By Coleen Burnett
Eatontown — The April 27 meeting of the Eatontown Borough Council was like watching kids play a rough and tumble game of basketball in the schoolyard… until the owner of the ball announced they were done playing and were going home.
In what can only be described as a series of stunning developments, Kushner Co., the owners of Monmouth Mall, pulled the plug altogether on any redevelopment of the site. Back in February, Kushner had proposed a $500 million makeover of the property into what they called a “24/7 live, work and play” environment called Monmouth Town Center.
Catering to millennials, the company presented a concept of four- and five-story high-end apartment buildings with one- and two-bedroom units, an eight-story hotel, and among other things, a place for rooftop golf. There was an affordable housing component that could have helped the borough meet its COAH (affordable housing) obligations.
Two weeks after that presentation the council introduced an ordinance to change the zoning of the mall area, permitting, among other things, residential use. A “yes” vote by the council on April 27 would have allowed Kushner to proceed to the Planning Board with a site plan.
Instead, the project slammed to a screeching halt.
The council meeting was held at the Memorial School in anticipation of a large crowd. Several top officials from Kushner attended. There did not seem to be anything unusual at the start except for the fact that it was held at a different location.
Mayor Dennis Connelly began the meeting by reading a prepared statement, which said in part:
“Every day we read about large stores closing and companies going bankrupt … Malls as we know them are dying. The biggest draw at our mall is the movie theater over any retail store. We need our mall to survive, this town relies on it… The plan before us will do this,” Connelly said.
“The Town Center mixed use will create jobs, will not burden our schools. This plan will make a positive tax ratable for many years. Our roads can handle it and it doesn’t cut down one tree, it actually adds green space,” he continued.
The mayor had been saying as much for several months. But then, in a surprise reversal — and bowing to a largely negative reaction from residents who live near the Mall — Connelly announced that he felt the project should be changed further. He urged the council to vote no on the ordinance.
“I can honestly say to the residents tonight: I hear you,” he said. “I want our professionals to scale the project down, not change it totally, but let’s increase the buffers to our single-family homes, decrease the height of the mixed use buildings, eliminate or scale down the hotel, eliminate the roof golf, improve the language to eliminate schools and put controls on the games of amusement. After doing this, I hope more of you will accept this plan,” he concluded.
Those remarks alone would have been a big story. But the drama wasn’t over yet.
Members of the public were then given their say. Only one person spoke in favor of the project – a businessman with interests in Red Bank. His comparison of business in Red Bank versus Eatontown was shouted down with hoots and catcalls. Those who spoke against adopting the ordinance — some carrying signs that said “Vote No On Mall Ordinance” — were met with cheers and applause.
Perhaps intimidated by both Connelly’s remarks and the public’s displeasure, Kushner Co. apparently reached its own decision on the project right then and there. Jennifer Bernell, the Director for Development for Kushner, rose to speak.
“I just spoke with the Kushner family and we had felt over the past nine months that we were making great headway in terms of working with the municipality in improving the mall and devoting incredible resources. Given the response tonight, we realize that these changes are not welcome and we are planning to leave the mall as is.”
With that, the Kushner reps walked out a side door at the school, with applause and cries of “See ya!” “good riddance!” and “goodbye!” ringing in their ears.
Connelly and the council seemed stunned at the turn of events. Voting on the ordinance suddenly became a moot point. Nonetheless, the Council voted 6-0 against its adoption.
And as of press time, no one seems to know what will happen next.