NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—The houses at 17 and 29 Mine Street, and a garage between them, are slated to be demolished this month, according to activist Jennifer O' Neill, who has been fighting plans for a 52-unit apartment complex in the same location.
On August 8, the New Jersey Historic Preservation Office deemed the three-block street eligible for a historic district designation.
But that's not enough to stop the private company from the destroying the homes, which have fallen into disrepair since they were acquired by a subsidiary of the New Brunswick Development Corporation (DEVCO).
On the chopping block are three structures, all wood-frame buildings between 2 and 2.5 stories tall. The plans also call for cutting down three trees, a few hedgerows, and a holly bush, as well as digging up the existing concrete walkways on the site.
Most recently, the buildings served as the Rutgers University Catholic Center.
O'Neill and her supporters are focused on an upcoming Planning Board meeting that could cap off a year of successes for the opponents of the project and its developer, Construction Management Associates (CMA).
Last year's series of hearings saw the Planning Board swap attorneys after an ethics complaint, and significant modifications to the original plans they were considering.
After two overcrowded meetings in City Hall had to be called off, the intense hearings are now held at a larger meeting room across the street.
The next meeting is scheduled for 7:30pm on January 13, in the Middlesex County Adminsitration Building, 75 Bayard Street.
O'Neill, who lives immediately next to the demolition site, is raising money to try to stop CMA development, which she says would alter the character of historic Mine Street irreparably.
In a Facebook post, O' Neill noted that "it's disconcerting that [the buildings] could be demolished before there's an approved plan for development on the site."
In 2014, O'Neill enjoyed unprecedented success in organizing opposing the development, at the same time she has battled a medical problem that required chemotherapy.
"The notice of the hearing came one week after I was scheduled to start chemo [in December 2013]… So it was like boom-boom," she told New Brunswick Today.
She jokes that you can tell how long the case has dragged on by the length of her hair, which was not long when her team first succeeded in delaying the project this March.
Over the past year and a half, plans for the site next to her home morphed from a plan for modest townhouses for students at a nearby seminary, into a full-blown private apartment complex that could house as many as 130 residents.
O'Neill and her neighbors hired a team of attorneys and experts to oppose the parking variance, which would require approval from a majority of the board. But, if that proves unsuccessful, the next step would be an expensive appeal in court.
The Mine Street activists have launched a GoFundMe project, entitled "Protect Historic Mine Street," to shore up their legal fund. The legal fund is there to help the group fight for what it considers "appropriate development."
The campaign has already raised over $1,700 from 20 donors in less than a month, and it hopes to raise $50,000 in total.
If the activists prevail and the variance is denied by the Mayor-appointed Planning Board, the developer will be forced to change their plans or try again from the start.
More likely, the matter will end up in court, and the board's decision will be appealed in a Superior Court proceeding that would explore nearly a year of the constantly unfolding controversy over the plans, and the procedures the Planning Board has used at their hearings.
The Mine Street proposal calls for 11 studios, 27 one-bedroom apartments, and 14 two-bedrooms, on the historic street dominated by small homes, most of which are rented by college students. The size of the underground parking garage, 43 spaces, is a key issue in the debate.
Each floor would have a laundry room and small lounge, while each apartment would have closet space, kitchen facilities, and one full bathroom. One elevator, and two stairwells, would connect the four floors and the underground parking level.
The parking level and first floor would be clad in brick, according to the plans, while floors higher up would wear fiber-cement siding, with shingle siding on some parts of the front facade.
New plants would grace the sides of the new building, near two patios. The front of the building would be decorated with purple plum and golden barberry bushes, while three new October Glory trees would line the street, replacing four that were felled last year.
Opponents of the development have criticized the proposed replacement building for its height, architectural design, and massive size, saying it doesn't fit in with the other buildings and would block sight lines of a beautiful church nearby.
The building would rise to be four stories tall in the rear, while only three stories tall in the front, in an effort to make the building's height less obvious to Mine Street pedestrians.
It would almost double the population of the street, which connects College Avenue, Union Street, Easton Avenue, and Guilden Street.
Most significantly, the opponents are concerned the project will not offer enough parking for the anticipated residents and their visitors.
Experts hired by the developer admit the on-street parking situation on the street adjacent to the Rutgers University campus is maxed out each night.
But they say the site's proximity to Rutgers bus stops, its ample bicycle parking, and one or more Enterprise car-share vehicles will mitigate the need for the full number of spaces required: 96.
The developer plans to build just 43 spaces in an underground garage that anyone could access from the street. This part of the plan has also sparked safety and traffic concerns.
The new building would cover 65.6% of the parcel of land it is on, while the current buildings sit on 15.5% of the land. The law allows for 90%.
Under the zoning law, the building's Floor Area Ratio (FAR), a comparison of the amount of floor space on a parcel to the size of the parcel, can be as high as 2.5, meaning zoning law allows the floor space to be up to two-and-a-half times the parcel's size.
The current FAR in the existing structures is just 0.3, while the proposed building's FAR is 2.4.
The low amount of parking is what required the hearings before the Planning Board, but the hearings have brought out all types of concerns about the impact it could have, including on the neighborhood's aging water and sewer infrastructure.
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.
However, the engineers of the project assert that this increased demand would not burden New Brunswick’s water system too much.
The average daily demand for the whole project will be 7,010 gallons. Using another rule of thumb – multiplying the average by 3 – the maximum daily demand is reckoned at 21,030 gallons
The three current buildings, together, have a maximum daily demand of 2,880 gallons.
The daily sanitary sewer flow from the site would also rise from 900 gallons to 8,850 gallons.
The redevelopment of the 17 Mine Street site would affect the flow of rainwater, although not drastically.
Currently, the site has three smaller buildings, as well as some paved area for parking, covering roughly 45% of the site.
That amount would increase to 85% 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.
Mine Street drains into College Avenue, as the street is on a slope, so any resulting flooding would likely happen there.
Still, many say the plans are an improvement over CMA's original plans, which called for a modernist, boxy building with five more units than the current plans call for, and a transformer out front which has been removed in the new set of plans.
CMA, the company behind the plans is also known as Premiere Properties. In December 2013, the New Brunswick Housing Authority named them the "designated redeveloper" of the site in question.
As we reported, the land is currently owned by a DEVCO-controlled company, which acquired the land from Rutgers University for just $1.
Over the summer, the author of this article notified city officials of a large hole in the side of the homes, which were abandoned by University more than five years ago.
Private property owners have the right to tear down their own homes, and the demolition could go down before the meeting in order to pre-empt those buildings being used as an anti-development argument.
O'Neill says she was notified of the impending demolition on December 23 by a hand-delivered letter from Kelso & Bradshaw, the law firm that represents the developer.
One of its law partners, Tom Kelso, also serves as the county government's top attorney, as well as the head of the New Brunswick Democratic Organization.
The letter, from Kelso, indicated that demolition would occur "approximately between January 15, 2015, and January 23, 2015."
The Planning Board meeting is two days prior, January 13 at 7:30pm at 75 Bayard Street.