Housing market, bad; rail towns, good

The Transit-Friendly Development newsletter is one of those wonk-ish things that probably doesn’t get much pub outside of public policy and bureaucratic circles. So, of course, I subscribe.

A joint effort between NJ Transit and the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University, the newsletter publishes three times a year. In the previous edition, it reported on the Town Center plans and has featured Rahway in the past. The January edition reported on a presentation at the League of Municipalities Conference last fall by a real estate appraisal and research group. Basically they said the housing market is a nightmare — with one exception:

“Affected by the strength of the Manhattan housing market, as well as a national trend showing distinct preferences among 20-somethings and baby boomers for live-work-play locations such as New Jersey, one bright spot in this slumping sector is housing in transit-rich locations. While expensive suburban homes languish on the market, with 48 weeks of inventory, housing near locations with excellent rail connections to Manhattan is flourishing with less than a six-month supply of unsold homes.”

The piece fails to mention either the North Jersey Coast Line or Northeast Corridor, instead pointing to Glen Ridge and Montclair on the Montclair-Boonton Line; South Orange, Maplewood, Millburn, Summit and New Providence on the Morris & Essex Gladstone Branch; and Roselle Park, Cranford, Westfield and Fanwood on the Raritan Valley Line.

Granted, most of the towns cited are more affluent than Rahway to begin with. However, say what you will about NJ Transit or its service, the city probably has better rail connections than any of them. It’s one of the few places Rahway can be mentioned in the same breath as those (and one thing it has in common with Summit, which like Rahway is where its two train lines split). While the Morris & Essex line also has a train to Hoboken, the Raritan Valley only goes as far as Newark Penn Station and weekend service doesn’t exist on the Montclair-Boonton.

P.S. The newsletter also has an update on downtown redevelopment efforts further down the Northeast Corridor line in nearby Metuchen.

More traffic changes afoot

While the Irving-Fulton realignment continues, plans also are in the works for assorted traffic changes around downtown, including:
* Signalization of the five corners intersection near the Union County Arts Center;
* Two-way traffic on Main and Irving streets; and,
* Reversing some one-way streets in the other direction, including West Cherry and Coach streets.
The Fulton-Irving realignment project is expected to last through April, completed around the same time the hotel is planned to be ready.
The City Council earlier this month approved a $114,000 contract for city engineers to develop modifications and signalization for the intersection where Irving, Main and Hamilton streets meet Central Avenue. The project will commence once traffic is converted to two-way on Main and Irving streets, and includes widening Irving Street opposite the arts center, modifying the Civil War monument island at West Main and Central, and constructing a triangular island at Hamilton and Central. City Administrator and Redevelopment Director Peter Pelissier said the projects should be completed by July.

Concerts and comedy

For the second straight time, our poll ended in a tie, with two options garnering a strong majority of the votes.

“What would you like to see at the Union County Performing Arts Center?”

Concerts, 36 percent (9/25)
Standup comedy, 36 percent (9/25)
Plays/musicals, 16 percent (4/25)
Movies, 8 percent (2/25)
Other, 4 percent (1/25)

The last poll also finished in a tie, and there was no word on what that “Other” vote might have been. Feel free to use the comments section to fill us in.

It was interesting that “standup comedy” finished first considering the plans to create a black box theater and performing arts space down the street, that’s always been talked about for a comedy club. The question also remains, what kind of concernts might people want to attend? There’s been no shortage of Paul Anka or Dar Williams at the arts center over the years; is that filling a need, or are people looking for something else? Interesting that plays/musicals only garnered four votes, as the center’s expansion included making more space for larger productions (as well as adding air conditioning for year-round use). Personally, I love when old-school movies that you’d never see on the big screen anywhere else, like Easy Rider or Citizen Kane, are screened at the UCAC.

The arts center likely will reopen next month following a year-long, $6-million expansion by the county. The 1928 facility will have an “updated” name, adding “performing” to its moniker. Check out the new poll question to the right, as well as the new option to subscribe to the blog via email.

