In March, Ewing Mayor Bert Steinmann became the first (and only, so far) mayor in Mercer County to test positive for COVID-19.

After a bit of a rough patch where he was hospitalized, Steinmann is now at home and on the mend.

“I’m not totally recovered,” he said. “It could take several months, but I’m back at work and just taking my time.”

Steinmann was one of the first people to receive a test when Trenton was setting up its drive-thru test center for first responders.

Steinmann said that Trenton Mayor Reed Gusciora had asked him to be “a guinea pig” for the testing site, which was about to open. “I said, ‘yeah, I’ll come over.’ It’s probably a good thing I did.”

Gusciora called Steinmann a few days later to notify him of the result. “When I saw his name pop up on my phone, I figured, ‘That can’t be good,’” Steinmann said.

Steinmann, 73, falls into the category of those at high risk from the disease. The chance for severe illness includes people ages 65 and older, the immunocompromised and those with underlying medical conditions, such as diabetes.

Meanwhile, Ewing Observer editor Bill Sanservino sat down with Steinmann in late February to talk about the issues confronting Ewing not only in 2020, but in the coming years.

The issues discussed are still relevant, although the timing of some projects may be affected.

* * *

Ewing Observer: Can you give an update on the development and construction going on in town? Let’s start with the former General Motors site where they are building the Ewing Town Center.

Bert Steinmann: The progress at the GM site is actually going very well. They’ve been in now to pick up building permits for the project’s clubhouse. They started to build the apartment units.

They have expedited the retail space, because of the demand that they’ve been receiving for it. So that that’s due for the planning board soon, and they are going to start building soon after that. Probably early fall. They are moving forward aggressively and they’re starting the road system now.

I envision the way things have been going that their seven-year plan to have a full buildout will probably be more likely in four years. So again, a very aggressive time schedule.

EO: I thought it was going to be a while before they started on the retail.

BS: Yeah. Initially it was supposed to be one of the later phases of the project, but they’ve moved that up because of the demand for retail space. They’ve had a lot of inquiries. I think they’ve got one definite already that’s going to be in there, so they decided to move that forward. Plus it adds to the appearance of the overall project.

EO: Because the retail component is essentially the gateway to the project?

BS: That’s correct.

EO: How about demand for the housing there? Have they started renting any units?

BS: I don’t think they’ve gotten to that point yet, although they’re starting to advertise. I don’t see anything renting there probably until the end of this year—maybe the early part of next year— but definitely the buildings will be done.There’s a lot of demand for this type of residential housing (rentals).

In fact, the River Links (rental complex on Scenic Drive), which is just about completed, says that they’ve got one or two buildings that are already 60 percent rented. On Bear Tavern Road, Greene 750 is 100% rented.

EO: What about across the street from GM. The shopping center where Marrazzo’s supermarket is?

I’ve heard some talk about a project that would mirror what’s across the town center retail component.

BS: [Marazzo’s Thriftway owner] Sam Marrazzo has been in talks with us about it. He actually wants to do something more on his property—kind of put something in the front of his store along Parkway Avenue. So he is talking with us, but he hasn’t made any commitment.

Obviously we will help him as best as we can to get that accomplished. I think that’s going to really complete the puzzle with the Town Center, because then there’s a good reason why you want to walk the area. So yeah, we’re very enthused about it.

EO: What about the idea of moving the West Trenton train station to the GM site. Do you still see that as a possibility?

BS: I do. We continue to talk with SEPTA and with New Jersey Transit, for that matter. Certainly we have to address the parking situation at the current station, even if the train station doesn’t move. It’s horrendous, and I think the town kind of loses a lot of revenue because of the parking.

If we don’t move the train station, or they don’t think it’s a viable option, we are looking to create a parking lot. Not a structure per se, but a lot.

It’ll be metered parking so that the town does get revenue, but it’ll also be a much better experience for people to take the train down to Philadelphia. That station is very heavily used.

The ridership there is really high. You can tell when you drive by there. I don’t know exactly the number count, but it’s in the hundreds that leave there in the morning.

EO: How about the Naval Air Warfare property? I know there was talk at one point about a big box retailer going in there, but that really didn’t come together.

Have you been approached by anybody else? Do you have any thoughts about what’s going to happen there?

