NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—The county is buying an aging parking deck for $4.75 million from the New Brunswick Parking Authority (NBPA), in an attempt to turn it into a downtown park.
NBPA officials said that the county was eager to close the deal on the 525-car parking garage by January 1, and other sources confirm the deck will close for good on February 1.
"Work to build a new County Park will commence in the latter half of 2015 and extend through 2016," said county spokeswoman Stacey Bersani.
It's not the first time the county has owned the Wolfson garage, according to reporter Joe Malinconico, who covered Middlesex County for the Newark Star-Ledger in the 1990's.
The NBPA sold it to the county in 1979 for $4 million and bought it back seventeen years later for the same price, in a deal where the authority was criticized for giving the county a favorable deal and rushing it through quickly to fill a gap in the county's nine-figure budget.
The arrangement also included 300 free parking spaces for the county government for a two-year period, then 250 free spaces in 1998, and 200 free spaces from 2001-2006, according to Malinconico's reporting.
On the flip side, the county agreed to provide $1.5 million to the NBPA for capital improvements over the next two years, according to the articles.
At the time, Republican Freeholder Roger Daley criticized the Democrat-controlled board for the deal, which would leave a $4 million hole in the county's budget the following year and give up a highly-valuable asset: parking in downtown New Brunswick.
"What they're doing is a shell game," Daley told Malinconico. "They're trying to balance the budget by selling off an asset. That's not what the taxpayers are looking for. The taxpayers want us to balance the budget by cutting spending."
As Malinconico reported in 1996, the NBPA's Executive Director could not say how long it would take the agency to recover its $4 million, even after the deal had been executed.
"I'm surprised you would ask that question," James Zullo told Malinconico after he asked about the agency's projected break-even date on the purchase. "Financially, the parking authority is very sound."
Now, almost two decades later, extensive borrowing by the parking authority has increased their debt and negatively affected the city's credit rating. Zullo works as the head of the local non-profit, Elijah's Promise.
This time around, it is the county coming the aid of the NBPA, which was $249 million in debt as of this summer, while much of its prime commercial real estate continues to sit empty.
The county is paying the NBPA $750,000 more than it did in 1979, and $750,000 more than the NBPA paid them to get it back in 1996.
The windfall from selling the 1970's-era deck, and the valuable land it sits on, could help the agency dig itself out of the hole.
The agency was able to make its full payment of $4.1 million into the city government.
Originally, county and city officials were not exactly on the same page about the future of the site, as we reported in 2014.
Plans were first announced last year for a county park in New Brunswick, by Freeholder Charles Tomaro, without specifying the location.
At one point, one set of tentative plans under consideration for the Wolfson site called for a combination of a smaller park and a highrise building.
But, officials confirmed in recent public comments that the entire site will become a county park, the first in New Brunswick history.
As we reported, shortly after the completion of the "Wellness Center" parking garage in November 2012, the NBPA began pushing for the closure and demolition of its two oldest garages: Ferren Mall and the Wolfson.
Pushback from downtown businesses and churches, upset about losing their long-time parking spaces, resulted in Wolfson's closure being delayed nearly two years.
Meanwhile, the 1,200-car Ferren garage, and the last of its many storefronts, finally closed down this summer. The large site, located across from the city's main railroad station, has been slated for an epic redevelopment project of its own.
Dubbed "The Hub @ New Brunswick Station," the Parking Authority signed an exclusive deal with the New Brunswick Development Corporation (DEVCO), who in turn signed a deal of its own with Jones Lange Lasalle, to market the site to potential investors and tenants.
The Ferren site is currently fenced off and abandoned. Officials originally hoped to demolish the structure over the course of a few months in 2014, but that process continues to be delayed.