Fortunately for the borough, the redevelopment effort, which has cost the taxpayers several hundred thousand dollars and yielded nothing in tax benefits, is faltering all on its own in several areas.
The proposed Dornoch project, which calls for luxury condominiums as well as a mandated arts center on Raritan Avenue at the site of the old Senior Center, has been stalled since March. This application, for which negotations between the Redevelopment Agency and Dornoch Management are ongoing, proposes 35 luxury condominiums--scaled back from an initial 66 due to a lack of demand for the condos and financing for the project--in the Farmers' Market area between South Second and South Third Avenues. What would become of the Farmers' Market should the project gain approval is uncertain.
What is certain is the requirement that the site host an arts center, a personal vision of Mayor Frank for at least six years. In the borough's redevelopment plan, no other use of the old Senior Center location but this is permitted. Originally, the Dornoch proposal sought to purchase several adjacent homes, an option luckily dropped when the project was scaled back.
The executive director of the Redevelopment Agency, who is paid a $35,000 annual salary with taxpayers' money, is not commenting on the state of the project. That is not a good sign, and the witholding of information is most certainly not a characteristic of good and open government.
On June 23, the Zoning Board voted down a redevelopment proposal for 233 Cleveland Avenue, the site of Illuminating Experiences, a business currently owned by a big time financial contributor to the mayor. That proposal had also been downsized, from an initial 178 luxury and 20 affordable condominiums to 119 luxury and 14 affordable units.
Over eight months, residents of Cleveland Avenue and other concerned residents attended Zoning Board meetings expressing concern about this increase in density and the inevitable resulting issues of traffic congestion and influx of children to the school system.
While the mayor continues to tout higher density as a "principle of smart growth," even council members are resisting the idea. Lou Pichinson, the newest council member, was quoted in a May Star Ledger article as objecting to an increase in density.
The vice president of Avalon Bay Communities, the developer who made the application, claims that environmental and traffic studies have shown the building would produce no negative environmental impacts and no significant traffic increase. But these studies were paid for by Avalon Bay. Before any land use board grants approval for this project, that board should order independent traffic and environmental studies to be done at the developer's expense but out of the company's control, to provide residents more accurate, well-deserved findings on these matters.
When the mayor speaks of redevelopment succeeding, she cites the renovation of the former Bernstein building on North Third Avenue. But that renovation is interior, does not change the building's footprint, and therefore does not require any involvement by a redevelopment agency. It is not a redevelopment project; it is a renovation project. We don't need a taxpayer funded Redevelopment Agency executive director, a $20,000 a year Redevelopment Agency attorney, or an annual $50,000 contribution of taxpayer dollars from the borough for such renovation projects to happen.
By eliminating the Redevelopment Agency, we could automatically save the taxpayers of Highland Park $105,000 a year. Remember that when you get your new tax bills this month.
We can save another $30,000 by following the 2004 advice of former Councilwoman Carolyn Timmons and doing away with the Business Improvement District (BID), which is still getting $30,000 a year from the borough. BID Executive Director Graham Copeland has been laid off, and this position, which cost the business district $70,000 a year, should not be replaced. As of now, businesses in the district are paying between $1,000 and $2,000 a year in a BID tax that largely goes toward consultants in event planning and public relations. The mayor has actually suggested expanding the BID to all commercial properties in Highland Park as a means of bringing in more revenue. This is exactly the opposite direction of the one we should be taking, which is to lift this tax burden from our already struggling businesses.
Back in 2005, when George Valenta and I were running for Borough Council, a supporter of the mayor argued that she "has a vision for this town" that she seeks to implement. We knew then, and it is even more evident now, that that vision is the wrong one for our borough. Both political opposition and market forces continue to drive that point home. Higher density is wrong for Highland Park.
The mayor is fond of saying that in contrast to plans by previous administrations, hers is actually being enacted. The reality is, it is not, and it should not be enacted. Five years after she unveiled her 2020 proposal, which inappropriately tied green and environmental initiatives to higher density, that plan is exactly where it should be--sitting on a shelf with its predecessors, gathering dust.