BS: Well, we’ve been in conversation with the owner. Some other individuals are interested in that particular site, but it’s turned from a big-box-store-type scenario, because of what’s happened with the Amazons and online shopping. People are kind of backing away from building that type of retail and looking at a warehousing-type situation.

We’re looking at it, and on the surface we don’t have an objection to it, except that the design of the structure—whatever it’s going to be—has to meet our criteria. At the end of the day, they’re going to have put some amenities on this particular structure so that from the road it doesn’t appear to be a warehouse.

It’s also going to have to adhere to some kind of schedule. We’re okay with making daily deliveries through town with small box trucks and stuff, but shipments coming in tractor trailers and things like that would have to be done during off-hours. We’ve conveyed that to the developer.

There’s a very high demand for warehouse space in this area, so maybe that could be a potential for us. I would still prefer to have some sort of hotel and conference center, or something other than a warehouse.

I would even welcome a research and development type project. So we’ll see where that shakes out. We met with the developers about two weeks ago, and we went through all the different types of scenarios.

To be quite candid with you, I’m very disappointed at the lack of progress. We came a long way, and then for whatever reasons Walmart, which was going to be the big box store, pulled back. I don’t know what contributed to the final decision, but I would think that the final end was because of what was happening with Amazon affecting sales at local brick-and-mortar stores.

EO: What about the airport? Can you give me an update on what’s going out there?

BS: There’s been some changes there. One hangar has been completely remodeled and upgraded. Then there’s another hangar that’s going to be built next to it that used to be the parking lot for the prosecutor’s office. They kept repossessed cars there, and they have since moved out. I don’t know exactly how big the hangar will be, but that’s starting to move forward.

On Scotch Road, the county is creating a bigger parking lot for the airport lot as we speak.The rental car stations are going to be at that particular lot, so people can go there, rent a car, or park a car, or whatever they need to do.

EO: What else is going on in that area?

BS: The other thing I’m really thrilled about is we’ve finally got everything put together for the Sylvia Street extension. We awarded the contract for that at the last council meeting. We’ll be getting all the pieces together and construction should start soon.

EO: I know land clearing started about a year ago.

BS: We started with some tree cutting to get kind of an outline of where it was going to go, then some of the finances didn’t fall into place. We finally got all that squared away, so we’re going full bore.

EO: Are there any other developments or projects that you feel residents should be updated about?

BS: Well, there’s a warehouse that’s being constructed by the airport. In fact, it’s in the old Sierra Office Park, which actually sits back on Sam Weinroth Road by the (Westin) hotel. Basically it’s a 200,000-square-foot structure that’s going to be put there. It’s for the state for archiving. Part of the building will be environmentally controlled for rare documents and stuff that has to be protected.

EO: Is that a ratable, since it’s a state facility? (The state doesn’t have to pay property taxes on land it owns.)

BS: It’s a ratable because it’s a lease that the state is doing with the office park. A private individual that owns that. So yes, that’s 100% a ratable for Ewing Township, which is a good thing.

EO: How about other housing developments? Anything in the pipeline?

BS: Right now, there’s nothing on the books for any new additional residential other than what’s at the Town Center.

We are talking to some individuals to locate businesses here. One will be located at the corner of Olden and Parkway avenues. I can’t tell you the name of it right now, because it’s not 100% signed yet. It was an old gas station and Parkway Pizza was there. That whole corner now is under contract.

We are talking with the county on some improvements that we have to do there, and we already talked with the shopping center that’s next to them for cross easements, and that seems to be going all in the right direction. So we should have some pretty good news about that fairly soon.

EO: Would that be a retail business?

BS: It will be retail.

We did have a conversation with another developer on Olden Avenue for another Wawa. They’ve actually approached us. The one here now (on Parkway Avenue) is doing so phenomenal that they were looking for another spot. We’ll see where that goes.

EO: Is there anything else on Olden Avenue you’d like to mention?

BS: Olden Avenue it’s coming along. It’s not as fast as I would like, but there’s new businesses that have opened. They haven’t changed the business per se—a car dealer is still a car dealer, but the dealership has changed hands, and the new owner is in the process of doing facade changes, like adding some landscaping. So in that sense, it’s coming along.

