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Vol. LXII, No. 18
Wednesday, April 30, 2008
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Borough Challenged to Open NHKT Sessions to Public Discussion

Linda Arntzenius

Mark Alexandridis of Princeton didn’t mince words last week when he asked Borough Council to “come clean” about its closed session negotiations with developer Nassau HKT Urban Renewal Associates, LLC.

Princeton Borough has a contract with NHKT to develop land previously occupied by surface parking lots. The first phase of development along Spring and Witherspoon streets produced Hinds Plaza, as well as a mixed use residential and commercial building, and the Spring Street garage.

While Phase I was not without problems, including water seepage in the garage basement, closed-session negotiations have failed to resolve issues that are holding up the start of Phase II — a five-story commercial/residential building on Tulane/Spring streets.

Calling the relationship between the Borough and its developer “dysfunctional,” Mr. Alexandridis, a money manager for a large institution, asked: “Isn’t it time for a public discussion on this? We haven’t seen financials for this project in about a year. What are the issues holding things up?”

Mr. Alexandridis said that the Borough had not shown any transparency on this matter during the last seven years. “There is evidence that this is going nowhere,” he said.

In response, council member Andrew Koontz agreed that it was time to make the financials public and suggested requesting Borough Administrator Robert W. Bruschi to do so. Mr. Koontz also said that he for one felt comfortable in discussing the issue publicly. Progress on the project had been “slow to non-existent,” he conceded.

Negotiations center on a disagreement as to when NHKT should have started paying the Borough ground rent on the Tulane Street municipal parking lot. The Borough contends that the developer should have begun making payments, about $15,000 per month, starting in April 2006. NHKT principals have said otherwise, citing delays to the completion of the garage that, according to the developer’s agreement, precluded NHKT from getting started on the Tulane lot.

In a letter to Town Topics, Mr. Alexandridis described the Borough’s NHKT talks as a one-step-forward and two steps-back process with the council holding firm one minute and then retreating from a “prudent bargaining position” to enter into mediation the next. “This battered spouse negotiating posture is unlikely to lead to anything but a dreadful outcome for Borough stakeholders,” contended Mr. Alexandridis, who is urging the Borough to “euthanize the project.”

According to Mr. Alexandridis, abandoning the project would have several advantages including reduced congestion at a time when other downtown construction projects are underway; maintaining parking levels at a time of increased demand; and savings to the taxpayer.

In a telephone interview following last week’s meeting, Mr. Alexandridis commented: “This project has a history going back eight years. The project is about $3 million under budget. It was ‘sold’ to the Borough citizens as revenue neutral to the parking lots it replaced. But the reality is far from revenue neutral.”

It looks as though Mr. Alexandridis is not alone in his dissatisfaction with the Borough/NHKT relationship and the closed-session negotiations.

In a telephone interview with Town Topics, Roger Martindell agreed that the public has a right to be part of the decision-making on this project. Rather than hold closed sessions that culminate in two short presentations to the public followed by a vote, he believes that an ongoing discussion with the Princeton taxpayer about the complex issues involved would be a good thing.

Noting that the developer’s permits expire in August 2008, and that new building codes might mean extra costs for NHKT, he pointed out that there is not a lot of time to play with if the board is to vote on the next phase of the development before permits expire.

Asked whether it might be advantageous to the Borough to let the permits lapse and drop the current developer, Mr. Martindell said that he was open to such an argument.

He cited several reasons that the Borough might want to walk away from this project: “the consideration that parking is now tighter in the Borough than ever before and the development of the site means losing existing parking spaces on the Tulane lot whilst increasing the demand for parking with more shops and homes; the question as to whether NHKT is the right developer to continue to work with given current litigation and the anticipation of more; and the fact that the economic situation has changed since the development was first planned.”

Mr. Martindell said that the Borough now had an opportunity to step back and decide whether to proceed. “There is no reason this discussion could not be done in public such that residents could give sound advice and illumine the issue,” he said.

Negotiations have been held in closed session by majority vote of the Mayor and the Council. By law, negotiations of substantial matters and litigations are allowed but not required to be held in closed session. Traditionally, sessions have been closed because it is thought that sensitive matters are generally discussed more freely in such cases.

At last week’s meeting, Council President Margaret Karcher said that the issue would soon be included on the Council’s board meeting agenda.

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