Both Sides Air Views on End of Redevelopment Negotiations

 

By FRED T. ROSSI
For The Leader/Times

SCOTCH PLAINS – Township redevelopment officials and a representative of one of the downtown redevelopers disagreed last week about why the township’s exclusivity agreement with the redevelopers was ended.

Last Monday, the township council voted after an executive session to sever its relationship with Bedminster-based Advance Realty Investors and its partner PS&S Engineering, which had been selected on a provisional basis two years ago to redevelop the public properties in the central business district and were given exclusivity in negotiating the terms of a redevelopment plan with the township.

At last Wednesday’s redevelopment committee meeting, Mayor Joshua Losardo said both parties had, “worked very hard to close the gap between the town’s development requests and vision and the developers’.” He said that, ultimately, it became apparent to council members that the redevelopers had “a different vision than we do.”

Cutting exclusive ties with Advance/PS&S allows the township to contact other developers with a detailed redevelopment plan that is expected to be completed in the coming weeks, introduced by the township council next month, and then approved in August. Township Redevelopment Coordinator Thomas Strowe, stating that the two sides had “different visions on some key items,” said the aim now is to adopt a plan that is “as clear and concise as possible” so potential developers will know what the township wants. He felt the initial round of requests for proposals issued almost three years ago was too vague and broad. With a complete and detailed plan now in hand, which will show “here’s what we want to build and here’s what we’re trying to accomplish,” developers will have a more complete picture of the township’s intentions.

He recalled speaking with several developers who had viewed the RFP three years ago but had not submitted a formal bid and said they felt those earlier documents had been too vague and too broad, with little specificity about what the township wanted to build, and where. “They were looking for something more shovel-ready,” he said. Several dozen firms reviewed those RFP documents, but in the end, only three firms — including Advance/PS&S — submitted formal bids.

Committee member Joe Mortarulo spoke at last week’s meeting and expressed his frustration that the council had acted on June 7 without the redevelopment committee having any conversations beforehand “about making a shift this big.” Mayor Losardo said he accepted the blame for that oversight. When Mr. Mortarulo asked what the issues splitting the two sides were, redevelopment planner Katherine O’Kane read from a list where the committee and Advance/PS&S “didn’t see eye-to-eye.”

Among them were disagreements over certain verbiage in the plan that called for the redevelopers to be “required” to undertake certain tasks and meet certain goals, language that was changed in Advance/PS&S’ own drafts to read as “optional.” She said the redevelopers sought to build one large, centrally-located parking deck while the committee wanted public parking to be more spread throughout the downtown. There also were disagreements about the amount of open space to be developed, building requirements and design standards and setbacks. Ms. O’Kane also said the redevelopers wanted the plan to be approved without including any concept plans, drawings or building layouts and that they did not want to include a minimum amount of commercial space in the plans.

Mr. Mortarulo told his fellow committee members that it felt to him like “we were so close” to finishing work on a final plan and that he worried that issuing a new RFP, and then taking time for fresh negotiations with a developer, would further delay the actual start of downtown redevelopment. The mayor disagreed, saying there were “major differences” between the two sides and that a final plan was not close to being completed.

John Sartor, president and chief executive of PS&S, disputed the township’s version of events and defended his side’s efforts over the past two years, saying they had spent “hundreds of thousands of dollars to write a blueprint” that he said encompassed the township’s vision and that passed muster after a financial review last year. He charged that, “somewhere along the way, [the township’s] vision changed.”

He claimed several times at last Wednesday’s meeting that all that was needed to finalize the plan was “one hour” of talks between the two sides, and called it “really unfortunate” that the council had voted to end the relationship “without one conversation” amongst committee members or the redevelopers.

Deputy Mayor Elizabeth Stamler said she shared others’ “disappointment and frustrations,” but added that the council did not want to agree to a plan with terms that were not suitable to the municipality. Township Zoning Officer Robert LaCosta, backing the council’s move, reminded his colleagues that, “we get only one shot at getting it right.”

Planning Board Chairman Joseph Doyle said the back and forth over some of the plan’s verbiage — the developer “shall” versus the developer “may” — “comes down to who’s in control” of redevelopment: the township or the developers.

Mr. Strowe noted that the four public parcels of downtown property slated for redevelopment are “the people’s land, the taxpayers’ land.” He said that, “we have to insist on the absolute best parameters and vision” and, echoing Mr. LaCosta, that redevelopment officials “only get one shot to get it right.”

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