What’s been disappointing is the fact that the township’s redevelopment agency actually offers businesses up to $10,000 for landscaping and facade improvements and things like that, but there’s very few businesses that have bought into it.

I think there’s still a lot of business owners there that have been on the avenue for a very, very, very long time. The way that it worked then, seems to work fine for them now, but I just it’s time for change. Time for an upgrade.

Hopefully as businesses are sold and other individuals come and take advantage of some of these programs, I think there will be some big changes.

EO: Has there been any talk about taking traffic calming or road diet measures along Olden Avenue?

BS: Yes. Absolutely. They’ve done a study. In fact, they’ve done three studies now, and they talked about a number of things like roundabouts, road diets—all of which makes sense. The roundabout is a little bit harder to accomplish only because it requires taking a property. There’s a couple of them where it’s a minimal amount that you have to take, but still you’re taking a property.

They’re also talking about taking all the concrete out of the middle of the road where you come to an intersection, and then do the same thing we did with other roads in town.

So has it worked? Absolutely it has worked. Obviously when they first started, especially on Parkway Avenue, there was a lot of pushback from people, especially in front of the high school. They’re still a little bit of clamoring, but for the most part now it works well. I go that route every day.

Are you inconvenienced? Is traffic a little slower? Absolutely, but it’s much, much safer. The number of sideswipes, which we were having constantly, has dropped dramatically.

We did have to put crossing guards—well, they’re basically fire police that we hired—there. One hour in the morning and an hour at night.That has helped tremendously.

What’s also helped is the fact that the high school has added a lot of parking spaces. So now I don’t have kids or individuals driving through town looking for a parking space and parking in neighborhoods.

The road diet absolutely works. We’re doing road diets, and wherever practical, we’ve been adding bike lanes and walkable areas.

EO: Some residents in the area said there is an issue on Bear Tavern Road making a left turn onto Scenic Drive. During rush hour, only one or two cars can make a turn due to the high volume of traffic coming from the other direction. Then the traffic stacks up in the left turn lane, and there have been reports of accidents there. Has there been any thought about putting a left turn arrow at that traffic light?

BS: Well, they’re actually doing a study now. The only issue that was really brought to our attention was not so much about the turning. It was basically the signage. That may attribute to some of the problems that they’re having there.

We turned that over to DOT, because it’s their project. Actually that intersection has been under construction and should have been done a long time ago, as far as completion, and it’s not. I don’t know exactly what’s going on. We did ask the state why it isn’t completed yet. We’re waiting to hear back from them.

On that note, we also talked with the county and met on that road for an additional traffic light at Mountain View and Bear Tavern. So there is a possibility for us to do that. We had the county engineer out there about two months ago and they’re looking to see what we can do to break up the pattern of the traffic.

EO: I guess any changes would have to be done by the county, because that’s a county road, right?

BS: Yeah, that’s exactly right. We’re cooperating with the county to make sure that’s accomplished and whatever we can do to expedite that, we will.

EO: Are there any other road projects people should know about in the budget this year?

BS: One of the main roads that were looking at is Sullivan Way. We did get a grant from the state for a half a million dollars.

Half a million dollars isn’t going to complete that road. We’re talking with Trenton. They got a grant too for the same road, except from Parkside Avenue where Cadwalader Park up towards Ewing. So we’re going to see what we can do to maximize the dollars and see how far we can go toward getting that road completed.

The reason why we petitioned the state for the money is because we’ve got the couple of warehouses there that belong to the state of New Jersey. The Library for the Blind is there, the distribution center for the county is there, and every day there’s tractor-trailers there.

The tractor trailers really don’t head towards the city. They all come this way and get on Lower Ferry Road to get on Rt. 29 to get to Rt. 95. So all the heavy truck traffic is on a short section of road and that really needs to be addressed.

EO: That’s probably beating the roads up.

BS: Oh, yeah, absolutely. The road is constructed out of concrete, and that doesn’t help because concrete kind of heaves. Again, it’s major dollars to fix it. So the half-million dollars is going to go quite a way, but it’s not going to finish it. We’re hoping if we can combine with the city we can do a little better, but again, I don’t know.

EO: Let’s talk about the medical marijuana grow facility that’s being located in town. From what I understand, it’s moving along at a pretty good pace. What’s their status now?.

