By John Burton
RED BANK – Long-debated and argued – and for some too long neglected – now is the time to restart discussions of building a borough parking garage, some business and property owners say.
“I think the parking garage is more essential than it’s ever been,” said Linda Cohen, who owns and operates Eye Design, a retail business in the borough’s downtown business district.
Among those forwarding the idea are: Cohen; John Bowers, president of Philip J. Bowers and Company, which owns and manages commercial and residential properties in Tinton Falls and Red Bank; and Elizabeth Waterbury, a civil engineer with offices on the upper floor of 17 Monmouth St. They would like to get local officials and the public engaged in a discussion about what they see as the many merits of a borough-built, owned and operated municipal garage. Such a facility could be used for employees and customers of local businesses and borough visitors.
“It’s essential; we’re at a tipping point,” said Cohen, who has operated her borough business for 15 years and has lived here for 14. The borough’s commercial district has been seeing a resurgence with some new businesses venturing into what had been vacant storefronts, she said. It is imperative that plans begin to address the chronic parking shortfall. “If we don’t create the parking, we’re going to end up having a shrinking of the area, instead of an expansion,” she said.
Bowers contends that it is the parking slot shortage that has contributed to the in-and-out of tenants in downtown storefronts over the years, and the inability of property owners to find viable tenants for office space in the upper levels of those buildings.
“With the shortage, tenants come in and tenants go out,” unable to meet the need of their customers and employees who feel inconvenienced by the difficulty in securing a spot, Bowers said.
“Every day you hear customers complain about the parking situation and how frustrating it is,” Cohen said.
Things have gotten more competitive for merchants, as they try to hold their own against other recently redeveloped areas, such as Asbury Park and Long Branch’s Pier Village, and what cyber shopping has done to traditional brick-and-mortar businesses.
“We have to create an ambiance that is unique in terms of customer service,” Cohen said. That means offering customers the accessibility to encourage foot traffic and “have a social experience that they can’t have online.”
A parking garage would require the governing body to build a garage that would not only benefit businesses but the whole community by making commercial properties more profitable and attractive. That would result in higher commercial property values that would help carry a larger portion of the tax burden, the proponents argue.
The debate is not new. For years there have been complaints from elected officials, commercial property owners and business people that the seemingly perpetual parking deficit was hurting them.
It reached its peak in 2001, when then-Mayor Edward J. McKenna Jr., with the support of some of his Democratic allies on the borough council, proposed an $11 million bond ordinance to underwrite the construction of a multitiered parking facility at the White Street municipal lot. Along with building it, the borough was to operate it. Officials maintained the garage would be a profit-maker for the municipality and would offer employees and visitors a long-term parking solution.
That proposal was endorsed by Red Bank RiverCenter, a public/private partnership that is the management and advocacy organization for the borough’s commercial Special Improvement District. RiverCenter waged its own local public relations campaign to win public support. But there was considerable opposition from some elected officials and residents who were against tax dollars being used to subsidize the downtown businesses.
When it appeared the measure did not have enough votes to be adopted, it was withdrawn. Since then, the matter comes up now and again with officials offhandedly expressing support for it under appropriate conditions.
Cohen and Bowers believe the garage would be profitable. But, should there be an economic shortfall in the garage’s operation, they are proposing that RiverCenter and its members absorb that cost. Property owners in the Special Improvement District pay an additional assessment levied against their property along with their taxes. That assessment is used for RiverCenter’s annual budget, to support its marketing projects and other activities. Bowers said, either through RiverCenter’s current budget or by slightly increasing the assessment, any deficit the garage would run could be covered. “One way or the other, the money would be there,” he said and that would protect taxpayers and should allay their fears.
RiverCenter Executive Director James Scavone said his organization “remains fully supportive of a parking garage.” While not speaking about a specific proposal, he said, “I think if anything promising comes along,” the organization and its executive board would certainly consider it.
Cohen and Bowers have yet to broach the subject with RiverCenter’s executive board. But “there comes a time when you have to put up or shut up,” Bowers said.
Mayor Pasquale Menna, whose 2001 decision to ultimately reject the bond ordinance to build a garage made the proposal dead on arrival, has since said on occasion he would support a garage proposal if “it made sense.”
In the past he suggested looking for a private developer to assume responsibility for building and operating a parking garage on borough-owned property on White Street and forming a public/private partnership that would benefit both. No such proposals have ever come before the public.
Last week Menna said there would be discussions on a possible garage in the immediate future. Any plan would “have to make sure the public is protected.” He would like to see a group with professional planners and other experts formed to assess the options and seek proposals in the near future.
Time is important. It’s “sooner rather than later,” to help the community continue to rebound, Cohen stressed.
“You either move forward or you’re regressing,” she said. “I really think we need to move this forward now. We can no longer afford to put this in the background.”