RED BANK – What do you like about Red Bank? And what can’t you stand?
This is what the consultants from BFJ Planning and FHI Studio wanted to know by presenting the issues facing the borough and by soliciting comments from citizens during its first public meeting on the revision of the master plan of the borough.
This once-in-a-decade opportunity allows Borough officials, residents and business owners to have a say in shaping the next 10 years or more of Red Bank.
Comments and suggestions included “cycling is too dangerous”, that the city should create “controls on rent levels” and prioritize a “need for access to water”.
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Susan Favate, Senior Planner, described municipal master plans as a set of policy guidelines that dictate how a municipality’s land is used.
Although the document is not a set of laws, its contents should be considered by municipalities when deciding on land use or investment opportunities.
“The planning board and the zoning board should follow these policies (set by the master plan) in all their actions,” Favate said. “The actions they take must be consistent with the master plan and if they are not, the borough opens itself to a legal challenge.”
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Red Bank’s last major overhaul of its master plan was in 1995, and since then the borough has seen great changes.
Peter Van den Kooy, project manager, said the borough has seen 22% growth since 1990 and a 19% increase in jobs since 2010. As the borough grows, the percentage of people of color declined from 50% to 45%, with the largest drop among black residents at 24%.
He noted that about 12% of residents live and work in the city. And while average household incomes have risen, about a third of residents earn less than $50,000 and, according to the PowerPoint, “income inequality is on the rise.”
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Fill vacant lots
After spending months contacting community members at pop-up fairs, places of worship, housing authority, nonprofits, senior center and schools, the consultants received data survey of 525 people.
Ryan Walsh, community engagement manager, said his team achieved five priority areas. They include: revitalization; new development standards; parks and open spaces; Traffic; and walking, cycling and public transit.
Although Red Bank has limited vacant land available, there are a number of vacant buildings that community members have expressed concern about.
Walsh said one resident wrote, “Vacant properties, surface lots and other poor land uses portray the town negatively to visitors or potential homeowners.”
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Regarding the new development standards, Walsh said community members were concerned that building large luxury developments would “encourage speculators and drive up prices, making it impossible for my family to live here.”
Walsh said his team plans to advocate for more green space in Red Bank, with an emphasis on the riverfront. He said community members want to beautify the parks and want more activities to take place there.
Walsh said community members reported traffic and transportation as their top concerns. He said his team is looking to update traffic patterns and ensure new developments are planned alongside traffic improvements to reduce congestion due to an increase in population. He added that they want infrastructure that makes walking and cycling safer.
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Van den Kooy noted that accidents tend to happen along West Front Street, Maple Avenue, Rector Place and Shrewsbury Avenue. He added that while many residents complain about inadequate parking, many parking lots are underutilized.
Favate said Red Bank has a special vibe unique to New Jersey. She said its small-town feel with family-owned stores is an asset to the town.
“Red Bank is a diverse place,” she added. “We think that’s a fundamental strength. It’s something really special at Red Bank. It is something that should be developed.
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Where changes need to be made
In surveys, Walsh said, areas around Marine Park, Riverside Gardens and Broad Street were most popular with residents, while areas around Riverview Medical Center, the gateway to Red Bank along of Riverside Avenue and the intersection of Maple Avenue, Front Street and Water Street received the most dislikes.
According to urban designer and project manager Adam Tecza, the Red Bank Gateway and Hospital were designated for “small area plans” along with the proposed Sunset Park.
Tecza said the small area plans allow managers to prioritize improvements and private companies to identify investment opportunities.
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He said the entrance gate to Red Bank had traffic issues that made it unsafe for cyclists and pedestrians. It also has vacant gas stations that need to be redeveloped. In an informal poll conducted at the meeting, about 35% of attendees supported turning the vacant 80 Rector Place gas station into a public park, followed by about 20% of attendees voting for a marina or yacht club.
In another poll at the meeting, about 60% of attendees supported turning the vacant gas station at 187 Riverside Avenue into some sort of restaurant, retail or office.
Tecza said there was a possibility of a traffic light being installed on Riverside Avenue and Bodman Place, a proposal that was rejected by the state Department of Transportation in 2017.
“One of the things we’re going to look at are different options,” he said. “We understand that if you’re basically going out of Bodman Place, you might have to cross the bridge, turn around, do a funky U-turn just to get back in the right direction. So we’re really going to study this closely.
Tecza said the hospital, which is Red Bank’s largest employer, has been in tension with nearby residents and has a parking problem.
“The hospital has advised us that there are no immediate plans to make any major changes to the hospital,” Tecza said. “They bought some of the Front Street sites as they became available. According to them, these purchases are really strategic purchases.
He said the needs of the hospital are determined by market forces and in the future there will be more outpatient care, which will mean more medical facilities in office buildings.
He said the current zoning is outdated for how hospitals will operate in the future.
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A number of participants at the meeting advocated taxing the hospital or limiting the amount of goods the hospital could purchase. Under state law, nonprofit hospitals such as Riverview are not subject to property taxes.
Tecza said it was beyond the scope of the master plan study and officials could not prevent anyone from buying land.
The latest “small area plan” involves Sunset Park on the west side of Red Bank. A concept plan was developed in 2017, but it needs top-up funding to make it a reality.
Tecza said that while some projects or recommendations may not materialize, it is important to put it in the master plan.
“Having things in your master plan makes it more likely that (when) grants are available the city can be competitive for these types of projects,” he said. “You want to be prepared so that if a state agency or the federal government changes policy and starts giving grants, (the borough) can move forward.”
Favate said his team hopes to start consolidating recommendations from community members and begin drafting the master plan in September. She said there will be a second public hearing on the project to be held in person in the fall.
Olivia Liu is a journalist covering transport, Red Bank and West Monmouth County. She can be contacted at [email protected]