TOMS RIVER – During two Township Council meetings in a row, residents have asked to be able to give input in the redevelopment of the downtown area, but some are worried that some of this is just election year campaigning.
The extensive downtown plan includes roads being redirected, building heights increased, and an attempt to make the growth in this area rather than the more suburban parts of town. Some of it is dependent on issues outside the town’s control, such as moving the Post Office.
One bone of contention for some residents is the area where the Red Roof Inn was bought by the town and demolished. The redeveloper, Capodagli, has plans for two 10-story apartment towers, with ground level retail and a parking garage that would also serve other areas of downtown.
However, a less controversial spot is Robbins Parkway, which is the dilapidated building near where the River Lady docks. There is a plan, also by Capodagli, for making this area into the River Chateau, a grand banquet hall sitting atop a parking garage. This would take over the entire right side of Robbins Parkway, including the existing parking lot.
Even though this is less controversial, it’s where the latest hangup has happened. At the March 22 Township Council meeting, they were trying to pass a resolution that would create an escrow account. The redeveloper would pay into this account and the town would use the money to pay any municipal costs associated with the project.
It was then that former mayor and clerk, and current township historian Mark Mutter urged the council to table this resolution until a summit could be held to gauge the public’s interest in the entire redevelopment. He provided an outline on how to hold such a summit, and shared that he held one in 2000 when he proposed the open space tax. Something good came of that summit.
Mutter said that the resolution would continue having Capodagli be designated the conditional redeveloper, meaning that they are the company the town has decided to work with for that spot. However, the timeline has run out for that designation so they aren’t the conditional redeveloper any more for the Robbins Parkway property only.
“In my judgment, the future of downtown Toms River can be handled in a better way. So far, it’s being done in a piecemeal fashion, project by project, resolution by resolution: two 10 story apartments here, a project on Irons Street over there, and now a third project over here…” he said.
“As our elected officials, you need to know that there is widespread concern – even astonishment – as to what has been approved so far, and what is being proposed, for our downtown. I have yet to meet one person – other than some in this room – who think that those two 10 story apartment towers are a good idea,” he said.
Council President Matthew Lotano said that the designation for conditional redeveloper did expire but the attorney said it can be changed. He warned that holding off on creating this escrow account could cost the township money so it needs to be passed. He also noted that this Robbins Parkway property had nothing to do with the apartment complex.
Councilman Joshua Kopp said that there has been meetings about the downtown redevelopment plan. It’s come up at council meetings many times over the last few years.
“Something has to be done downtown,” he said. People visit the area around the distillery and the few restaurants, but they don’t always go south of Water Street. “There is more to downtown than just that corner.”
He also questioned stopping the redevelopment on a relatively small portion of it. “A 300-foot strip of road is not (the whole) downtown.”
The subject was still being discussed at the following Township Council meeting of April 5. At this point, some of the council had started to suggest that the resistance to the downtown development was political. There is a four-way race for the Republican primary in June before the actual election in November.
“There’s been numerous meetings, not just during primary season,” Councilman Kevin Geoghegan said.
One suggestion was to have this summit during the next Township Council meeting, but Lotano said the last time there was a summit it took nine hours. He said he is fine with a summit, but not during a meeting where township business has to get done.
Resident Dana Tormollan said she hoped the council could work with the school district, afraid of having the apartments filled with kids that will add to the school system that is losing millions of dollars of aid due to a state funding plan. She talked how the township paid to tear down the old hotel, then sold that land to the redeveloper for a nominal dollar fee, and is enticing the redeveloper with a plan that they will pay a certain amount of money instead of taxes every year for 30 years. There is an agreement that the apartments will be made available for employees of the expanding programs at Community Medical Center.
“We have sold that property for $1,” she said. “We’re on a (Payment In Lieu Of Taxes) program for people who may work at the hospital. Our kids are losing daily by having big builders come to town and tell us what they want to build.”
Lotano said that “without a PILOT program, we won’t get a redeveloper.”
Generally speaking, redeveloping costs more than developing, and for it to be worthwhile for a builder, there needs to be incentives. Even naming an area in need of redevelopment opens the door to state programs to make it easier for them.
“We’re giving things away to people who don’t deserve it,” Tormollan said.