Thursday, April 22, 2010

Proposed UD Bookstore Downtown Newark - April 22, 2010

mailed today to the mayor and city council members:

April 22, 2010

Dear _____,

I wrote to you last month on the issue of the proposed UD bookstore in downtown Newark. I have testified before city council a few times, as a resident (since 1990), as a business owner (Mallard Advisors was established on Main Street in 1996), and as a representative of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Newark (established over fifty years ago). I see that this item is on the agenda for this Monday’s city council meeting. I would like to discuss it further.

Playing Fair and Paying Fair Share—You cannot negotiate with a partner when that partner has a gun to your temple. The UD must decide whether the development of this section of historic downtown, the central business district of our city, is subject to the city’s rules and procedures, including its zoning rules. If it wishes to claim exemption, then they should claim it immediately, suffer the severely negative public relations ramifications, and subject themselves to a lawsuit. Otherwise, irrevocably accept that the development of this property is fully subject to the city’s rules.

It is patently unfair for the UD to claim that they are working with the city, but at any point to hold the ability to reject what the city’s process requires. The City of Newark should refuse to work with the UD on this project until the UD irrevocably states whether this project is subject to the city’s rules or not. If they choose to work outside the city’s rules, then they shouldn’t waste the city’s or the residents’ time with what is essentially a farce.

40,000 square feet of this property would be commercial space, pure and simple. Establishments within that space will be competing for the same consumer dollars that other downtown Newark businesses are competing. That competition playing field must be level, and fair. It is unacceptable that commercial entities within that property, which compete with other downtown Newark businesses, have any unfair advantages, such as being exempt from real estate taxes (or paying rent to an entity that is exempt, as that rent would be artificially and unfairly low), paying lower costs for utilities and other services than do the other downtown Newark businesses.

Until the issue of whether (or how much of) the proposed facility is subject to real estate taxes, the council lacks sufficient information to approve the request. The council should table any approving action on this proposal until it knows exactly the tax impact of the property. You must have all relevant information before making any permanent decision.

Parking and Traffic—Council would be grossly negligent if it approved the requested $1.1 million parking waiver. Use of two parking areas, totaling fewer than 60 spots is worth far less than $1.1 million. I cannot stress enough the irresponsibility of council members voting in favor of granting such a waiver.

The parking waiver request is accompanied with a supposition that the vast majority of employees and customers who use this very large property will arrive on foot. Most other proposed property on Main Street can make the same argument, and yet all other proposed property on Main Street is subject to the city’s off-street parking requirements. Granting this million-dollar giveaway to the University would deal another body blow to fairness to downtown area businesses.

As a past UD student (and graduate), a twenty-year city resident, and as the owner of a downtown business for more than a dozen years, I have seen how automobile use for UD students has changed over the years. For that matter, as the father of a twenty-year-old, I understand how prices for textbooks have risen over the years. It is foolish to believe that today’s UD students will all (or even mostly) arrive at the bookstore to purchase $400 of textbooks on foot.

The Off-street parking requirements were developed based on reasonable expectations of parking needs of employees and patrons. City Council would regret for years refusing the $1.1 million that the requirements note are necessary to provide the city with the resources to supplement the downtown parking which will be overwhelmed with the addition of 60,000 square feet of space downtown. City businesses will suffer irreparable harm from the frustration that their potential patrons will feel when they cannot find parking, and when they encounter more and more frequent gridlock, that would result if the City Council approved this (or any) proposal for a 60,000 square foot space with only 36 parking spaces.

Process, One-Sided Partnership—The UD has over the years claimed to work ‘in partnership’ with the City and the community. In this proposal, they have failed miserably. At the February 18th Board of Adjustments meeting, Mr. Bergstrom ‘noted his disappointment with the lack of community involvement.’ At that meeting the Board was asked to approve an incredible 80% variance (from 35’ to 63’) on building height. I share Mr. Bergstrom’s disappointment that such a critical issue was requested to be decided without an advance public meeting. Two weeks later the UD went to the DNP Design Committee, not to work together to come up with a nice plan, but to get their blessing on a completed design.

In the March 2nd report of the DNP Design Committee, they noted that the project does not even attempt to follow the design guidelines. They note that it failed to meet the height guidelines, the roof and cornice line guidelines, the composition guidelines, the rhythm guidelines, the proportion of openings guidelines, and the materials and color guidelines. They urged the project to ‘look toward less ‘industrial’ looking materials.’ These are not subjective complaints (‘eye of the beholder’ issues)—these are clear violations of clear design guidelines, which our ‘partner’ has simply disregarded. That is not the behavior of a partner.

I fully support an owner of property in the central business district to develop that property, subject to the city’s rules. However, I object to the University’s disregard for maintaining a level playing field for area merchants, the University’s disregard for paying its fair share to the city for the services that the city provides, the University’s disregard for the parking and traffic implications of introducing a 60,000 square foot building to the central business district, the University’s disregard for including its so-called partners (the City and its residents) in its plans for this downtown property, and the University’s disregard for the design guidelines that the City has thus far successfully used to maintain the wonderful appeal of our downtown area.

I urge City Council to refuse to approve this process 1) until the tax-exempt status is known, 2) unless the University pays its full share for its plan’s parking which dramatically fails to meet the City’s Off-Street parking requirements, and 3) until DELDOT has prepared a traffic study to provide an unbiased report on the project’s impact on downtown parking and gridlock.

Changes to our City’s central business district and its most historic block should not be rushed. To make the best decision on this matter, you require more information than you presently have. For the sake of the City, I urge you to table this proposal until you are able to make a better-informed decision.

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