BS: The grow facility is going in the old Verizon building off Olden Avenue, and then their distribution facility is going to be on Olden Avenue, where Sparkling Pools used to be. They’ve bought that, and they’re in the process of renovating.

We just did a redevelopment agreement with them for that particular site, because the way the law was written, you had to be in one spot, but then they kind of changed it so that they could have the distribution center in a different location than where they grow.

They’re installing temporary trailers on that Verizon site, because it’s going to take too long to renovate the building, and under state law you have to be in production within six months of getting a license, and their time is almost up.

The chief of police and I met with their security people to make sure they’re doing everything that’s being required. So that should be happening fairly soon.

EO: I would assume you’d want a good level of security at the facility.

BS: Yes. The grow facility is going to be a 24 hour, seven days a week operation. There’s no public allowed at all at the grow facility. I mean obviously I may be able to call up, or somebody may be able to call up and request a tour, but it would have to be somebody that’s either in that business or for scientific reasons. It’s not just for anyone who wants to have a tour. It’s not that type of facility. It’s just for the vendors that have to come in, and the only time there’s truck traffic is when they have to get product to the distribution center.

EO: Is any of it being taken anywhere else off site other than the distribution center?

BS: No, not currently. I think if the law changes and grow facilities are allowed to distribute to other companies and dispensers, that could be a strong possibility, but not as of now.

EO: Within the last year, people in the neighborhood of Freddy’s Tavern were unhappy with the plans to tear down the restaurant and build a residential/retail project on the site. Ultimately, I guess, some changes were made from the initial plan and then it was approved by the board. Are you satisfied with the way that that turned out in terms of what they’re going to be building there?

BS: Well to be clear, they’ve got site plan approval. They don’t have anything else. So basically they still need to come in with an architectural rendering of what’s going to go there.

Was it palatable for the board? I don’t think so. The situation was that that particular parcel of land basically supported what they wanted to do without any variances. They met the parking criteria. They met the height criteria.

In fact, it’s well below the height that it could be, so they met all the criteria as to why there was a reason for them to be denied, and to deny them because they didn’t need any of these variances was kind of futile, because basically if we did that then they could take take it to court, and they would win. I don’t want to put the town in that position.

Now the board had no problem voting against the initial proposal (the prior year), because they were like 80-some parking spots short, and they were counting on street parking. Even though you’re allowed to park on the street. You can’t use that as part of the requirement for your project. That’s part of the reason why it failed the first time.

They then redesigned the building to meet all the criteria that falls under zoning and planning, so there was really not much that the board could do at that particular point. There are some caveats that we did put in there. For example, they need to get a phase one environmental study done.

But other than that, they have not come back with any architectural renderings or drawings and the traffic flow and how that’s going to go.

EO: So as far as you and the board were concerned, there was only limited action that you could take, because the plan met the standards that were set out by the zoning regulations.

BS: Correct.

EO: That site is part of the redevelopment zone, right?

BS: It is. It’s part of the Town Center Zone, which is a redevelopment area. At the end of the day, Freddy’s was really in need of redevelopment.

I mean Freddy’s was never designed as a restaurant. It was a house that had served breakfast and lunches, and then it got to be a little bit bigger, and they just kept adding on, and adding on, and adding on. Really the flow of the restaurant didn’t make any sense— you were kind of all over the place with it.

EO: What do you anticipate happening with the budget going into this year? I guess the revaluation has hit the books and the dust has settled with all of that?

BS: It’s pretty much where we thought it would be with the realignment of it. A tax penny used to be worth a little bit under $200,000. It’s $397,000 now. When we went through the revaluation, that didn’t add any new taxes. We didn’t increase the amount of taxes we raised.

My house didn’t go down by the way—I’m paying more taxes—but there were quite a few people whose taxes dropped, there were a number of people that kind of stayed stable, but then there were a number of people that went up significantly. In the end it all evened out.

There have been some appeals. A couple of them were successful and some of them were not, but it wasn’t an overwhelming number. Other than the initial shock when people got their bill, it has kind of quieted down. Even then, when the initial mailing went out and people were advised of where they stood as far as what the tax rate was going to be, the number of people who called to complain wasn’t really it wasn’t that significant.

It was 30, 40, 50 people that complained. Some of them had a good cause, but then they also forget that they didn’t have any increases for a long, long time. There were individuals who were paying a higher tax rate who were kind of carrying those individuals that hadn’t been reassessed for a long time.

