The Flemington Planning Board unanimously approved preliminary and final site plans for the revised Courthouse Square proposal this week, pushing forward a major downtown redevelopment project that’s been several years in the making.
The latest application for the project, which seeks to revitalize the long shuttered Union Hotel, was presented by developer Jack Cust in September 2020. It downsizes a number of features from his approved 2017 plan, including building heights and retail and parking space.
The plan also preserves the Union Hotel — for which construction has already begun — the Hunterdon County Bank building, and the Potting Shed building, while allotting for the development of separate apartment units and retail space in the downtown Flemington area.
The amended plan was approved and finalized by the borough in the fall of 2020, and the latest round of approvals came on Tuesday.
“I think it just goes to show you that a compromised, smaller project was the best way to go,” Flemington Mayor Betsy Driver told NJ Advance Media. “The scaled-down project is a much better fit for Flemington, and I’d like to thank the developer for being willing to compromise on what’s going to be built because it has the community buy-in that was lacking in the previous version.”
“We’re very excited that we got the approval, and we’re looking forward to moving forward,” Cust told NJ Advance Media.
Despite the revised proposal’s steady progress since its introduction last fall, there is still an outstanding lawsuit filed by the Friends of Historic Flemington against the borough in opposition to the approved 2017 site plan.
“I’m hopeful that the Friends of Historic Flemington will recognize that this is a much better project and consider dropping that lawsuit,” Driver said.
The Friends of Historic Flemington told NJ Advance Media their attorney is preparing a settlement proposal to be submitted to the borough this week.
Conditions imposed by planning board
The Planning Board approved the application while adding a number of conditions, including the following:
- The project would be in compliance with all requests and recommendations from the board engineer’s review letter with certain exceptions, the board planner’s review letter, the board traffic engineer’s review letter, and the borough fire marshal’s review letter.
- The manner in which movable planters, tables, and chairs in the plaza will be secured and handled and outlined in an operations maintenance manual.
- No disturbing of streetscape improvements and, if any, they will be replaced in kind.
- A crosswalk will be painted at the end of Chorister Place and across Spring Street at the end of the plaza, and printing and pavers on Main Street between Court Street and the plaza to slow down vehicles.
- Applicant shall consent to Title 39 jurisdiction.
- Approval by the borough of all necessary rights of way.
- Materials for the buildings, crosswalks, and facades are to be approved by the board planner in consultation with the borough’s historic architect.
- Applicant must work with the borough in connection with any requests to utilize any space within the project.
- The species of trees will be reviewed and final determinations made by the board planner in consultation with the Shade Tree Commission.
- Inclusion of some sort of mosaic artwork inlay in the plaza next to Main Street and across from Court Street subject to review and approval of board planner.
- The applicant will engage the board’s affordable housing administrator for the administration of affordable housing units.
- Six parking spaces will be reserved in podium parking and dedicated to the borough police department.
- The applicant will comply with the design criteria for glazing and fenestration.
- The plan shall be amended to show the actual location of low and moderate income units.
- All demolition, development and construction will be conducted so as not to interfere with the 24-hour operations of the borough police department.
- Applicant shall provide a primary point of contact to ensure SHPO and all other historical requirements are satisfied.
- Lighting on Main Street will match the streetscape.
- Consistent signage through the facility to be determined by the board planner.
- Applicant will work with board planner to provide additional buffering of shrubs along parking area adjacent to Bloomfield Street.
- Applicant will work with the town to provide access to existing borough storm sewer when maintenance is necessary; or, at their discretion, can create an easement to the borough.
Additionally, the Planning Board added one “global condition” requiring an onsite pre-construction meeting as well as ongoing regular meetings as project construction progresses, throughout which issues including truck traffic, phasing, construction access, storage, staging, coordinating with business and residents, and the restoration of streets will be addressed.
The goal of these discussions is to create a plan for these items that could be referred to going forward, and each conversation will involve the borough engineer, the borough construction code official, and an individual identified as the point of contact for the applicant.
A resolution to approve the preliminary and final site plan will likely be presented to the Planning Board sometime next month, and upon its adoption the site plan will be officially approved.
Prior to the vote, a number of residents voiced their support for the revised proposal and eagerness to see redevelopment move forward.
Paul Marciano, chair of Flemington Community Partnership, said the organization has surveyed the Flemington community “multiple times” and concluded that the majority of business and property owners are in favor of the project.
“Over the last few years, this has been very challenging obviously for our town. And there have been a lot of things said on both sides. And I would hope that, no matter what the outcome, we could come together as a town and support one another and support the project going forward,” Marciano said.
Chris Phelan, president of Hunterdon County Chamber of Commerce, advocated for the project on behalf of the county chamber.
“The construction and opening up all up of Courthouse Square will be a catalyst for more commercial investments in the borough, to repurpose and revitalize numerous existing commercial properties,” Phelan said. “We are confident as a chamber and a business community that as this project comes to fruition, the vitality, commerce, and quality of life for the borough, its residents, visitors, and our region will be realized.”
Brian Blake, a Flemington property owner and owner of the Red Vanilla store in Flemington, said “it’s time to move forward with the project.”
“I think there’s objections to the project where people are looking for a the perfect, ideal plan. I don’t think there is a perfect, ideal plan,” Blake said. “The project is a good project. It has been thoroughly negotiated, thoroughly digested, and thoroughly analyzed.”
Mike DeLuca, chair of the Shady Tree Commission, said he supported the project but expressed lingering concerns about construction traffic. He also made a number of recommendations, and asked the board to work with the commission as the project moves forward.
“The (tree) selections that have been made are really not preferable for this community. We prefer selections to be native, diverse, and resilient to climate change,” DeLuca said. “And we do recommend the property owner … be responsible for the maintenance, care, and if needed, replacement of trees.”
Project faces some opposition
Individuals also spoke up to oppose the project. Maryellen Costello, a resident of Ringoes, described this project as “overkill” in the borough and requested it be further scaled back.
“It appears to me that the overall size, both physical and financial, of this project relative to the size of Flemington is too big … I see what looks like a city block being packed into the middle of a small town,” Costello said. “This Planning Board doesn’t seem to be evaluating the sacrifices in terms of three-dimensional space, the current structures that will be demolished, including the historic location of one of our first grocery stores in Flemington at 82 Main, and the tax burden.”
Lois Stewart, a member of the Friends of Historic Flemington, offered a number of recommendations to the board. This included minimizing the project’s size, adding offsite parking, implementing building exterior changes, and increasing the amount of greenery in the region.
“It is my understanding that one of the responsibilities of a Land Use Board is to protect the municipality from inappropriate development. This decision is of such magnitude and there is no time urgency for approval,” Stewart said. “I ask that you get input from the historic preservation and environmental commissions and take time to discuss all issues in depth in order to make this project a bit better for Flemington.”
Joanne Braun, another member of the Friends of Historic Flemington, acknowledged the project’s improvement while nonetheless expressing apprehension about its approval.
“I have watched this pretty much going on five years now, and experienced the Union Hotel being told it could not be saved, and now we have the facade saved. Being told it would be impossible to save 78 Main Street, and couldn’t imagine anyone wanted to demolish four historic buildings, and now we have 78 Main Street saved,” Braun said. “I just hope and wish that whatever you decide tonight, you use your conscience when voting and you just don’t push things through.”
Cust previously said construction for the entire project will not be completed for at least another year-and-a-half to two years.
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Caroline Fassett may be reached at [email protected].