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Concerns About Corruption, Parking, and Urban Design Come Together in 17 Mine Street Hearings

Meeting Could Be Final Opportunity For Public Input on Controversial Building Plans, Planning Board Instructed to Disregard Testimony From April 2014 Meeting
Charlie Kratovil

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—After nearly a year of public hearings, more than a dozen hours of testimony, two demolitions, and numerous objections to the process moving forward, the city's Planning Board still isn't any closer to voting on a developer's controversial plans for Mine Street.

The hearings on Construction Management Associates' proposal for large apartment complex on Mine Street have sparked questions about development in general, and represent the biggest citizen opposition to a New Brunswick construction project in well over a decade.

The hearings are scheduled to continue with additional testimony tonight, February 10 at 7:30PM in the Middlesex County Administration Building at 75 Bayard Street. Anyone is welcome and can speak or ask questions.

In addition to the parking problems they say it will create, local residents and homeowners, including Jennifer O’Neill, argue it would destroy the historical charm of New Brunswick, as well as commercialize it.

“I believe that this construction project will homogenize the city of New Brunswick,” O’Neill said.

The apartment house’s currently planned architecture is more tuned into its Mine Street surroundings than its previous architectural style.

Mine Street has numerous historic homes along its three blocks, some dating back to the 18th or early 19th century.

The project's opponents already have won a significant victory, getting the developer to make an attempt at Victorian Revival architecture, likely a better fit for the neighborhood than the project’s originally planned Modern style.

“The fourth floor no longer dominates the street experience for the building was designed to be visually appealing from the street,” said Steven Schoch said, an architect hired by CMA.

“Taller buildings can be accommodated into existing community designs.” Schoch said, adding the new residential building was already reduced in size from 54,000 square feet to 52,000 square feet and be set back farther from the street about 20 feet.

Mitchell Broder, co-owner of Construction Management Associates (CMA),  also said that the Mine Street development project would generate an extra $130,000 a year in new tax revenue for the city.

Still, the building would effectively double the population of the narrow three-block street, and the majority of residents won't have a place to park their car.

Parking is already at capacity on Mine Street, but  CMA wants to build an apartment building that would have as many as 132 occupants and just 43 parking spaces.

Visitors, including student's parents, friends, or significant others would also have no place to park.

"This is a rather unique circumstance for the New Brunswick Planning Board.  We haven't had a meeting of this great detail and length in my memory," said Planning Director Glenn Patterson.

After overflow crowds prevented hearings from moving forward in May and August, the board agreed to hold its meetings in the larger, more intimidating Middlesex County Freeholders Meeting Room.

The Planning Board also switched attorneys, after the editor of this newspaper filed an ethics complaint against their previous attorney, who admitted to regularly soliciting donations at his other job from the same developer who owns the land in question, New Brunswick Development Corporation (DEVCO).

The proposed Mine Street residential building is part of DEVCO’s overall College Avenue Redevelopment Initiative, which is in the process of transforming the historic College Avenue campus at a total cost of $330 million.

The initiative is a joint venture that includes Bucca's other employer, Rutgers University, who sold the property in question to DEVCO for just $1 in 2013.

That attorney, Benjamin Bucca, represented the Planning Board during applications put forth by his other employer, Rutgers University, including when they voted to include the Mine Street properties in a redevelopment area.

Bucca voluntarily agreed to recuse himself from the hearings after the ethics complaint, said his replacement, zoning board attorney Aravind Aithal.

Aithal also said that Rutgers University has no direct or indirect involvement with the Mine Street redevelopment project.

But the project will provide some housing relief for Rutgers students, said Broder

“This project was designed to provide extra housing for Rutgers University and the Theological Seminary,” Broder said.

It's a bit of a wonder that this particular NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) movement didn't spring up earlier, when buildings by the train station were razed to make way for The Vue, and when much of the former Theological Seminary buildings fell to wreckers' claws.

But it took the original proposal of a bulky building on Mine Street, and its significant parking variance, to set the movement in action.

The Mine Street proposal is unique and far from what was promised when the state government authorized millions in tax credits for a plan that would result in the replacement of much of the Seminary's campus and some major additions to Rutgers' College Avenue Campus.

Residents say they feel duped.

The original plans called for the construction of 10 townhomes to replace housing lost by the Seminary, but now the building would include 10 apartments for Seminarians on the first floor, with 42 private market-rate rental units stacked on top.

The project would have 41 regular parking spaces, and two handicapped spots.

The parking requirements, under normal rules, would demand 96 spaces be built along with the new development, a point which has rankled neighbors along Mine Street, who say they need parking near their houses.

The residents of Mine Street also want the developer to make parking spaces for the building's guests, many of which will likely come from auto-dependent suburbia.

The existing parking requirements for mid-rise residential buildings call for 1.8 spaces per studio or one-bedroom apartment, and they demand two spaces per two-bedroom apartment.

The developer argues that the property is pretty close to transit - within the distance that a college student, or other youngster, might consider walking distance.

