in real estate ads. She also asked about drainage, citing Briant Park flooding. Thompson said the existing railroad drains would be unclogged and repaired, pitches would be corrected, pervious paving would be used, drains would be installed under the trail, and rain gardens would be planted. Micucci-DeFonzo also asked about liability, but under New Jersey statute, there is no liability for people who allow others on their property for recreation with no fee.
Risa Gorelick, Russell Place, pointed out how bad parking is on her street, especially during events. Thompson explained the access ramp would be several hundred feet long, with parking far from her feet. Asked if there were drawings of how each access point would be laid out, Thompson admitted there weren’t.
Larry Costigan, Henry Street, said the trail is 25 yards from his house. He asked if there was an increased risk of fire from careless hikers smoking. Chief Evers said that with a response time under seven minutes, it is not a major concern. Costigan also asked if there would be an increase in Summit’s insurance liability. City Administrator Michael Rogers said there wouldn’t be.
Paul Najarian, Morris Avenue, was concerned about disturbing the land and possibly uncovering buried carcinogens or other hazards. Rubino assured him that environmental borings would be done.
Eric Knevals, Russell Place, asked if there were plans was to extend the Park Line beyond Summit. Keith Langworthy, PLF treasurer, admitted that it would be nice to eventually reach to the East Coast Greenway, but “I’m just trying to get it across Morris Avenue now,” eliciting laughter from the audience.
With questions exhausted, Naidu opened the floor to public comments, reminding them that the three-minute time limit would be enforced. Sixteen residents spoke, 13 in favor of the project.
Lauren Yedvab, Chief Operating Officer at Overlook Medical Center, said the hospital has supported the Park Line from the start, both financially and in working with the PLF on its properties. The medical center has an interest in improving the health and attractiveness of the community and providing a safe place for families of patients to walk while visiting the hospital. She noted Overlook is beginning to incorporate the Park Line into its resiliency and wellness program to prevent provider burnout.
Ingrid Arosemena, Henry Street, thanked Council for coming to her house to see firsthand the proximity to the trail. Arosemena noted that -- as a proponent of full-day kindergarten -- she feels that project is a waste of money and resources that would be better spent on the City’s schools.
Dariusz Michalski, Morris Avenue, pointed out that without the bridge, there is no Park Line. He has “prayed for this day” because “safety on Morris Avenue is non-existent… I see people on bicycles fighting for their lives on Morris Avenue.” Calling his backyard view of the abandoned railroad an eyesore, he said “no matter what they do, I support it… there’s no better improvement to my property than this Park Line. In 18 years [living here] I never expected my property to go up in value and now I am 99.99% sure that this will improve my property value.”
Joe Gallegos, Denman Place, said he and his wife had walked along Phase One and noted the bat boxes placed as a Boy Scout Eagle project. He also quoted his brother-in-law visiting from Los Angeles: “This is behind your house? This is awesome!” He also said the only people he sees on the trail are his neighbors.
Kate Giovambattis, Henry Street, said her husband has joined the PLF board. She expressed her excitement about having safe passage from East Summit to downtown for her three children. “Coming from the city… we like the ability to walk.” She said she grew up in towns with similar trails, and so was familiar with studies show crime rates stay flat or go down, and home values rise. She urged Council to get behind the project and work through her neighbors’ “valid concerns,” but that the problems are solvable.
Summit Garden Club member Vivian Hardy of Oak Knoll Road, sees the Park Line tying together the whole community. She noted this would be the first new park in 60 years, one which presents an “opportunity for the Garden Club to go out and plant things… to plan landscapes, to put wildflowers in places so we have a beautiful place in Summit.”
Jordan Glatt, Oak Ridge Avenue, asked those who are worried to ask themselves if there has been any project in Summit that they would not do today. He cited the City’s great record of addressing resident concerns. He asked Council to table the bridge question, if necessary, until they got the answers they needed, and then move forward, “rather than throwing out the baby with the bathwater.”
Dan MacMahon, Michigan Avenue, said that two years ago, he opposed the Park Line, but has since changed his mind despite the project being in his back yard, prompting Gould to suggest he’s now a YIMBY – “yes, in my back yard.” MacMahon is also a first responder, and assured the audience “we’ll always get to you.” He did acknowledge the 38 houses abutting the trail, and that they should be given priority in notifications.
Lou DeSocio, Stiles Road, reminded the audience that 20 years ago there was the possibility of opening the rail line to freight trains, and asked whether they’d rather have that or a park.
Al Lord, Springfield Avenue, recalled how his son Henry, an Eagle Scout, cleaned up the first 2/10 mile to start this project, calling the original site “a complete disaster.” Declaring his family “emotionally attached” to the project, he implored Council to move forward on it.
Realtor Melinda Giffen Frater, Clark Street, said that in her experience, “Nice parks close to homes bring your value up. Thirty-year-old kitchens don’t.” She also asked rhetorically, what does East Summit want if it doesn’t want a park?
Larry Costigan noted he’s not anti-trail and is in fact an avid runner. “But it’s a different story” when it’s in someone’s back yard. “Most of the people in this room, this doesn’t affect… This is the little guy fighting the big guy.” He noted that he worries about the fire risk, and that when he travels for work, he’ll be worried for his wife’s safety. He took exception to the assertion that the PLF spoke with the Henry Street residents. He also pointed out the PLF was supposed to come tonight with answers, but that tonight’s presentation was much the same as the one shown in December’s workshop.