EO: How did the numbers come in on the commercial side?

BS: It was up on the commercial side. Has it been really, really significant overall? No, not really. Obviously the General Motors site, once we start getting dollars in for that, will definitely have a bigger impact.

There’s a lot of things that are still happening. The small retails that keep opening up certainly help us, and it’s the mom and pop-type stores that really contribute a lot to the tax rate.

There’s some space, especially office space, that’s not fully occupied. So those particular buildings ask for some property tax relief. You’ve got to take that in consideration.

Overall we’re kind of holding our own. I’m not suggesting that we’re setting the world on fire, because we’re not, quite obviously. People talk about how great the economy is. Well it’s not great for everybody.

So we’ll see how the budget shakes out. We’re meeting with the department heads. Where it’s going to wind up as far as the tax rate is concerned—we’re still in a wait-and-see-type situation. We’re still waiting for some numbers from people that have appealed. And that has an impact, but I think overall we should be okay.

EO: So you don’t anticipate a big big tax increase.

BS: Not a big tax increase. I do anticipate something, it’s not going to be an astronomical number. But then, since I’ve been mayor— other than that first year when we were far in a hole—we’ve kind of held the taxes between two and three cents a year.

Obviously that adds up, but I think people are understanding. They know that bills go up, and we’re not exempt from any bills. We have to pay electric bills and gas bills and even fuel costs. We use a lot of fuel during the year with the police and the Department of Public Works and all the cars that we run. It has an impact.

We have to be cognizant of that, and I think most people understand that. Companies are not in business to give government agencies a break. If anything they’re looking for a little more than that.

EO: How about recycling costs? Have they been going up?

BS: They have gone up. They’ve gone up mostly because of poor recycling practices.

EO: A lot of towns are having that problem.

BS: Yeah, exactly, and finally now the Mercer County Improvement Authority is putting a halt to it. They’re slapping stickers on (recycling) buckets saying that you can’t recycle plastic bags. You can’t recycle pizza boxes, and there’s some other things you can’t recycle, but people continue to do that.

That all winds up in the landfill. They used to get dollars back from the recycling tonnage, now they’re paying. They’re paying almost up to $100 a ton for recycling materials. If the plastic bags and those other non-recyclables had been out of it, they would be getting money back for the stuff.

You can’t do this stuff. If you do, you’re going to get slapped with that sticker, and they’re not going to pick up the recycling. I suspect what’s going to happen is that the responsible individuals will take the plastic bags out of the recycling. As much as I hate to say it, the not-so-responsible individuals probably will not, and rather than recycle they’ll throw everything in the garbage.

Recycling is complicated. You have a plastic bottle and it’s recyclable, but its cap is not. Why not?

EO: Different kinds of plastic, I guess.

BS: Right, exactly. But some tops are okay, right? So how do you distinguish? Then they say there’s a number on there that identifies the plastics you can and can’t recycle. Right? Every time I look I don’t see a freaking number, unless I’m not looking right.

EO: I couldn’t find a number either. I looked too.

BS: Yeah. You try to do the responsible thing and then people just say, “you know what? I’m not even going to do this anymore.”

I know the companies don’t want to hear me say this, but when we went to single stream recycling, that’s when everything went south. We should have never gone that way. Yeah, you’re paying a little bit more money, but at the end of the day you’re going to get paper with the paper and you’re going to get plastic with the plastic. That’s just my take on it.

EO: Anything else you want to talk about? Anything else I haven’t asked you about that you want people to know about?

BS: There’s a lot of recreation opportunities in Ewing Township that people should take advantage of. We are constantly making upgrades to our parks. We just opened up a dog park (in Banchoff Park).

In fact, I do have to do something that was brought to my attention. I got a letter today, and I probably have to do some serious thinking about putting in handicap spots that are closer to the dog park itself.

Right now people have to walk from the parking lot, which is not that far, but for somebody in a wheelchair or a walker it could be a little bit more difficult. So we’re going to seriously take a look at how we can accommodate that. My only concern is that there will be people who will take advantage of the handicap space and park there anyway. It’s unfortunate but stuff like that happens.

The dog park has been very successful up to this point. People are getting a lot of use out of it.