By Jennifer Kohlhepp, Managing Editor
There’s a movement to make Hightstown a lakefront community, with the addition of buildings for residences, restaurants and retail businesses where the parking lots currently exist near Peddie Lake.
The Borough Council and Planning Board held a special joint meeting Wednesday to discuss the “Vision Plan for Downtown and Lakeside Improvements.”
“The concept is to basically create a waterfront village with a promenade so that we can take better advantage of our lakefront and create a destination that is unique to the region,” Councilman Charles “Lee” Stults, who is both liaison to the Planning Board and Downtown Hightstown, said.
Downtown Hightstown, a nonprofit organization dedicated to enhancing the downtown experience, hosted weeks of public meetings and hired Looney Ricks Kiss, a professional planning firm from Princeton, to help develop the vision plan with public input and private donations.
“This vision plan is not the plan and it will probably, hopefully if it comes to fruition, change 40-50 times before all is said and done,” Brent Rivenburgh, Downtown Hightstown chairman, said.
Mr. Rivenburgh sees the vision plan as a plan to “bring Hightstown back to the commercial center it once was.” In the late 1800s and early 1900s the entire lakefront was developed with 12 buildings, including mills, commercial buildings and a hotel, he said.
Jim Constantine, a principal at Looney Ricks Kiss, said his firm helped facilitate a process in which the community could express its vision for the downtown lakefront.
“We used a vision survey, which allowed people to select images they felt were most appropriate for Hightstown’s waterfront,” said Mr. Constantine. “People were also asked to suggest ideas for uses, features and activities they would most like to see and we collected dozens of terrific suggestions.”
The input allowed Looney Ricks Kiss to design concepts for the downtown lakefront that reflect a collective vision that many people would like to see realized.
“A waterfront promenade lined with shops, restaurants and cafes, (with) an active waterfront where people can get close to the water — see it, touch it, hear it, use it (for) public activities, events and entertainment,” he said. “A vision for Hightstown is to create the most unique and attractive downtown waterfront experience in the region.”
The vision expressed during the meeting is one in which four new two-and-a-half-story buildings are added to the waterfront (three along the water and one next to Tavern on the Lake) and the current Wells Fargo Bank building is extended. The parking lot would be shifted closer to the current bridge but would be repaved with colored textured pavement to make it more plaza-like. There would be a cobbled-textured walkway near the lakefront that would provide additional parking along the storefronts during business hours and room to host events such as a farmers market and a food truck festival during evenings and weekends.
“It would be an elegant walkway reminiscent of Europe,” Mr. Constantine said.
The vision also includes adding a historic element such as a “waterwheel combined with a visitor center or an ice cream shop” near the bridge.
“Something iconic that connects with the history of when this was a working waterfront,” Mr. Constantine said.
While some of the parking won’t be designated until the development is designed and underway, the First Baptist Church is considering providing additional parking for community events in its parking lot.
“The parking lot behind the church could become shared parking,” Mr. Constantine said.
Mr. Constantine also presented a second scheme that included a larger building next to the Tavern on the Lake that would have parking underneath.
“This would be a more costly approach,” he said.
There are also the options of creating parallel parking along the tavern’s side of the street and extending Stockton Street down to the waterfront, according to Mr. Constantine.
To help calm traffic in the area, there are the options of creating “shared spaces” downtown, which would make roadways more pedestrian-friendly, and creating a roundabout at the intersection of Main and Franklin streets, according to Mr. Constantine.
After the presentation of the vision study, the board and council opened the meeting up to public discussion and questions. There were approximately 100 people in attendance and everyone who took to the podium expressed interest in making the vision a reality for the lakefront.
The concerns that were raised included the bulldozing of 20 mature trees along the lakefront for the project and calling for the development in a flood zone.
Mr. Stults said trees are an important part of the development and more trees would be planted within the project area after some of the existing trees were removed.
Mr. Constantine said developers could opt to raise the elevation in areas to avoid flooding and noted that all building would have to abide by township and state regulations.
When asked what taxpayers would get from the development, council members answered new ratables as well as increased property values.
The final question was what happens next. Mr. Stults said making the vision a reality would entail a long process that takes years. Both the board and council would have to formally accept the plan via a resolution. Once that happens, the board would consider amending the borough’s master plan and making zoning changes that would allow for the development. The board would also consider, if the council asks it, to designate the project an area for redevelopment.
“This would help from a development standpoint of putting all the land together,” Mr. Stults said.
Wells Fargo owns “a large chunk” of the land in the project area, Mr. Stults said, and the bank did not want to be involved in discussions about the plan until borough officials formally accepted it.
Daniel Trent, who owns the guitar studio on Franklin Street adjacent to the project area, said, “I think this is an absolutely breathtaking vision of what this town can be.”
He said change is inevitable but the borough can choose which way it wants to go.
“If you don’t change, what’s going to happen, and if you do this, look what the town can be,” he said.
Mr. Constantine said, “Maybe some don’t share this vision and they want the waterfront to remain a place for parking primarily. The community has a choice it has to make and I hope the dialogue continues.”
Planning Board Chairman Fred Montferrat said he doesn’t want to see the project deflate and encouraged community members to keep breathing air into the plan.
“I encourage people to come to Planning Board meetings and we will listen to what people have to say,” he said.
Mayor Larry Quattrone ended the meeting by saying, “A destination town has to have something that will draw people to it.”
By Jennifer Kohlhepp, Managing Editor