The members of the Highland Park Redevelopment Agency at its Thursday, January 15, 2015 meeting, reorganized, elected officers, discussed amending the Highland Park Redevelopment Plan, and heard presentations from developers interested in pursuing mixed-use development in Highland Park’s downtown area. Among the many development issues raised were a few significant themes: the attractiveness of the Highland Park community to developers; the dilemma of fiscal viability in a development landscape that features small development parcels; and the community’s need for not only mixed-use development, but also mixed-income development that would serve middle income population.
The first item on the packed agenda was the annual reorganization and unanimous election of Rosie Baruh as chair and Ed Gutenplan as vice chair. Highland Park Borough Council member Phil George is the council liaison to the redevelopment agency. Redevelopment agency staff positions are: Joseph Bauman of McManimon, Scotland and Bauman, attorney; Hodulik & Morrison, P.A., auditor; and Diane Reh, clerk.
After the reorganization, developers interested in pursuing mixed-use development in Highland Park made their presentations. Debra Tantleff, a real estate/ development expert with experience in mixed-use development in New Jersey, was invited by agency member Jeffrey Perlman to present her impressions of the viability of downtown redevelopment in Highland Park. Ms. Tantleff, when she was a vice president for Roseland Property, managed major mixed-use downtown development projects in areas such as Morristown, New Brunswick, and the Hudson Waterfront. After touring downtown with a delegation from Highland Park, Ms. Tantleff was bullish on the borough.
According to Ms. Tantleff, Highland Park’s proximity to New Brunswick and its intimate, walkable scale is perfect for catering to the top two demographics looking for real estate — millennials and baby boomers. Highland Park benefits from its proximity to New Brunswick, a hub of academia, hospitals, pharmaceuticals, arts and, increasingly, innovation centers. She noted that state tax incentives are available to keep these businesses in New Jersey and those businesses need employees. Ms. Tantleff stated that in the coming decades, individuals in the 25-to-35-year-old range will be a rapidly growing percentage of the workforce; this demographic typically demands 24/7 amenities, including fitness facilities, theaters, and restaurants. Additionally, baby-boomers or empty-nesters are more typically looking for rental stock and community amenities such as farmers markets, theaters, restaurants and local initiatives. Ms. Tantleff noted the potential in Highland Park for this scale of development, as well as Highland Park’s potential as a complement to the housing stock available in New Brunswick.
Her presentation also detailed some of the challenges in redeveloping in Highland Park, chief among them is assembling a reasonably sized parcel on which to build; Highland Park’s redevelopment areas are dominated by numerous small parcels owned by different individuals. Each discreet parcel is generally not large enough to make the development fiscally worthwhile. Ms. Tantleff explained that in many cases, the cost for doing redevelopment is the same for a small building as it is for a large building; therefore projects below a certain size would not be fiscally viable as far as return on investment.
Getting numerous property owners to agree to sell at the same time is also a challenge, she explained. A big factor in success is helping property owners get accurate, unbiased information about the value of their properties so that they can feel comfortable selling. She also emphasized that selling a building does not mean the local businesses occupying the building being redeveloped have to leave town; accommodations can be made to keep business local and in good financial health during the redevelopment process.
Agency commissioners asked Ms. Tantleff what Highland Park could do to make this type of development happen. Relationship-building is key, she said — specifically, relationships between the developer and the governing authorities, relationships between the developer and local business owners, and relationships between developers and the community. She noted that as a community builder, she approaches the process with a vision and needs to be able to quickly and accurately vet that vision without too great a financial investment. This would require that the professional planner, the redevelopment chair and any representatives from liaison groups have a finger on what their respective organizations want and be a voice of the community’s vision. The process, she noted, also needs to be somewhat fluid, design and construction take some time and demographics and market conditions shift. A master plan that allows flexibility in unit program is beneficial and attractive to a developer.
Ronald Wong, AICP, of The Community Builders Inc., a non-profit development corporation with offices and completed projects in New Brunswick and throughout the Northeast, presented his company’s qualifications and expressed interest in mixed-use and mixed income development. Mr. Wong, a Highland Park resident with children in the Highland Park School District, has experience developing projects appropriately scaled to Highland Park (50 to 100 units). Many of these projects, he stated, utilize green and sustainable building methods. Mr. Wong outlined next steps as identifying the appropriate program (unit demand and demographic) and what is necessary to assemble properties.
Anton Papov, owner of the International Market, is proposing an expansion of his current building at 137-139 Raritan Avenue to include an expanded footprint and a second story; commercial / retail would be on first floor and residential units above). The proposed expansion would max out the site and would require leasing or shared parking with other property owners. Next steps include a concept review plan before the redevelopment agency.
In other meeting business, Ms. Baruh noted that she convened a newly formed cross-functional group consisting of: the chair of the planning board, the mayor, the chair of the zoning board, the head of code enforcement, the borough planner, and the council liaison. Ms. Baruh explained that the purpose in convening such a team is to assure that there is communication early and often in the development process, and thus help prevent errors and disappointments later.
“The main objective for amending the plan,” said Chair Baruh, is to remove some of the more onerous and overly detailed provisions that discourage developers from considering Highland Park and tie the hands of the Highland Park Redevelopment Agency.”
The process for amending the redevelopment plan will begin with the redevelopment agency presenting its comments to the borough council. Then, under direction from the council, the planning board will revisit and amend the plan. The redevelopment agency already had outlined changes it wanted to see and charged the attorney, Mr. Bauman, with developing a marked-up copy of the plan to be considered at the next agency meeting. A copy of the current Redevelopment Plan is available from the Borough’s website here: Redevelopment Plan PDF