From No. 400 to No. 467

Rahway tumbled to No. 467 in New Jersey Monthly‘s biannual ranking of top towns in the Garden State. Rahway ranked No. 400 the last time the magazine compiled rankings two years ago. The city was sandwiched behind Monroe Township (Middlesex) and ahead of Harvey Cedars Borough (Ocean), slotting into the 83rd percentile, the bottom fifth of the state’s 566 towns. (Bedminster (Somerset) ranked No. 1, accompanied by a story, and here’s a .pdf of the entire ranking.)

Eight of Union County’s 21 towns ranked in the top 100, led by Mountainside (8) and followed by Berkeley Heights (19), Clark (24), Cranford (34), New Providence (66), Scotch Plains (75), Summit (76), and Springfield (85). Five county towns ranked behind Rahway: Hillside (507), Roselle (533), Linden (540), Plainfield (543) and Elizabeth (563). Other nearby neighbors ranked No. 280, Edison, and No. 358, Woodbridge.

It seemed like a rather peculiar ranking this year, as more than a few towns within the top 20 had jumped from the 200s and 300s the last time around.

According to the report, NJ Monthly‘s research team selected “a prototypical indicator corresponding, respectively, to each of these eight categories”:
* Population growth rate since the last Census (2008)
* Three-year change in median home prices (2009)
* Median property tax bill combined with change in median taxes the past two years (2009)
* Percentage of land preserved as open space (2009)
* Unemployment rate (2008)
* Total crime rate (2008)
* Proficiency on state-mandated standardized tests for fourth-, eighth- and 11th-graders
* Number of acute-care hospitals within 10 miles

“To level the playing field, household income was not considered and home values were measured by the rate of increase/decrease over three years rather than current prices. To compare land development, towns with relatively slower growth and more open space were rated more favorably. Towns with lower unemployment and crime rates also scored higher, as did those close to more hospitals.”

Arts District board to take over SID management

The City Council will vote next month to shift management of the downtown Special Improvement District (SID) to the Rahway Arts District, a precursor to a revamped Rahway Center Partnership. The ordinance, introduced at the council’s Feb. 8 regular meeting, also would expand the SID to include the Arts District, namely the Hamilton Street arts projects.

The arts district would receive and oversee the funds collected through the SID’s special assessment. The SID, created by the city in 1993, generates about $140,000 annually from 165 commercial properties in the downtown area. Commercial property owners today pay roughly an additional 7 percent to the SID, beyond regular property taxes, according to City Administrator and Redevelopment Director Peter Pelissier. For example, a commercial property owner paying about $10,000 annually in property taxes would pay another $700 to the SID.

SIDs were created in New Jersey in the mid-1980s as financing tools by local businesses to provide services as part of a revitalization downtown plan. Commercial property owners “organize and assess themselves in order to pay for the services that are needed.” Cities have used it for things like security, sanitation, graffiti removal, facade/streetscape improvements, marketing and special events.

The future of the Partnership itself is up in the air, with an almost certain transformation in the coming months. Among the options that will be examined, according to Pelissier, is consolidating the Partnership with the Parking Authority. The city will compare the operational costs of both entities and see what’s necessary. The Partnership, he added, could still host its major fundraisers and special events, such as Hot Rods and Harleys, The Taste and a wine tasting event.

SID money would provide funding for programming at the proposed Hamilton Street amphitheater and black box theater, and in general, could be used to “develop activities and programs to encourage the long-term success of the arts community in the Rahway Arts District,” according to the ordinance. The arts district board is made up of downtown stakeholders, including city officials, artists, restaurant owners and a developer, Pelissier said.

The ordinance will come up for a public hearing and final adoption at the March 8 City Council meeting.

*** FULL DISCLOSURE *** I was appointed last month to a three-year term as an “honorary member” of the Rahway Arts District Board of Trustees. Honorary members do not vote and do not have the same obligations as other board members; all are unpaid. I expect to attend meetings whenever possible as a means to inform the community, as my blog has always aimed to do.

