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Vol. LXII, No. 24
Wednesday, June 11, 2008
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Parking Garage Troubles Threaten Future of NHKT/Borough Project

Linda Arntzenius

The Mayor and Council of the Borough of Princeton were scheduled to vote on the authorization of a set of contract “estoppels” with its developer, Nassau HKT Urban Renewal Associates LLC (NHKT), when they met in public session last night at Borough Hall (after Town Topics press time).

If approved, the measures would allow Phase II of the litigation-plagued development to go forward. Phase II includes plans for a five-story commercial/residential building (Building C) to be erected on the current Tulane Street parking lot as part of the redevelopment of the area bordered by Tulane and Spring streets.

So far, Phase I of the redevelopment project has resulted in disputes stemming from water damage in the basement of the Spring Street Parking Garage and disagreements over the amount of ground rent due to the Borough from NHKT.

In a public meeting held last Wednesday, June 4, members of the Council aired issues that had previously been discussed only in private session.

At that time, Borough Administrator Robert Bruschi presented a financial spreadsheet of estimated and actual revenues and expenses for the period from 2005 to 2007 for the parking garage.

The spreadsheet showed that, for 2007, parking garage revenue was down while operating expenses were up. Councilman Roger Martindell pointed out that compared to the original predictions of 2003, operating expenses are up by about 70 percent.

A recent drop in income was also the subject of discussion. Despite fee increases, garage parking revenue was $872,000 in 2007, down from $949,000 in 2006, and much less than the $1,395,000 anticipated in 2003.

While it was suggested that some part of the 2007 reduction might have been the result of revenues lost from the Princeton Public Library, which cancelled its two-hour free parking for library patrons for most of last year, Mr. Bruschi contended that the expected revenue was not realized because Building C had not yet been completed. “If Building C was completed we’d gain another $400,000 as well as additional monies from increased residential and retail leases,” he said.

In reporting garage operating expenses of $345,000 in 2007, $30,000 more than in 2006, and much more than 2003 projections of between $210,000 and $230,000, Mr. Bruschi acknowledged that staffing levels had turned out to be higher than originally expected because many residents were not familiar with the workings of the garage so that it was necessary to have an attendant on hand. He also reported unanticipated costs to replace barriers that had been broken at night when drivers had driven through them.

Mark Alexandridis of Princeton Avenue, a close critic of the project since it began, said that a more accurate assessment of costs to the taxpayer would result from a comparison of the financials for the new garage with those that would have come from the Park and Shop lot that it replaced.

The Princeton taxpayer was “sold” this on the basis that it would be “revenue neutral,” said Mr. Alexandridis, whose own spreadsheet showed cumulative losses to the Borough of $3.1 million.

“I don’t think we can ever get to zero on this project,” commented Mr. Alexandridis, who predicted a deficit for at least 10 or 15 years. He urged the council to pull the plug on Phase II.

“Some assumptions haven’t panned out,” acknowledged Mr. Bruschi. “However, at this point in time, we have a garage with a problem that we are doing the best we can to fix.”

Mayor Mildred Trotman said that she would look at Mr. Alexandridis’s analysis prior to last night’s vote.

Water Damage

The Borough’s consulting engineer Kevin Carrigan, director of engineering at Timothy Haahs & Associates of Blue Bell, Pa., reported on the state of the garage basement. He said that the cumulative effects of water rising and falling on the steel reinforcement in the concrete was of concern, but declined to say whether corrosion had already happened and what its impact on the lifespan of the structure would be since that was a matter for further study over time.

Mr. Carrigan told the Council that the basement slab had been “underdesigned and unable to withstand the hydrostatic water pressure” from the start. He said that while initial flooding in the basement had been addressed through a series of tie-downs, further leaks could be expected.

“The foundation slab is not as good as it would have been if it had been designed correctly in the first place,” commented Councilman David Goldfarb.

According to Mr. Martindell, the Borough has been asked to give a credit of $400,000 to NHKT for further work on the foundation slab because the work of strengthening it was to a degree and at an expense not contemplated in the original agreement.

“We Were Right”

At last Wednesday’s meeting, the Council was taken to task by local taxpayers angered over the costs and the nature of the redevelopment.

Madison Street resident Marvin Israel said “I have been watching this project since its inception and while I was happy to see a parking garage go up, I was not pleased that an apartment building was part of the deal.” Mr. Israel suggested that the leak-prone parking garage on the aptly named Spring Street would not have needed a basement at all if it hadn’t been for the need to create parking spaces for the apartment building while still staying within the Borough’s height restrictions for the garage.

“We should cancel the contract with NHKT as soon as possible and not go ahead with Phase II,” Mr. Israel said. “As a taxpayer, I feel that I am being taken advantage of for the benefit of NHKT.”

One area property owner told Council members that since the parking garage had been built there had been increased water in the basement of the apartment building he owns. He expressed concern that Building C might cause further displacement of groundwater if it was being built with a basement. He was told that the basement of the proposed Building C had been removed in the revised plan.

Linden Lane resident Eleanor Lewis, one of a group of over 75 residents who had made their reservations about the Phase I redevelopment known to Borough Council right from the start said: “We believed your assumptions were aggressive but our concerns were ignored.”

“It turns out we weren’t wrong, we were right and you were wrong, and it will come out of the taxpayers hide,” said Ms. Lewis. “You treated the taxpayers like trash, quite frankly, and you owe us an apology.”

Princeton Future

Travis Linderman, director of the Borough Merchants of Princeton, and Sheldon Sturges, managing director of Princeton Future, spoke positively of the redevelopment project. Both urged Council to move ahead with Phase II since Phase I had already shown good results in the successful completion of Hinds Plaza, a mixed use residential and commercial building, and the parking garage.

Mr. Linderman told the Council that Borough merchants believed Phase II would benefit downtown in economic terms as well as beautify the Tulane Street area.

Mr. Sturges said that the plan was supported by Princeton Future, which had been involved with the redevelopment plan from inception and had facilitated public discussions to ensure Phase II incorporated amenities beneficial to the community, including a grocery store and affordable housing.

When the discussion veered into whether or not to proceed with Phase II of the project, Mayor Trotman said that this was not the subject of discussion for that night.

Letter to the Editor

In a letter to the editor dated June 6 (see mailbox), Councilman Roger Martindell argued against proceeding with Phase II of the project with NHKT because the developer had “botched” Phase I in material ways.

According to Mr. Martindell, a vote by Mayor and Council authorizing Phase II to proceed at this time would “amount to a song and a prayer.”

A report of last night’s meeting will be included in next week’s Town Topics.

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