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NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—The city's Planning Board voted unanimously on Tuesday evening to approve the demolition of six buildings and a garage to make way for a new, more compact campus for the New Brunswick Theological Seminary (NBTS).
The new development was spurred by financial constraints currently facing the 227-year-old seminary, and the dilapidated condition of their campus, according to city officials.
In exchange for their new building, the seminary's campus will shrink. And if subsequent phases of the redevelopment plan are approved and financed, the remainder of the existing seminary will likely be demolished to make room for a new Rutgers academic building and honors dormitory.
Another piece of the larger plan calls for a new dormitory for the seminary on Mine Street, at the former site of the Rutgers Catholic Center. The seminary's existing dorm has been abandoned and boarded up.
As we reported in June, the Rutgers University Board of Governors and New Brunswick City Council unanimously gave their seal of approval to the wide-ranging plans just hours after they were announced to the public.
Under a subsequent redevelopment plan approved by the Planning Board and City Council, most of the buildings on the block were targeted for demolition.
The Sigma Delta Tau sorority house at the intersection of College Avenue and Bishop Place will be one of only two buildings spared under a far-reaching plan that would dramatically increase the density development on the valuable block of real estate.
The other building spared will be the Seminary's historic Gardner Sage Library. The proposed new building was designed to match the red brick facade of the library, according to architect Michael Farewell.
Three small homes on College Avenue, including the Seminary President's house and the current home of the Rutgers Hillel will be demolished to make way for the new two-story, 30,735 square foot Seminary building. The Seminary currently owns all of the buildings slated for demolition.
Hillel has already been approved to build a new facility at the intersection of George Street and Bishop Place.
The proposed new NBTS building will include a chapel that can accomodate about 100 worshippers, offices, dining rooms, classrooms, and will be served with a 96-space surface parking lot, according to the presentation made before the Planning Board.
Farewell called the proposed building, "a building that tries to preserve a campus and a sense of landscape."
Rebecca Koze, a civil engineer testified about the demolition and construction plans, but was interrupted by Planning Director Glenn Patterson when she mentioned that Seminary Place would be temporarily changed to a two-way street to keep construction traffic away from College Avenue.
"You need Council approval for that. You can't just say that it's going to be two-way," Patterson said.
Henry Bignell, the city's official planner, also asked for more shade trees and benches, requests the applicants did not agree to or reject outright.
Ultimately, the board decided to grant "Seminary Redevelopment Urban Renewal Associates" the required variances to exceed the allowable height in the zone where the building is located, as well as to have more signage than typically allowed.
David McInerny, a planner who testified in support of the application, said it was important that the 38.4-foot tall building be allowed to exceed the maximum building height to ensure that the chapel had good acoustics.
According to the applicant's attorney, Thomas Kelso, Seminary Redevelopment is an entity created by New Brunswick Development Corporation (Devco). Kelso works as the official attorney for Middlesex County's government, and also serves as the Executive Director of New Brunswick's Democratic party organization.
Not including Kelso and the applicant's three witnesses, the hearing was attended by six individuals and two reporters. A representative of Devco declined to testify at the hearing when offerred the opportunity by Kelso.
Devco is at the crux of the partnership behind the large-scale redevelopment plan, which comes with a price tag of approximately $295 million, mainly because they will be making an application for a tax break that could make or break the deal.
Devco has said they will be seeking $52 million in tax credits from the state's Economic Development Authority for investing in new construction near the city's train station.
The Urban Transit Hub Tax Credit has yet to be approved, but the ability to finance the entire plan may depend on the non-profit developer's ability to attain the credits, said Chris Paladino, the Executive Director at Devco.
"We will apply for tax credits as we do for many other subsidy programs," said Paladino.
Earlier this morning, the Economic Development Authority approved an additional $100 million in tax credits, which various proposals for developments near train stations across the state will compete for. Previously, the tax credits for residential projects had dried up and the EDA's board voted to stop accepting applications in February.
According to a memo obtained by NewBrunswickToday.com, the EDA staff recommended that projects approved for a chunk of the $100 million be capped at 20% of the amount of "qualified investment," as well as capped at $25 million in total.
However, that cap was raised to $33 million, still not enough to meet the $52 million need.
The EDA is on the precipice of a major change in its leadership as their longtime CEO Caren Franzini announced she will be stepping down at the end of September from the position she's held since 1994.
Her retirement was announced on July 25, just over a month after the Rutgers-Devco-NBTS plan was made public.
Franzini will be replaced by Michele Brown, an appointment made by Gov. Chris Christie. Brown currently serves as the Appointments Counsel to the Governor.
The new CEO's first EDA board meeting is scheduled for October 9 at 10am at 36 West State Street in Trenton.
Devco has expressed an interest in beginning construction as early as November.