The Highland Park Redevelopment Agency (HPRA) at its Sept. 3, 2015 meeting took a significant step forward towards implementing a long-awaited redevelopment of Highland Park’s downtown by unanimously voting to appoint two conditional redevelopers – Anton Popov and Highland Park Development Partners LLC (HPDP) – for parcels along Raritan Avenue between North Adelaide and North Second.
With all seven members of the HPRA in attendance, the agency designated Anton Popov as conditional redeveloper for his property, Lot 36, currently the International Foods market on the North side of Raritan Avenue between First and Second Avenues. HPDP was appointed conditional redeveloper of Lots 41-48 which covers the rest of the same block extending to the intersection of South First Avenue. According to Redevelopment Agency Chairperson Rosie Baruh, the developers of both sites have presented preliminary concepts that are mixed use and roughly conform to Highland Park’s Redevelopment Plan.
Mr. Popov’s intent, said Ms. Baruh, is to expand the footprint of the current International Foods Market building and add a second level with five apartments and additional commercial space below. HPDP is proposing a mixed-use building with parking and a new home for the Highland Park Public Library. More specifically, HPDP would like to build a four-story building, with retail on the first floor, and residential apartments on the three upper floors. In addition HPDP’s vision would be to provide 15,000 sq. ft. of ground floor and mezzanine space for a new public library, as well as 67 new public parking spaces in the rear of site. The current library building on North Fifth would be converted into residential apartments, according to the HPDP concept.
These concepts, however, have a long way to go before they evolve into reality. Redevelopment Agency Chairperson Rosie Baruh, noted that conditional redevelopment approvals are granted in order to facilitate the initial feasibility process, establishing an escrow so that borough professionals can work with the redevelopers in establishing a proposed development’s viability. By making the appointment of a redeveloper conditional, she added, the borough has made no commitment to approve any particular design or development plan or actual development. Approval won’t happen without the public having an opportunity to see and comment on specific building and site plan proposals.
Even though the town is only at the very beginning of a redevelopment process, Highland Park Mayor Gail Brill Mittler was very enthusiastic about these concrete initiatives to move forward in a way that is consistent with the goals of the community. “The HPDP project will meet many of my goals for Highland Park, including increased tax revenue and revitalization of our downtown. I’m very excited that we have a project that not only will beautify the Avenue but also will provide a much-needed new home for our beloved library.”
Highland Park Library Director Jane Stanley noted that the new library space will be larger, with increased parking—and no leaky roof! Ms. Stanley commented, “We have received a commitment that the library will stay open on North Fifth until everything is ready in our new home and that the transition will be seamless.”
The renovation of the library building on North Fifth would preserve the existing exterior and site footprint. According to Mayor Brill Mittler, “The library is the most heavily trafficked building in the borough, with kids and parents and residents coming and going from morning to night. We expect that once the building is renovated with apartments, that property will be quieter. The use of the building for apartments is a key part of the project.”
The mayor discussed the positive economic impact the HPDP project will bring: “Without other large ratables in town, smart downtown development is the best way to ensure that Highland Park is economically sustainable into the future. Besides adding to our tax base, the additional pedestrian traffic that our library brings (seniors, young families, students) will be an economic boost to our downtown retailers, restaurants and businesses. This project is consistent with both our Master Plan and our Redevelopment Plan.”
The Redevelopment Plan adopted in 2005 was the result of collaboration between professional planners and Highland Park residents. Before either developer wins the designation, they have to meet very specific criteria as outlined in the Highland Park Redevelopment Plan. According to the criteria, the would-be redevelopers have to provide the following: concept plans and elevations; evidence of the developer’s financial responsibility and capability; a fiscal impact analysis addressing the positive, as well as the negative, effects of the redevelopment plan, i.e., the impact on the tax base – ratables, and the impact on municipal services (roads, emergency services, sewer and water, schools)
“We are looking forward to feedback from residents as we work on these projects. At this point we have not approved a site plan or any specifics regarding the buildings,” Ms Baruh said. “The Redevelopment Agency Proposals Committee has reviewed some preliminary concepts. We believe that the proposed ideas conform closely enough to the vision in the Redevelopment Plan that, without committing to anything, we felt there was enough common ground to move forward. Now the newly appointed redevelopers have to do work to see if their projects are viable. If that goes well, the next step in the public process is to have the developers share site plans and building designs so we can solicit public input.”
She explained further that “our meetings (HPRA meetings) are public, and we post our minutes on the borough website. We will also be posting architectural drawings at the Highland Park Borough Hall and the Highland Park Public Library as projects get up and running,”
(Editor’s Note: The content of this story is derived from the actual proceedings at the Sept. 3 Highland Park Redevelopment Agency meeting, as well as a press statement issued to by the HPRA Chairperson Rosie Baruh – a statement that also contained comments from Mayor Gail Brill Mittler and Library Director Jane Stanley.)