After a two-hour discussion, which became heated at times between Council President Will Anklowitz and Mayor Shing-Fu Hsueh, the council ran out of time at its special meeting on November 7 before it could seriously discuss funding work on a plan for the 350-acre Princeton Junction train station redevelopment area.##M:[more]##
Instead, discussion is expected to continue Monday, November 19, with council set to discuss a redevelopment budget, review the Hillier contract, and discuss criteria for a redevelopment attorney. In order to provide the funding, the council has to introduce a bond ordinance by Monday, November 26 and approve it by Monday, December 17.
And in response to the mayor’s suggestions at a Town Hall meeting a couple days later (see story page above) that Hillier never had a chance to follow up with the council, who was supposed to provide more specific direction to move to the next step because it canceled the meeting, council members responded this week by emphasizing they aren’t trying to kill redevelopment.
Heading into the November 7 meeting, a memo by Council President Will Anklowitz outlined standards that limited the scope of redevelopment to be studied by planning consultants (see Letters section, page 3) prior to council agreeing to fund their proposals. This drew attacks from Hsueh, who called them “too restrictive.” Hsueh went as far as to say the council should call redevelopment off completely if it doesn’t decide to fund the proposals.
Later that night, Planning Board Chairman Marvin Gardner also commented that the council shouldn’t waste taxpayers’ money on funding the study if it would ultimately reject it.
Anklowitz’s memo included suggestions like giving council the authority to set the maximum number of affordable housing units, determine the size of the Vaughn Drive connector, and limit additional retail to 2,"000 square feet, with regard to the proposals put forth by township planner John Madden and traffic consultant Gary Davies of Urbitran.
Last month, the council sent the responsibility of creating a redevelopment plan to the Planning Board, which heard presentations on October 24 from its professionals for studying the area. Madden and Davies proposed to the board that it select one or more development scenarios, including different uses and densities, for them to study in order to analyze the infrastructure components of the plan. Council had requested the board focus on three priority topics: infrastructure/traffic, parking, and existing “as of right.”
However, to simply study traffic, a parking garage, and infrastructure improvements is impossible without looking at various scenarios, including one that proposes a movie theater and hotel, the professionals have said. Funding their work would cost $105,"000, and doesn’t include proposals from Planning Board attorney Gerald Muller and financial adviser Integra. All together, the council may need to approve between $150,"000 and $200,"000 more for redevelopment, after it was reported that the project had gone over budget.
Hsueh criticized the memo (see Letters section, page 6), saying that the conditions would “handcuff the Planning Board and its consultants to proceed with an agenda which defies every basic principle of sound land use planning and common sense.”
“I am asking council to provide the resources for consultants to assist the Planning Board without that board being straight-jacketed by conditions that doom any sensible redevelopment plan to failure,” Hsueh said. “If council is unwilling to allow the Planning Board to do its job, then I believe the time has come to put an end to a process which has been crippled by political posturing, so that we can move on to other important issues.”
After the mayor’s comments at the meeting, as Anklowitz began to speak, Hsueh began to interrupt him, and Anklowitz told him he was “out of order.”
“We are prepared to go look at another budget; we’re going to keep moving forward,” Anklowitz said. “Depending on how complicated the project is, we need to put forward enough money to make sure we can accomplish it.”
Further, he told the mayor, “if you think that two lanes on Vaughn Drive isn’t enough, say it should be three. Take a position. Lead. Say what it should be. If you think we ought to examine five different scenarios in detail, say so, so we can budget for that.”
Anklowitz continued: “I can’t say the letter I wrote is the end all, be all, but take a position. It needs leadership, whatever it’s going to be.”
After the meeting, Anklowitz said, “I thought it was a starting point for discussion. The idea was to take that and form it into a resolution.”
He said his memo was in response to the mayor’s call for the council to provide a more focused vision. Said Anklowitz: “The council is the one that’s going to have to provide leadership, because I don’t see leadership coming from the mayor.”
With regard to Vaughn Drive, he said the state has said it would fund $19 million for the Vaughn Drive project — total costs for the project are estimated to be $38 million — and the state’s plan lists the road as having two lanes.
“The more plans we look at the more expensive it is going to be to do the planning,” he said. With regard to the plan, the council can adjust it and amend it as it goes along, starting with traffic and infrastructure. “You’ve got to start somewhere,” Anklowitz said.
During the meeting, Councilman Charles Morgan asked Davies and Madden: “Why couldn’t we start with simply defining what it is we want that road (Vaughn Drive) to look like, and say that’s it? And it will accommodate parking garages we want to put there, but again based on the vision of how much we want there, and say, that’s OK?”
Davies responded that essentially, that’s what the consultants are proposing to do, but they need to be told what scenarios to study first.
“I can’t just put that number in and out comes (the number of) dwelling units. I have to put some number in, see what it does, and get it closer and closer, and at the end of the day, there is no one answer.”
Still, the council had not even begun to talk about funding the study by the time the Planning Board was scheduled to take the dais. So discussion will continue the discussion on November 19.