City moves to buy Beverage Shop building

The City Council last week introduced an ordinance to purchase the vacant Beverage Shop building from the Rahway Center Partnership (RCP) after Dornoch defaulted on its agreement to acquire it. A public hearing and final approval is scheduled at the council’s regular meeting on March 8.

The Partnership bought the one-story structure at 52 E. Cherry St., (Block 318, Lot 18) in April 2001 for $130,000, and had an agreement in July 2006 to sell it to Dornoch. The property was to be part of the developer’s downtown plans and RCP, as I understand it, acquired it at the time as a way to control problem properties/tenants, with the intention of it becoming part of the larger plan. In late 2007, Dornoch presented plans to the Planning Board to knock down several East Cherry Street properties — including The Beverage Shop — and build a new four-story structure as part of what’s sometimes referred to as Dornoch II 1/2.

Dornoch, which also planned two other projects that have since stalled — The Savoy and The Westbury — has defaulted on its agreement and payments of almost $8,000 to RCP. Annual property taxes on the building are more than $6,700, according to property records, which haven’t been paid for the last two quarters, according to City Administrator and Redevelopment Director Peter Pelissier.

The City Council also approved a contract with Prime Appraisal to appraise the property and the ordinance opens the door for negotiations. The building has been vacant for a few years and its condition is unclear, Pelissier said. The city plans to assume the agreement with Dornoch, put a lien on the property and likely list it for sale.

In addition to Dornoch defaulting on its agreement, the Partnership lost funding from Merck and NJ Transit and faces some major structural changes in its future which will be detailed in the next post.

Irving St. side of Park Square 90% leased

About 90 percent of the units at Park Square are occupied with 57 of the 63 units in the Irving Street building leased, according to rental manager Nilyne Fields.


Continue reading Irving St. side of Park Square 90% leased

City purchases $90k piano for conservatory

The City Council on Monday night approved $90,000 for the purchase of a handmade Italian piano as part of the plan to establish the Klavierhause Piano Conservatory. The council entered into a contract with Piano Culture Institutional Consultants at Klavierhaus “for the purchase of a Fazioli Pianoforti F-228 (photo below) to enhance the Arts District Expansion Project.”

The piano retails for $140,000, according to City Administrator and Redevelopment Director Peter Pelissier, but the city will pay $90,000, with “another source outside of the municipal tax base” that will contribute $5,000. The piano will be on loan to the Union County Performing Arts Center (UCPAC) and can be moved for performances at the planned amphitheater as well as the arts center.

The bank building adjacent to UCPAC (on the corner of Coach Street) will be retrofitted to house the Klavierhaus Piano Conservatory, which will offer a variety of recitals, lessons, performances and more “with special emphasis given to young people.” The Edge art gallery nearby is being eyed for a satellite sales office for Klavier, where it could feature console pianos, according to Mayor James Kennedy.

A world-class piano brings an interesting component of a respectable art form, Kennedy said, and it shows that city is serious about the arts, especially to funders like the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.

The piano will attract internationally renowned pianists that have chosen Fazioli pianos in concert halls, conservatories, theaters and recording studios to perform and record their performances for the public to attend, according to Pelissier. “This is one component that will be a tremendous asset for the UCPAC to provide for and make Rahway a distinct destination of the arts,” he said.

A ceremony to celebrate the piano’s arrival will be Sunday, Feb. 21, at 4 p.m. at the UPCAC Studio Theatre, featuring Russian-born pianist Vassily Primakov.

Asked how a $90,000 purchase for a piano could be justified as property taxes rise, Pelissier described it as an investment in the arts district and the city’s overall redevelopment plans, not unlike the county’s $6-million purchase and renovation of UCPAC, construction of the library and recreation center, and renovation of Train Station Plaza.

“Municipalities that have concert halls have testified that the monies that come in to their respective towns and cities are in the millions resulting from parking fees, spending in restaurants, etc.,” Pelissier said. “In as much, as redevelopment has slowed down with the exception of a few projects, the arts initiatives set forth by the mayor will not only attract people to Rahway, it will continue to attract redevelopers to our city when the economic market returns. Our city will be ready.”