Cubanu: A review

I’ve been meaning to check out the latest addition to the downtown, Cubanu, a new restaurant/lounge at the corner of Main and Lewis streets. Some might remember the previous tenants of the corner bar: Eighty Eights and Fat Tuesday’s.

I’m not all that picky when it comes to food (I’m one of those people who was raised to clean this plate), so it would take a real effort to serve up something I didn’t like. Given that my girlfriend Kathleen and I were excited to finally try Cubanu since it opened late last year, I expected that we wouldn’t be disappointed when we paid a visit Friday night. We were far from disappointed.

Two things jumped out at me when we got there. Though the physical layout isn’t much different from the previous bars, the decor was nice; it just fit really well. Loved the entrance way between the dining room and the bar, and later we both admired the colorful wall tile behind the bar. Maybe it was just the tableclothes and silverware, but as soon as I sat down I already had the impression that this was going to be one my best dining experiences in Rahway. Spanish versions of “I Will Survive” and “Hotel California” also just cracked me up; they embodied the whole evening, something different in Rahway.

To start, we went with the Cha-Cha Sampler so we could select three of the tapas chioces. We chose the Maria Rosa, Empanadas and Cubanitos. Kathleen’s favorite was the Maria Rosa, basically two balls of mashed potatos stuffed with meat and deep fried. I loved the Empanadas, perhaps the best I’ve ever had, though admitedly, I haven’t had all that many in my time. All in all, the apps were terrific.

For her entree, Kathleen selected the Paella el Malecon and I had the Pollo Tropicano. When I first viewed Cubanu’s menu on the Web, it was little pricier than I expected. But the portions are pretty healthy and you also get to choose two of about six sides. Though my chicken at first was a touch dry it got better and we both ended up with plenty of leftovers to enjoy for lunch the next day. I thought a very unique touch was being presented with the check in a cigar box. It’s definitely different from cookie-cutter casual dining places.

If there was anything I didn’t like about our visit, it was extremely minor, like keeping water glasses full, but the number of staff and their friendliness more than made up for that very minor critique. There weren’t many selections of wine by glass, and we probably would’ve been better off getting a bottle.

The very next night, I happened to meet friends (from Rahway and out of town) for impromptu drinks in Cubanu’s lounge. Our party of about six all had good things to say and were pretty excited about a new choice in downtown nightlife. The lounge was a bit warm and it was actually easier to have a conversation while the live Latin jazz trio played than when they were on break and the music was blaring. All in all, we had very good things to say about our experience in the lounge.

If people want to talk about Rahway being “the next Hoboken” or “the next (fill in the blank),” it needs more destinations, places that give people a reason to come. No one’s coming from out of town to go to The Waiting Room, Flynn’s or The Back Porch; all great neighborhood joints where everybody knows your name, but Cubanu seems like the first place in awhile that could be a destination. At the very least, it’s something different, and that’s what any downtown needs: diverse options.

Have you been to Cubanu? What’d you think? Good, bad, indifferent? If you plan to go, feel free to send comments this way. In the meantime, keep an eye out for a new poll question this week and maybe an update on the traffic projects downtown.

Pizza Pizza

It was a photo finish in this week’s Rahway Rising poll! “Who has the best pizza in Rahway?” yielded yet another new record for most votes cast with 30, up from 26 in the last poll.

Since it’s not a scientific poll of any kind, this is again assuming no one sat up at night (or got up early for that matter) manipulating it.

While there was no clear majority for any one establishment, some final-day votes pushed two places over the 50-percent mark combined.

Michelino’s, 27 percent (8/30)
Nancy’s Townhouse, 27 percent (8/30)
Other, 23 percent (7/30)
Adam’s, 7 percent (2/30)
Gino’s, 7 percent (2/30)
Ted’s, 7 percent (2/30)
Tony’s, 3 percent (1/30)

It was clear at least two pizzerias were ahead of the pack. Unfortunately, it’s anyone’s guess whether those seven Other votes were for one pizzeria or multiple pizzerias, as I haven’t figured out how to allow write-in votes in the poll, and no one took me up on my suggestion to post their Others in the comments section of blog entries. Regardless, it was another exciting poll for us here at RR, leaving us to wonder whether we should have included even more pizzerias in the poll, i.e., Rahway Pizza, Papa Vito. Perhaps we’ll have a runoff election later in the year, a virtual grudge match to decide once and for all.