Gardner said he was worried the council would waste “precious taxpayer dollars” on the study only to have the council ultimately reject it. “If the intent is to reject the development somewhere down the line, they should do that earlier rather than later so that we can redirect the taxpayer money toward more beneficial purposes,” Gardner said.
In addition, “if they choose not to fund it all or fund it for a very limited purpose, they’re basically not working with us,” he said. He did say that he thinks it’s very appropriate for the council to look at costs for professional services and to examine and reexamine contracts that have not been fulfilled. But he pointed to the traffic consultant’s comments that he could not provide a traffic analysis without considering the whole 350-acre plan.
“I agree with him that if we’re going to kill the plan, then we should do it now, but I don’t think there’s anybody on the council that wants to kill the plan,” Anklowitz said after the meeting. “The council is interested in moving this along.”
And his sentiments were echoed by the rest of council, particularly at the November 13 regular council meeting. Council responded to Hsueh’s comments during the Town Hall meeting, in which he told residents that if the council had not canceled the rest of the Hillier meetings, it wouldn’t be looking at more funding because those meetings would have fallen under the original scope of services.
Morgan said he was hoping to squash any perception that the council is trying to kill the redevelopment project, or stalling it.
He said the council agreed in July to hire a redevelopment attorney, but it cannot move forward on that without the administration taking the lead, and because interviews have not been done yet. “It’s very frustrating to get challenged on what we are or are not doing when we still don’t have our redevelopment attorney on board,” he said.
He then recapped what the council has done since the summer. On August 6, the council passed a resolution setting up guiding principles. On August 20, it set up two committees. On September 24, it held a work session on redevelopment and voted to send the recommendation to the Planning Board to focus on the three priorities, and then voted on October 1 to add board members to the finance subcommittee. The proposals were presented to the board on October 24, with the council seeing the same presentation November 7, and hoping to continue that conversation on November 19.
“This is an incredible amount of work for government,” he said. “And yes, the Hillier contract is hanging out there; it is true, but we cannot address that without our attorney.”
In a phone interview this week, Morgan said he didn’t think Anklowitz’s memo was a good idea because “I thought it was too much detail way too early.” But he did say that it did get people talking about it.
He said Gardner’s concerns were legitimate, but that they would only be true if the council was just trying to “put on a show with no intent to follow through, and I don’t think that’s true.”
But, Morgan said, “you can’t get to an end point without spending the money.” This means that one of the possible outcomes of the study may be a decision not to do anything, but “that’s a risk you take,” he said, adding that he’s not prepared to kill it right now.
He said that while the mayor and Gardner are asking council to hint at which scenario to plan towards, “the ultimate scenario choices are consequences, not starting points.”
What should happen, Morgan says, is to begin with parking garages, an area that the parking authority should take the lead on, simply by nature of its job, while working with the Planning Board, administration, NJ Transit and council. “The reason I say parking is because everything else follows.”
“I don’t want to predict the outcome, but I suspect a good start is for the Parking Authority to work with all those folks for three scenarios for parking,” Morgan said. Those scenarios would include a minimum and maximum amount, if the township could afford it, with the practical middle-of-the-road answer most likely being the most affordable.
“You don’t start with mixed-use scenarios first — that’s an end point,” Morgan said, adding that he disagrees with the view that the council has to “take these proposals from Mr. Madden and Mr. Davies for that price.” That would be premature, he said. He also said the council should talk about bidding it out, and noted that not all the money that would have gone to Hillier has been spent.
Geevers said in a phone interview she felt “the proposed bond ordinance needs to be more thoroughly reviewed in terms of deliverables received and those anticipated in the Hillier contract.” She said those deliverables include what Hillier was going to provide the council, including traffic and circulation reports, and she wants to compare them to what is being proposed by Davies and Madden.
“I don’t want to see any overlap in the contract and in the proposal. It has to be reconciled,” she said. In addition, she said she had concerns about additional legal fees for a redevelopment attorney. Said Geevers: “We already have a highly skilled planning board attorney and on council. I will be protective of the taxpayers’ money.”
Geevers also suggested at the November 13 meeting that the council and administration also talk to Intercap “to see if they can give us an update on their plans,” referring to the owner of the acres adjacent to the station.
In addition to the November 19 meeting, a special joint meeting with the council and Parking Authority is scheduled for December 8. Kleinman expressed her concern that the Planning Board was not specifically asked to come to the meeting in a capacity, other than as residents, to discuss the parking.
Residents from both sides of the redevelopment debate weighed in at both meetings.
David Siegel was among the supporters of the limitations, saying they are policy decisions and are “appropriately made by the governing body.”
“The governing body should give guidance and limitations to the Planning Board, and what consultants it should use, to draw up the plans,” he said.
Mike Donnelly, who was among those critical of the limitations, said “the Town Council is trying to micromanage what the Planning Board is doing. To me, this area has to be planned in full — the whole thing has to be looked at. I wouldn’t tell them they can’t do this and can’t do that.”