Environmental issues facing Liberty Village redevelopment

FLEMINGTON — George Vallone has a simple reason he wants to redevelop Liberty Village with 140 market-priced townhouses, 55 affordable townhouses, 180 apartments and to donate a building Flemington can use as a new town hall.

“I love the city,” he said Wednesday night during a virtual presentation of his plans to redevelop the 24-acre mall site. “I like people.”

Vallone, a Bedminster resident who lived in Clinton Township, said he had a “liking” for the county seat and was looking forward to creating a project that would “invigorate” Flemington.

‘I think it would be fun,’ he said, describing himself as ‘kind of a local guy’ who used to visit Flemington ‘all the time’ when he lived in Hunterdon. He remembered how “awesome” lunch was at the Union Hotel.

Not only has he pledged to include a park on Brown Avenue as part of the project. he also said he would donate the “Polo Building” which now houses the Ralph Lauren store in Flemington for use as the town hall.

When Liberty Village opened its doors four decades ago in 1981, it was a big hit and expanded in the late 1990s.

The current municipal building on Park Avenue is cramped and has a “third world” feel, he said.

Townhouses at market price would be targeted for the middle of the market with a price of $350,000 to $450,000.

The townhouses, which will be built where the shops are located, would be built in the first phase of the project. The apartments, planned for parking near Route 12, would be built in Phase II.

Vallone said architectural renderings of the “stacked” four-story townhouses have not been developed.

He said they would be “pretty” and “we try to keep them as affordable as possible”.

“I’m not a Disneyland developer,” he said, explaining that they wouldn’t have a “fake” Victorian facade.

“That would be wrong,” Vallone said.

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Recent housing studies commissioned by the borough indicate there is a market for 1,000 more homes in Flemington, he said, adding that getting people to move to the county seat is key to revitalization.

“Housing really is the key to reinvigorating Flemington,” he said.

The more people who live in Flemington, he said, the more people will patronize downtown businesses. And that will have a cascading effect and attract even more business, Vallone added.

Businesses on Main Street, Mine Street and Stangl Road will be within walking distance, he said.

He doesn’t see the rehabilitation of Jack Cust’s Courthouse Square and the Union Hotel as competition, because the downtown housing is rental housing, not for sale.

With Courthouse Square and proposed projects for Liberty Village and the Agway site on North Main Street, Flemington could be close to 1,000 new homes in five to 10 years, he said.

Townhouses would target both young people and empty-nesters who no longer want the hassle or expense of maintaining suburban or rural properties.

The Black River and Western Railway would continue to operate its weekend passenger excursions to Ringoes, he said, adding that he would meet with Trans-Bridge Line to see if the company wished to maintain a park-and-ride on the property.

Environmental challenges

Vallone is president of Hoboken Brownstone Co. which has undertaken redevelopment projects for four decades, mostly in urban areas like Hoboken and Jersey City.

But he’s no stranger to redevelopment of a brownfield site with environmental issues, he said, and that’s what Liberty Village is.

Because it was built on the site of an iron forge, Vallone estimated it would spend $1 million to remediate contamination that dates back a century.

“There is a lot of contamination” in soil and groundwater, he said.

The other major environmental obstacle is the flooding of the parking lot next to Route 12 where the apartments are offered.

About three-quarters of the parking lot is in a flood zone, he said.

If the state Department of Environmental Protection does not approve an “innovative” plan to mitigate flooding in the parking lot and nearby properties, Vallone said he could have the apartments built on catwalks with parking below.

Consultants are “modelling” the flood, he said, drawing up the plan which now involves digging up 12 acres and using the material to raise the parking lot above flood stage.

Once the project is complete, it could mitigate flooding on the property and downstream, he said.

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Only six of the nearly 70 storefronts in the country’s first mall are still open, he said.

Often, he says, there are more workers in stores than customers.

The leases expire within the next two years and Vallone said he was ready to buy them out.

It does not provide for development, based on targeted buyers, adding to the school population.

And, noting the general national population trend with declining school enrolment, whatever children are generated by development will “fill the empty seats”, he said.

The development would help stabilize the borough’s property tax rate, he said, and should generate “little or no need” for additional municipal services.

Flemington’s water and sewer systems can handle the development, Vallone said.

Next steps

The next step in the process is for the borough council to appoint a redeveloper for the site. It could happen as early as February.

Then, a redevelopment agreement must be negotiated between the borough and the redeveloper.

At this stage, detailed site plans will be drawn up as well as architectural plans which will show the appearance of the buildings.

Once this is done, site plans must be approved by the Borough’s Planning Commission and the necessary DEP approvals must be obtained.

Vallone said if all goes well and on schedule, the first townhouses could “go up” in mid-2023, with the first residents moving in in 2024.

“We want to push this thing forward,” he said.

Vallone said it was too early to decide whether or not to pursue a payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) agreement with the borough.

Wednesday was the second time Vallone had met with locals to present his plans. On January 12, the Flemington Community Partnership (FCP) hosted an in-person meeting at the Stangle Factory which was attended by approximately 80 people. Robin Lapidus, Executive Director of FCP, also moderated Wednesday’s Zoom meeting.

Attendees at Wednesday’s meeting had about 150 questions for Vallone, who said he would be “totally happy to meet people who want to meet me.”

“The questions make me think,” he said.

Vallone said he is “accessible”.

“I think I have a responsibility to listen to the public,” he said.

Email: [email protected]

Mike Deak is a reporter for mycentraljersey.com. To get unlimited access to her articles on Somerset and Hunterdon counties, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.