However, older people move more slowly and find movement more difficult, and the elderly require access to transport near their doorsteps.

The developer already shrunk the size of the building from 57 units down to 52, despite claims from their experts that a building of smaller than 57 units would have been unfeasible.

While the newer design is less boxy, it was still was criticized heavily by members of the public.

Mine Street is one of New Brunswick’s oldest, and most well-preserved neighborhoods, and many residents fear the construction of this building will ruin the aesthetic of the area, and lead to the demolition of more buildings in the neighborhood.

Combined with a new parking deck proposed by Rutgers, residents fear the narrow street will become a choke point for traffic and lead to crashes and noise pollution.

But parking has always been the top issue of the building's critics.

After all, the developer is seeking a parking variance that would allow for the construction of less than half the number of spaces required.

Not all of the development's critics were rooting for the auto alone.

While Jon Mills admitted it was a good goal to increase the portion of people using public transportation, he argued job opportunities will be severely limited.

While Bound Brook, in Somerset County is just a 10 to 15 minute drive for most city residents, Mills said the NJ Transit website indicated a train trip there would take nearly an hour and twenty minutes.

A few, particularly younger people, criticized the proposed construction of a Rutgers parking deck across Mine Street, and one man pointed out that the area lacked a comprehensive public transportation system.

Yes, there were the Rutgers buses, said the homeowner. During the school year, they reliably take anyone around the Rutgers campuses, though they are often crowded.

But, during Summer, Winter, and Spring Breaks, the service is sparse and cannot be relied upon for commuting to work, said the resident.

And, still, there was no truly direct access to the Route 18 supermarkets, and the Fresh Grocer's failure has left a void in the city's "food system."

Moreover, the weight of grocery bags practically requires a car, many residents testified.

Even the suggestion that a car-share service would help to reduce car ownership was criticized, on the grounds that there might be more people wanting to use the service than there were cars offerred to residents of the building.

Uber and Lyft, not to mention more traditional taxi services, were apparently not discussed. 

Corruption, and the ignorance of environmental concerns on the part of the developer and the Planning Board itself, also came up at the hearings.

A longtime city resident cited the guilty plea of former Mayor John A. Lynch, Jr..

The guilty plea was an admission Lynch accepted a bribe from a developer, Dallenbach Sand Company, in exchange for approvals by other government officials of Dallenbach's development work.

The resident argued that Lynch's guilty plea, if accurate, implied the existence of a criminal network of other government officials.

He complained that nothing had been done to "roll up" the rest of the criminal network after Lynch went to jail.

Lynch is still a key player in local politics, after serving a short sentence in federal prison.

Meanwhile, since the October Planning Board meeting, when another politically-connected attorney took over for Bucca, he has given the board questionable advice.

Aravind Aithal operates a Piscataway-based law firm, in partnership with State Senator Bob Smith, that frequently represents developers.  Aithal also serves as New Brunswick's Zoning Board attorney.

He recently advised board members to ignore all testimony prior to his own involvement be thrown out.

“This is not a new application, the application was filed some time ago. This is a 'de novo' hearing of that application.  A 'de novo' hearing means that you are hearing testimony anew, fresh testimony,” Aithal said.

“Board members, as have been instructed in the past, will disregard the evidence that was presented by way of testimony prior to the 'de novo' hearing of this application.”

“However, any documents that were submitted as part of the application packet, and any documents that were sent… since October, Board members should consider.”

Jon Mills, who lives in an 19th-century farmhouse near the proposed building, told board members he was disappointed and upset by the decision.

"I fear this will be seen as a betrayal of the efforts made by concerned citizens, to attend an speak at that meeting," said Mills.  "And I fear that our fellow citizens may find it hard to accept the validity of a decision that is made while disregarding such extensive public comment.

For over a year, community members and activists have been fighting for the denial of the permits for the new apartment building.

In November, December, and January, the Planning Board's meetings were dominated by members of the public speaking against CMA's plans for redeveloping the site of two homes on the Sixth Ward street into a 52-unit apartment building.

Their issues ranged included historic preservation, public safety, transportation issues, food prices, job opportunities, irregularities in the application process, and even the fraud and tax evasion conviction of former New Brunswick Mayor John Lynch, Jr.

The city's historian George Dawson confirmed what had been testified to previously: the state's historical preservation office had deemed the Mine Street properties eligible for inclusion on the historic register.

Two different members of the public referred to the planned building as the "McDonald'sization" of the neighborhood.

Some community members lamented the loss of several historic buildings in the area in recent years.

But, since the last board meeting, both of the homes in question have been torn down by CMA, much to the chagrin of preservationists.

The demolition was so rushed that proper protection was not provided to a neighboring Rutgers building, with workers inside.  The building was damaged and Rutgers said the measures taken by CMA were "inadequate." 

"The owner of the property in question is responsible for protecting adjoining properties from damaged caused by their demolition work and submitting to the local code official the measures to be taken to safeguard adjoining properties," wrote the university's Director of Environmental Health and Safety.

