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Frustration Over Levin Rutgers Plaza Proposal Bubbles Over At Council Meeting

Township Councilman James Vassanella speaks about the former K Mart property during the November 10 Township Council meeting.

The topic of what’s to be done with the former K Mart building in Rutgers Plaza generated some spirited discussion at the November 10 Township Council meeting.

The topic was broached by several members of the Franklin Township Chamber of Commerce, who asked the Council to work with the property owner, Levin Property Management, to come up with a solution for that building.

Those comments prompted an angry rebuke from Township Councilman James Vassanella (D-Ward 5), who expressed skepticism over Levin’s claims that it cannot attract another retail company to that space.

Levin has proposed razing the former department store, as well as the attached retails paces, and in its place building a 4-story, 200-unit apartment building. The building has remained empty since K Mart closed in the summer of 2018.

The project needs a zoning change from commercial to residential, and the Council has expressed its opposition to that happening.

Chamber members have appeared before the Council in the past, urging Council members to talk with Levin principals about the project.

At the November 10 meeting, most of the Chamber representatives took a more low-key approach.

“I’m not here to propose a solution,” Chamber president Juanita Painson told the Council. “We encourage you to avoid that area becoming a dead zone along one of our gateways to the township. That will have a grave impact on the businesses and residents of Franklin Township.”

“We implore you to continue the conversation to find a mutually acceptable solution to both the township and owners of Rutgers Plaza,” she said.

Chamber member Bill Grippo pointed out that McDonald’s recently received Planning Board approval to move its store from the Village Plaza across Easton Avenue to the former Burger King space in Rutgers Plaza.

“We really need to focus on some resolution there, something that Council could help move forward so that the businesses thrive,” he said. “We have to keep this project moving, because it’s ridiculous to ride into a town like ours and see that plaza the way it looks.”

Chamber member Peter Stavrianidis, who also owns Venus Jewelers in Rutgers Plaza, was a little more direct in his ask.

Rutgers Plaza, he said, “has been declining because of the changes that have been taking place. Retail is not the same. We can’t say we have to go back, it’s not going to happen.”

“I have spoken in-depth with the landlord because it not only concerns me as a businessperson, as a resident of this township, but it concerns the other merchants that are there,” he said. “God forbid it becomes a dead zone. It will be on your resume, I don’t think we’ll be proud of it.”

“Rather than allow a confrontation between the township and the landlord, I think we should open our eyes and our hearts and we should think like true leaders,” he said.

Stavrianidis said the Levin project “is good for the township.”

Vassanella was unusually blunt in his response.

Referring to an October 13 special meeting of the Planning Board, in which Levin representatives tried to make their case for the zone change and the overall project, Vassanella said, “what’s been presented to the Planning Board, it’s insincere, incomplete, misleading, and some of it is just downright wrong.”

“The people that presented were paid mega-dollars to make their employer hundreds of millions of dollars over the next couple of decades,” he said.

“I’ve talked to no less than 400 or 500 people over the last few years, or I should say they talked to me, livid that it has even gotten to the point it’s gotten to,” he said. “I have not heard one person that didn’t have some kind of vested interest … have anything but disgust, disdain and concern that our town is just not hearing us. I’m talking hundreds.”

“If the place is falling apart, why did McDonald’s just work so hard to get … I don’t know, I would guess it’s at least several million dollars for one of their flagship, new McDonald’s?” Vassanella asked.

“I don’t know why we’re even still talking about it,” he said.

“This thing is beyond ridiculous,” he said. “Yeah, we need leadership that is going to do not only what is right today, but what will serve this town for the next several decades. And the idea that that thing won’t survive and flourish.”

Brandishing a sheaf of papers he said were news stories about other former retail buildings being converted into uses other than residential, Vassanella said, “I think the people who spoke tonight should be going to Levin and asking them why … in the tri-state area … not only are they, but other developers constantly reinventing commercial properties for commercial uses?”

“I’ve been hearing the arguments for three years, and it gets sillier by the day,” he said.

Deputy Mayor Crystal Pruitt said she was “exasperated” because no real creativity has gone into planning a new use for the space.

“Our position on the residential plan does not preclude any imagination on other opportunities, so … there’s so much and I think when this has come up before and I was so exasperated that we have to think out of the box and do something creative, that was also kind of a message to developers that we can’t default to residential,” she said.

“I don’t know how clearer we can get in our position when it comes to that specific part, but the door is open to many other creative things,” she said. “I would like something really cool there.”

“K Mart has been sitting there for years, and we, as a governing body, did not go about exploring our options, Councilwoman Kimberly Francois said.

Mayor Phil Kramer said that he would have no problem meeting with Levin representatives.

“I do think there is an opportunity to be creative there,” he said. “I have no problem with meeting with them, I think it should be in public, though, so if they wish to present to us in public, for our comments, that’s fine with me. Other Council members may disagree.”

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