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Lambertville residents question city concept plan

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Lambertville, N.J., residents have made their voices heard.

On Feb. 20, Mayor Julia Fahl and city council listened to some 40 to 50 residents question a concept plan that would consolidate the municipal building, library and police headquarters into a complex that would be built in a flood zone. The proposal is part of the city’s efforts to address budget shortfalls.

Resident Jeff Klein said the city’s proposal provides “an idea and a vision but not a plan.”

Nearly 200 people, many spilling out into the Acme Screening Room lobby and into an adjacent hallway, turned out to hear plan specifics.

Residents sought details, which included the price tag of the professional renderings of the concept plan on the Acme site, how much taxes will go up, which alternate sites are being considered, the urgency of moving forward with the city’s affordable housing obligations and tying those obligations with the service consolidation.

“I would hate to see us destroy the nature and atmosphere of our town,” Benedetta Lambert said.

“It just seems like overkill where it is and how much it’s going to cost.”

Kevin Burns said that the city’s flood insurance premiums would skyrocket if the complex is built on the Pittore Justice Center/Acme Screening Room site.

Since the proposal was made public Fahl has said it is at the beginning stages and repeated city officials are still “really at ground zero.” Consolidation and location discussions would continue during what she characterized as an “extremely transparent process.”

Soon after city officials unveiled the community development plan earlier this month, Lambertville United, a grassroots citizens’ watchdog group formed.

According to organization member Lillie Chen, the current plan is “rushed, flawed and lacks good sound engineering understanding or planning to solve space and repair issues.” Proposing to sell off historical buildings “to develop a high-rise complex to house police, library and municipal employees is an insult to the historical integrity of Lambertville,” Chen wrote in an email.

Fahl announced city council would be accepting applications for a “community advisory team” of between 18 and 20 residents with various backgrounds, which represents “another layer of public comment” for the proposed project.

“What concerns me is the process so far,” resident Jeff Tittel said. City officials rolled out a professionally designed plan but residents were not getting answers to their questions about it.

“That’s exactly the way developers act,” Tittel said. “You have not demonstrated need. Without that I don’t think there is any reason to go forward.”

The potential tax impact to residents is impossible to determine in the early stages of the process until a consolidation site has been determined, Fahl said.

Fahl said city officials are “looking at multiple different sites internally” and are “not committed to building on any particular site.” Whatever they do, Fahl said, the city’s ongoing commitment to historic preservation would be honored.

City Administrator Alex Torpey said he did not immediately know how much money has been spent on the proposal but said he would find out and make the figure available.

Several residents suggested a series of community charrettes to determine which direction the city might take to address fiscal problems.

Other residents refuted the city’s statement that the buildings in question are not in good shape and feel there is no reason for an out-of-scale, precedent-setting consolidation project.

Resident John Hencheck said when the library was restored during the 1980s, he was involved in securing $0.9 million, partly at the federal level, in library grant funding.

According to Hencheck, if the city sells the building, the federal grants must be repaid.

Hencheck also suggested that grant funding might be available for expanding the current library.

Fahl said the city could “potentially consider” building a library extension, but that the library would have to be shut down during the process. She said the council would look into it.

Dave Ringer, a registered architect and former engineer, said the current city buildings are in “fine shape.” He offered his services pro bono to do an assessment. “I’m willing to do an unbiased review” of city buildings “from someone who has no ax to grind.”

It was not immediately known if city officials would accept Ringer’s offer or if Ringer would apply to the city’s new community advisory team for the proposal.

Asked if the city was looking at shared services to ease the budget crunch Fahl said the construction office was being shared. “There’s more to do and we’re working on it,” she said.

City planner Emily Goldman said that the city must have 28 affordable housing units built before July 2025, but Fahl said getting the affordable housing units built was “significantly time sensitive.”

Resident Barbara Walsh said affordable housing and the desire to for a municipal complex are separate issues and need not be linked together.

To learn more about the community development project or to apply for the community advisory team, visit lambertvillenj.org/communitydevelopment


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