"Based on our site investigation and your pictures, these measures were inadequate."

Despite the demolitions, the opposition remains strong.

A close associate of Lynch's, Kelso serves as the lawyer for both CMA and DEVCO, as well as the county government.  He also serves as the Executive Director of the New Brunswick Democratic Organization, which supports Mayor James Cahill.

Speakers including the editor of this newspaper pointed out Kelso's connections to Planning Board members and the board's attorney.

Mine Street, itself, is populated with single-family detached houses, a housing form that has been popular in the age of the automobile, but most of the houses in question are from before that time period.

Moreover, their inhabitants, many of which own their homes in a city where renting is common, are often older folks. They don't necessarily move around as well as they used to, and they rely on cars to take them where they want to go. 

Thomas Kelso, attorney for Construction Management Associates, said the New Brunswick Planning Board should consider its revised site proposal.

“We recognize the recent ethics complaint against Mr. Bucca,” said Kelso. “We do not believe that the application should be put at risk due to ancillary and unfounded claims.”

In a process that repeatedly violated the Ethics Board's own procedures, the New Brunswick Ethics Board found Bucca did not violate the city's Code of Ethics in a January hearing.

Environmental issues appear to have taken a backseat in the hearings, so much so that the developer forgot to submit a required statement on his building's impact on the environment.

As we reported, after the death of former Planning Board Chair Bob Colona in 2012, the board operated without a statutorily-required member in common with the city's Environmental Commission.

It was the responsiblity of Mayor James Cahill to ensure the city had a full complement of board members.  He appoints all but one of the Planning Board's nine members.

New board attorney Aravind Aithal suggested the Planning Board came into compliance later that same year when Carly Neubauer was appointed to the Environmental Commission.

But Neubauer only attended one commission meeting in more than a year in office. After concerns were raised by the editor of this newspaper, Environmental Commissioner Jeff Crum was appointed to the Planning Board.

But, more importantly, required Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the project was not prepared until the city's Planning Office discovered it was missing, despite being checked off on a checklist.

While not publically acknowledging that it neglected to provide the EIS, the developer promised to provide one in advance of the January meeting.

Though CMA did provide an EIS, it focused mostly on historical preservation, rather than the environmental concerns caused by building the structure.

Less than four pages long, it pales in comparison to similar statements filed by the same developer. An attorney for residents opposing the project objected to the statement's introduction, saying that the "expert" who prepared it was not qualified to do so.

Under NJ Department of Environmental Protection rules, a “major” site is one that disturbs an acre of land, or builds over a quarter-acre or more of land. Major sites must follow the NJDEP’s Stormwater Runoff Quality Standards, which the New Brunswick Stormwater Control Ordinance includes.

However, 17 Mine Street is not a “major” project by those standards, so its stormwater quality requirements are listed in New Brunswick’s City Engineering, Utility, and Landscape Standards.

Those rules refer to a way of managing stormwater known as the “New Jersey Stormwater Best Management Practices”.

Among those practices: trying to reduce the amount of solids and pollutants suspended in runoff. Parking lots, where cars are outdoors and harder to keep clean, contribute to the amount of dirty substances in the stormwater, so the proposed garage is reckoned as an improvement.

According to documents filed with the application, the building might require the city’s water main along Mine Street to be replaced, based on preliminary water hydrant flow tests.

As we reported, it would increase the demand for water and sewer flow ten-fold from previous figures for existing buildings that were recently leveled.

The redevelopment of the 17 Mine Street site would affect the flow of rainwater, although not drastically.

About 85% of the site would be impervious if the project is built, leaving just 15% of the site to absorb rainwater.

Thus, the plan calls for a 2,000-gallon septic tank under the site, imitating the previous flow underground.

Edward Bogan a civil engineer for Construction Management Associates said, “the city’s current water drainage system is in poor condition and needs to be replaced.”

Bogan also said that Construction Management’s revised construction proposal for their residential building would make sure that rainwater would be directly drained from the roof through downspouts directly into an underwater drainage system.

Mine Street drains into College Avenue, as the street is on a slope, so any resulting flooding would likely happen there.

The construction schedule would play out over most of a year.

The workers would spend two weeks bulldozing the site to somewhat desirable elevations, and digging a hole for the basement. Another week would be spent building storm sewers and systems, followed by a day spent putting up more hay bales and silt fences to control sediment movement.

At this point, the building construction phase would start, a four-day period that would also see the start of curb construction. Fine grading, finishing the job that rough grading started, would occur over the three days after that. A day would then be spent stabilizing all areas anticipated to be exposed for more than a month that wouldn’t be overrun with construction traffic.

After all of this bulldozing and stabilization, the workers would spend a week putting up the site’s lighting and installing utility infrastructure, and another week building the basement floor and driveway.

Six more months would be spent erecting the apartment building itself.

After the building is finished, a week would be spent landscaping the grounds, a second week on stabilizing any disturbed areas via planting seeds, and a third week removing whatever sediments that have built up.