City Planning Director: Route 1 Zoning Change Unrelated to Expensive Lawsuit About Bennigan’s Site

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Taverns are now prohibited in the "highway commercial district" of New Brunswick, located along Route 1, thanks to a new law recommended by the city's Planning Board and passed by the City Council last week.

One site in the affected zone, next to the Brunswick Circle Car Wash, has been mired in controversy because of an erstwhile proposal to build a sports bar on the site – a bar for Yankees fans named "Buck Foston's."

The spoonerism, meant to be a diss to fans of the Yankees' chief rivals, the Boston Red Sox, raised the ire of Mayor Jim Cahill according to a lawsuit filed by the bar's would-be owner Larry Blatterfein.

City officials allegedly conspired to delay the liquor license approval process and the City Council eventually voted 2-1 to deny the transfer of the license to the Route 1 location, effectively killing the plan.  But Blatterfein filed a federal lawsuit against the city, and won an award of $1.5 million after a jury trial.

Shortly after the verdict was rendered, city officials began pushing a zoning change that would permanently ban "taverns" from the entire Route 1 corridor.

The prohibition affects the C-5 zone, which stretches along Route 1 from the Sears to the AMC Loews movie theater, and includes the proposed site of Buck Foston's, which is now slated to become a "Wildfire Grill."

But Planning Director Glenn Patterson denied that the rezoning had anything to do with the Buck Foston's affair.

The City Council had called upon the Planning Board to assess the amendment for consistency with the city's master plan. That board okayed the prohibition as being consistent with New Brunswick's master plan at the June 10th meeting.

The New Brunswick zoning laws define a "tavern" as "a place where the principle use… is the selling of alcoholic beverages", although food sales and consumption is of course also allowed in taverns.

Because access to New Brunswick's C-5 zone is mostly via automobiles, and because taverns are primarily for selling alcohol, the spector of drunk driving was a factor in the city's decision to change the law. 

Neither Buck Foston's nor Wildfire Grill would have qualified as a tavern.  Instead, both still meet the zoning requirements to be considered a restaurant.

The ordinance, however, received commentary at the July 2 City Council meeting, from at least two interested parties: a neighbor, concerned about the potential for property damage, and the former Bennigan's owner. 

Residents of the nearby Rutgers Village neighborhood attended a July 2 City Council meeting, offerring mixed opinions on the proposed changes.  One man mentioned vandalism from drunkards as a potential hazard of taverns, saying that his car was urinated on back when Bennigan's was operational.

A lawyer for the land owner asked for more time to prepare a response, and the Council obliged, delaying the final vote until July 16.

"As all of the properties in the zone front on to Route 1 or Route 18, which are limited access highways, nearly all patrons of the commercial uses must access the uses by car. Pedestrian and transit access to this area is limited," reads the recommendation from the Planning Board.

It is much easier to access the C-5 zone by private vehicle than by any other mode of transport, but it is not impossible to get off at a bus stop and walk to the C-5 zone.  Walking to the zone would likely require dodging traffic.

Restaurants are still allowed to be built in the zone, as they primarily serve food, though they can also sell alcoholic beverages if they have a liquor license.

The planners felt that booze drunk at a restaurant is more likely to be bought in combination with lunch or dinner, and thus the food would likely mitigate the problems brought on by alcohol on the road. 

Nearly a quarter of all drunk-drivers in the United States are between 21 and 25 years old, and 17 million Americans have confessed to driving drunk, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Other uses still allowed in the C-5 zone include "offices, indoor theaters, art galleries, food retail stores, body-art shops, automotive supply stores, new-car dealerships, public/nonprofit private schools, medical clinics, hotels/motels, banks, and transportation facilities."