Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 41
Wednesday, October 10, 2007
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Borough Hall and Downtown Developer Continue to Contend with Stalemate

Matthew Hersh

Princeton Borough Councilman Andrew Koontz said late last month that the ongoing public dispute between members of Council about how to deal with the ongoing private dispute between Borough Hall and its contracted firm heading up the Borough’s long-stalled downtown redevelopment project, was being conducted at the “expense of the public.”

Cognizant of that concern, Council continued last Thursday its public discourse on how to deal with the developer, Nassau HKT Urban Renewal Associates, LLC, at a special Council meeting, prior to going into closed session, and once again, members of Council were divided as to how to proceed.

Princeton Borough contracted with Nassau HKT to develop major sections of land that were previously occupied by surface parking lots. A first phase of that development, on the former Park & Shop lot along Spring and Witherspoon streets, resulted in the near completion of a public plaza, a mixed use residential and commercial building facing that plaza, and a municipal garage.

While that first phase hit resolvable obstacles, including a deposed general contractor, a series of now mostly resolved liens filed by subcontractors against that former contractor, and water seepage in the garage basement, the issues facing the Borough and Nassau HKT on the second phase of development — a five story commercial/residential building on the current Tulane Street lot — appear to have created a significant level of tension between the two bodies.

The Tulane project, or Phase II, received approval from the Regional Planning Board of Princeton in 2004, though ground has yet to be broken and with colder weather approaching, it appears increasingly unlikely that any construction will be underway this year.

At the center of an evident stalemate is a disagreement over 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, per the developer’s agreement, precluded NHKT from getting started on the Tulane lot.

Another apparent sticking point concerns who will pick up the tab for the legal fees incurred because of the liens filed against the Phase I general contractor, Troast. Those fees, according to Borough Hall, fall somewhere in the $30,000 range.

At Council’s special meeting Thursday, while Council members deliberated going into closed session during a brief public portion, other concerns were aired. Princeton Borough attorneys have advised Borough Hall to deal with sensitive negotiations between the Council and developer in closed session. Some members of Council, however, have started questioning the wisdom of that approach.

“It makes no sense to meet with NHKT because Council does not know how to proceed,” Mr. Koontz said before going into closed session to discuss ways of dealing with the developer, and not to discuss directly with NHKT. “We’re going into this in an unprepared state.”

In August, the Borough furnished what is being described as a “final offer” to NHKT. Details of that offer have not yet been revealed, but some Council members have indicated that if an impasse between Borough Hall and NHKT worsens, it could result in a temporary hold-off on the Tulane Street development, the potential search for a new developer, or finding alternate development options for the site.

Councilman Roger Martindell worried that extending talks over the final offer would open a “Pandora’s Box,” causing the Borough to become “weaker and weaker and weaker” in negotiations leverage.

Closed session discussions are not uncommon for municipal government when entertaining negotiations dealing with legal and personnel matters, but individual members of Council have expressed frustrations with the process thus far. The Nassau HKT firm, headed up by local restauranteur Jack Morrison, has stayed out of the public arena as the Borough proceeds with the stalled public project, though Council President Peggy Karcher said Thursday that a resolution was in sight.

“We are closer than we have been in some time,” she said. “It’s our job to work at this.”

Councilman David Goldfarb said that the “final offer” was more of a bargaining chip than a definitive stance: “Nobody in any successful negotiation is totally satisfied — if you think we can achieve what we have in our final offer, than you may as well get up and leave.

“We have to be willing to keep an open mind,” Mr. Goldfarb said.

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