Councilman urges borough to seek new downtown developer

Rest of council optimistic on reaching resolution with Nassau HKT

By: Nick Norken
   Councilman Roger Martindell is calling for the Borough of Princeton to begin seeking alternative developers for the downtown redevelopment project.
   Mr. Martindell, in a June 11 memo to Mayor Mildred Trotman and the council, said the move would improve the borough’s leverage in ongoing negotiations with Nassau HKT, the project’s current developer.
   The premise was disputed by several council members interviewed on Thursday. However, none had replied to the memo at that point, Mr. Martindell said. Mayor Mildred Trotman said Thursday that she had not yet read the document.
   Nassau HKT’s performance on the project has generated increasing criticism in the borough. Mr. Martindell cited the developer’s failure to install the planned pergola and complete repair work on the municipal parking garage and said these issues are "bona fide reasons to believe that Nassau HKT might not be up to finishing this job."
   He added, "They don’t have financing in place for Phase 2 of the development and are now in default of their obligations to the borough under the development."
   In his memo, Mr. Martindell said he is not advocating "at this time defaulting NHKT" but believes the borough should actively "explore alternatives to NHKT so that we are not at their mercy during negotiations with them."
   Several council members contacted by The Packet downplayed the need for such leverage, saying that significant progress is being made in negotiations with the firm.
   Councilman David Goldfarb said, "We don’t have the ability to do that at this stage of the process. We have an agreement with Nassau HKT that we are obligated to honor."
   Even if the borough was able to pursue another developer, it shouldn’t, he said.
   "There aren’t a lot of issues," he said. "And the ones that remain are close to being resolved."
   Councilwoman Margaret Karcher agreed — and cautioned against throwing "the baby out with the bath water."She added, "In principle, I do not believe that we have come to the point where we should be looking at a different developer. I have every belief that we are going to reach an agreement."
   Councilman Andrew Koontz said he thinks the borough is "on the right track" with negotiations.
   "I think that the Finance Committee has been doing a good job at narrowing the issues down and I think we’re approaching full resolution," he said. "Currently, I think the council has agreed that we continue forward with the Finance Committee negotiating with Nassau HKT with the mind to resolving all the outstanding issues and allowing for the completion of the project."
   However, he didn’t rule out defaulting Nassau HKT’s contract if it becomes necessary "down the road."
   He added, "Obviously, the redevelopment agreement contemplates that a developer might be found in default and that we might have to change developers, but I don’t see the borough at that point at this time."
   But Councilwoman Barbara Trelstad said the borough should keep its options open.
   "I think we probably should begin looking in that direction to see if we can get the situation moving forward one way or another," she said. "That’s not to say that we should stop negotiations with Nassau HKT. I think those should continue."
   Ms. Trelstad said seeking other options could be a way to motivate Nassau HKT to compromise, or a potential way for the borough to find a developer that will offer a better deal.
   "I think in any good negotiating situation, you shouldn’t close off your options," she said. "Otherwise then you really aren’t negotiating, so to speak."
   But Councilwoman Wendy Benchley said the borough is negotiating — and is "absolutely" making progress.
   Although she said the borough does have the option of seeking another developer, she said "it’s illogical and damaging to start out with that option."
   She added, "That’s not the way one negotiates, by saying ‘throw it all out.’ You negotiate first and come up with a settlement that you can agree with, and if you can’t, then of course we will look for another redeveloper."
   Ms. Benchley said she rejects the notion that council members have been "pushovers" during negotiations.
   "I object to the implication that we are somehow not negotiating from strength. We’ve talked about our bottom line — and what we will absolutely not give way on — many, many times," she said. "I would like to make it very clear that we are taking firm stands on important elements in the contract."
   And while Ms. Benchley said she believes Nassau HKT has clearly heard that bottom line, Mr. Martindell said there are "several reasons to pursue other developers to finish the downtown development."
   He said those include the fact that Nassau HKT has not installed the pergola or finished the repair work on the parking garage, which, he said, are "bona fide reasons to believe that Nassau HKT might not be up to finishing this job."
   He added, "They don’t have financing in place for Phase 2 of the development and are now in default of their obligations to the borough under the development."
   Mr. Martindell said the pursuit of a new developer will "inform Nassau HKT that we have alternatives and we’re not forced to accept whatever they have to offer."
   Alternative choices could include "the other developers that made proposals to us when we first started this several years ago," he said, mentioning Hillier Architecture and firms in Trenton and elsewhere in North Jersey.
   Mr. Martindell said Thursday that no council members had directly responded to his memo. Mayor Mildred Trotman declined comment on the memo Thursday saying that she has not yet read it.
   Mr. Martindell said the memo underscores his belief that the borough is not a partner with Nassau HKT.
   "There’s no basis that we can characterize what we’re doing with Nassau HKT as a partnership," he said, noting that such a mindset could lead to concessions.
   He took issue with such a characterization by Mayor Trotman at Tuesday’s council meeting when she said the borough must respect the developer by not going public with negotiations.
   "Even though we are a public entity and we have to disclose whatever we do, we are partnering with a private entity, and we have to consider their involvement and privacy in this partnership," she said.
   Mayor Trotman’s comments came during a discussion prompted by resident Mark Freda’s request that the council schedule a discussion of the status of the project at a future meeting.
   Mr. Freda, a former borough councilman, said the update should include "a list of all the issues or discussion points that are ongoing between the developer and the borough" and "a list of current positions on each party on each issue or point."
   Among the questions he said should be posed are whether there is a timeline for resolving such differences, whether the borough has alternative options if an acceptable compromise cannot be reached, and if the borough needs an "outside expert to resolve any of the specific issues."
   "I just think it would be valuable information for the taxpayers in town to have a better idea of what’s going on with the downtown development," Mr. Freda said.
   Mr. Martindell agreed, but some borough officials said negotiations are held in closed session for a reason.
   Mayor Trotman said she did not support seeking the public’s input at this point.
   "As much expertise and experience as people in the public have, I think right now we simply cannot spare staff time to bring anyone up to date to discuss these issues, which we have been discussing for months," she said. "At this point in time, when I think we are so close to getting these issues resolved, I would not like to … backtrack and bring in a whole new set of players."
   Councilman David Goldfarb agreed.
   "The problem with negotiating in public — which is essentially what Mark Freda asked us to do by identifying our respective positions and discussing how we got that result — is that it makes resolving them much more difficult. Because everybody has made their position public and moving away from that position is awkward," he said.
   Mr. Goldfarb said the public would be updated at the appropriate time.
   "I have every expectation that we’re going to reach a resolution with NHKT, but when we do, we should give the public adequate time to understand what it is that we’ve done in our proposing before we take the final action necessary to move the project ahead."
   Although she noted her frustration that she cannot discuss certain issues, Ms. Benchley said the borough must be careful about what is revealed to the public.
   "Legally you have to be very careful what you say and what you present," she said. "You don’t want to nix the negotiations," she said.
   However, she said significant progress has been made.
   "I think they are making such good progress now that we might get this done within the next couple weeks," she said. "If we don’t, then I think it would be worthwhile to explain what we can to the public."