“How many do-overs are they going to get?”
At nearly 10:30 p.m., Naidu declared the comments section closed and opened the Council discussion. Noting he had been the lone vote against the licensing agreement with the County, he’s come to believe there are merits in the Park Line. His struggle, he said, is with the lack of specificity in answers to what people have been asking.
He feared that if the bridge were approved and it was later discovered that other parts of the project aren’t feasible, that that investment would be wasted. Naidu wondered about the best way to sequence this process, and reminded everyone that with a full agenda of redevelopment activity coming up, no one has time for more meetings. He suggested perhaps a new Memo of Understanding is needed to delineate details of access points, lighting, fencing, and other particulars, “and then we can go on to the bridge, when residents know what to expect.”
Little shared many of Naidu’s concerns, particularly in the absence of detailed renderings and other information. Fox also questioned sinking time and energy into a project still lacking many answers, even after a year and a half. While she sees the value, she also sees the need to do it systematically, and suggested there needs to be a schedule of deliverables.
Gould indicated he’d like to see a survey sent to the 38 houses abutting the Park Line’s next phases, so take their responses can be taken into consideration. Bowman recognized the value of creating a plan for the pedestrian bridge. “Poor planning results in poor results.”
McTernan recalled that the abandoned rail line and the proposed industrial railway was his very first experience with public engagement in town. Though usually opposed to spending money on things the City doesn’t need, he related that in 1921, Oak Knoll gave the City Memorial Field for $1. Even with the maintenance costs, he called that a tremendous asset and money well spent. “We might be looking a gift horse in the mouth.” He also pointed out the many residents living adjacent to Phase One who came out to support the project. An enthusiastic supporter of the Park Line, McTernan expressed confidence this project would be implemented properly, and that it would be something he’d be proud to have been a part of, something being used 100 years from now.
Naidu countered that his frustration is in totally answerable questions remaining unanswered. He compared it to what any other developer hoping to build in Summit would be asked to provide.
Calling the concept “wonderful,” Vartan nonetheless pointed out that the Council has been asked to trust that funding will be there, but that less than 10% of the anticipated cost has been raised so far. “Having concerns and doing due diligence is not ‘getting stuck in the weeds’; these are important weeds.”
Ultimately, Naidu suggested the Council and the PLF meet offline and figure out how to get the answers needed to move ahead. He paused the meeting to allow those who wished to leave to do so. The meeting resumed at 10:59 with a nearly empty room. Naidu then opened the floor for public comments on any topic other than the Park Line; there were none.
Bowman moved a Law & Labor ordinance for hearing and consideration. It streamlines the application process for peddlers and solicitors, removes the fingerprinting requirements, amends insurance requirements, and changes the hours during which such activities are permissible. The goal is to bring the City’s ordinance into compliance with state and federal laws.
Matthew Giacobbe, City solicitor, explained that Summit, like a number of other municipalities, had been contacted by a Texas law firm on behalf of a solicitor. The firm alleged the City’s rules were in violation of a number of court rulings throughout the country. To avoid a law suit, the City chose to amend its ordinance. McTernan observed that prohibiting solicitation after dusk seemed reasonable; extending that to 9 p.m. doesn’t. Giacobbe countered that residents can post a “no soliciting” sign. Gould asked what they should do if someone ignored that sign. Giacobbe suggested calling the police; Weck responded that they would, at a minimum, talk to the offender. Giacobbe also pointed out that other towns which amended their rules haven’t experienced an increase in solicitations. The ordinance passed in a unanimous roll call vote.
Vartan introduced an ordinance which would allow two-hour parking on both sides of Lincoln Avenue from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. It will be heard and voted on at the July 23 Council meeting.
Bowman moved a Law & Labor resolution extending sick pay with leave to a Department of Public Works employee through September 17.
Gould moved a Community Programs & Parking Services resolution to amend the agreement with artist Hellbent, who is painting a mural on the Tier Garage. The mural would be extended to the rail side of the garage. The additional $3,000 cost will be shared equally by the city and the Parking Services Utility.
Four Capital Projects & Community Services resolutions were bundled by Fox. They all authorize grant applications to NJDOT: for phase three improvements to the Village Green (including work on paths, lighting, and further beautification); for safe streets in the downtown; and for road improvements to Park and West End Avenues. None require a match by the City.
There was also a resolution to request an agreement with Union County for permission for the DPW to install a rapid flashing beacon at Springfield Avenue by Briant Park. This spurred Bowman to inquire about the beacon proposed for Morris and Elm. City Engineer Aaron Schrager said it would be installed in mid- to late July. Gould also mentioned the beacon on Morris wasn’t working; Schrager promised to check it out.
Fox’s final resolution was a change order for the 2017 drainage improvement project which came in $41,257 or 18% under budget because of changes in the field by the engineering division resulting in less pipe being needed and less roadway being torn up.
All resolutions passed.
Perhaps in deference to the lateness of the hour – after 11 p.m. – Council refrained from making any of the members’ comments which typically close their meetings. Even as the meeting broke up, clusters of residents remained in the lobby and City Hall parking lot discussing the Park Line.