Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 32
Wednesday, August 8, 2007
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Town, Builder, Hope to Iron Out Differences

Matthew Hersh

Princeton Borough Council last week entered into a closed session meeting to discuss how it can revive negotiations with the developer of the municipal redevelopment project in the heart of the Borough, and how the two parties can continue talks while addressing financial and legal obstacles that have imposed significant delays to a project first approved more than three years ago.

However, both sides this week were confident that the planned project — a five-story, 53-unit residential and commercial building on the current Tulane Street municipal parking lot — will get underway, possibly as early as this fall.

Neither the Borough nor the developer, Nassau HKT Urban Renewal Associates, have set a timetable for renewed negotiations for the estimated $14 million project, though it is unlikely that any resolution will be effected before September, as members of Council have repeatedly asserted that no major decision regarding the development or the municipal agreement with the developer will be made during the summer.

While all parties involved have stopped short of outright optimism, words like "progress" are being used to describe status of negotiations, a tentative departure from the mood in recent weeks when NHKT-Borough talks had soured.

The three main points of disagreement involve the NHKT proposal to put up a personal guaranty for Phase II over some Council members' preference for a cash performance bond; the time by which NHKT was supposed to start paying ground rent on the Tulane Street property; and the determination of who is responsible for financing upwards of $30,000 in legal bills tied to liens filed by subcontractors working in Phase I (Witherspoon House, the Spring Street Garage, and Hinds Plaza) against the ousted former general contractor, Troast.

Council has come up with a proposal that it was slated to discuss in closed-session yesterday after Town Topics went to press, and while "we haven't come to common ground, I wouldn't say that there is an impasse," said Councilman Roger Martindell, who has recently intensified his criticism of the developer, and of Council's handling of the stalled project.

And while the developer, headed up by Witherspoon Grill and Blue Point Grill owner Jack Morrison, as well as a Princeton Borough silent partner, has stopped short of saying both sides are ready to shake hands on a deal, officials close to the negotiations have said progress is underway.

Robert Powell, a former NHKT principal now working as a consultant with the firm, said that the ground rent factor is what the main hold-up is now. While the Borough's position is that NHKT should have started paying ground rent, about $15,500 per month, to the Borough in April 2006, Mr. Powell has held firm that because NHKT was responsible for repairing a water seepage problem in the garage basement, the firm could not, per the developer's agreement with the Borough, begin work on Phase II.

"We fixed the slab in the garage, but our feeling is that if we're going to pay rent for Tulane Street, we should have been able to use it," Mr. Powell told Town Topics Tuesday.

In June, the Borough and NHKT were close in settling the issue, but those talks disintegrated after Council's response to a June 26 status report issue by Borough administrator Robert Bruschi. The basic outline of that near deal, Mr. Powell said, was that the Borough would turn the site over to the developer, effectively launching a 12-month timetable for the NHKT to complete substantive portions of the building. At the end of that period, the developer would start paying rent. The main concession on the developer's part, Mr. Powell said, was an offer to offer to start the 12-month timetable upon receipt of permits, which is likely to happen within the next few weeks.

Mr. Bruschi, however, said that had they moved more expeditiously to resolve the garage issues, work on Phase II could have begun sooner. "You need to factor in while we did not formally turn [the land] over, they controlled their own destiny," he wrote in an e-mail message.

Both Mr. Powell and Mr. Bruschi did say, however, that work will likely begin in September on a planned pergola that will line the periphery of Hinds Plaza.

Mr. Powell was also confident that ground could be broken on Tulane Street this fall. "We have our permits ready to be issued, the job is bought out, and we're ready to go."

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