Check out the new poll about the Union County Performing Arts Center, which will be reopening next month after a $6-million expansion. As always, RR is open to suggestions for any future poll questions.

Going down? As soon as the state says OK

Among the expected developments Mayor James Kennedy mentioned Monday night in his State of the City address was demolition of the Hamilton Laundry site in 2008.

There have been plans for the site for years — including a Joe Piscopo-backed comedy club — but after last spring’s flooding, it was decided to focus a park and amphitheater on the Hamilton property. Plans still call for a 7,000-square-foot black box theater and 9,000-square-foot performing arts space, but they will be targeted for the nearby Bell building, Elizabethtown Gas property and the Shami Apartments, where flooding is not an issue.

The City Council in November authorized a $825,000 bond ordinance for demolition of the Hamilton Laundry building and an application for demolition is awaiting approval from the state Department of Environmental Protection. City Administrator/Redevelopment Director Peter Pelissier said last week that demolition could occur three to four months once the state gives its OK (he’s hoping for February or March). The state, however, might require a historical soil analysis (basically searching for historical artifacts and such) since an ampitheater will be built. A similar soil analysis was required for The Savoy project on Main and Monroe.

On tap for 2008: Park Square, Sky View

Nothing Earth-shattering in the mayor’s State of the City address last night. The new year should bring with it the completion of Park Square and Sky View at Carriage City Plaza, which includes a Hotel Indigo. Mayor James Kennedy pledged that downtown redevelopment efforts would continue to see progress this year, despite a downturn in the national economy as a result of the subprime mortgage crisis.
The largest portion of the mayor’s nine-minute remarks focused on a new billing method for sewage. He expects the city’s assessment from the Rahway Valley Sewerage Authority (RVSA) to increase from $3.6 million in Fiscal Year 2007 to $6.1 million in FY 2010, or almost 70 percent in the next three years.
Speaking of the subprime mortgage mess, what effect has it had on Rahway’s plans? I happened to pose that question to City Administrator and Redevelopment Director Peter Pelissier just last month, after reading about Asbury Park’s problems, and one Hoboken developer switching condo projects to rentals because of the housing market.
Pelissier said the city hasn’t been adversely affected by the real estate market — in terms of redevelopment — and rattled off an update on a number of projects:
* Park Square (rentals) has made plans to take out permits for the second building, which will face Main Street.
* Dornoch I (Main and Monroe streets) has taken out permits for The Savoy (36 units for purchase with 7,000 square feet of retail).
* Station Place (Five stories, with 80 units and 132 parking spaces, on Campbell Street between Elm and Cherry, for purchase) is still in the process of acquiring properties and relocating the main tenant, A&M Tool Co.
* Wheatena (Elizabeth and West Grand avenues) has requested assistance on the acquisition of properties for its 200-unit project (for purchase).
* Renaissance at Rahway, 72 units with underground parking, also requested assistance of the Redevelopment Agency to acquire the remaining three properties necessary to control the site (Triangle Inn area on Monroe Street). Five of the eight properties necessary are under contract.
* The Town Center project in the City Hall area is still being discussed, and the potential developer is negotiating with retailers as well as the property owners on the site. “As you can imagine this project is complex and will take some time to coordinate all the components of a project this size,” Pelissier said.
If a developer wanted to convert a condo project to rentals, as in some towns, the developer would have to come before the Redevelopment Agency again for approval, he said.
“Each week developers contact the mayor or myself inquiring as to the possibilities of developing in Rahway,” Pelissier said. “Also take a look around the downtown area, properties are being improved in the Arts District as well as throughout the downtown. This points out the small investor continues to believe in the future of Rahway as well as the larger developers.”
The mayor also mentioned that City Council has authorized demolition of the Hamilton Laundry site. I’ll have an update and potential timeline on that later this week.

A blog about all things redevelopment

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