Another season, another controversy in Long Branch. This time, the debate isn’t related to eminent domain abuse, Pier Village, or the long awaited reconstruction of the beloved boardwalk, but rather, the future of the quaint West End neighborhood. The local Chabad, which has long hoped to expand its operations to an adequate facility, has rallied for a change to existing zoning laws, a move which would allow for the construction of a multi-level, block-wide mixed-use property (divided between a religious structure and ground-level retail space). Though a similar proposal was previously struck down by the planning board, it seems that rather than face a potential lawsuit, the City has moved to alter the zoning ordinances, which would allow Chabad to build their structure, spur new development along Brighton Avenue, and permit the New Jersey Repertory Company to renovate the former West End School into a theatrical venue.
Of course, some residents are wary of what economic impact this new development would have, particularly if a religious organization takes up shop in West End, a neighborhood known for outdoor events, quaint mom and pop vendors, and a lively bustling tourist trade. It is a bustling avenue, and West End Park, the local hub, is literally right next door. In the summer, its home to car shows, dog walks, and weekly concerts; the streets are jam packed for these events, sometimes for hours, and it can get noisy. Such is hardly conducive to a house of worship.
At the last City Council meeting, a group of residents voiced their opposition to this plan. In some cases, their critique had to do with suspicion regarding the motivating factor for the ordinance: as was already noted, it appears as though it was essentially an attempt to appease a potential litigant and stave off a lawsuit between Chabad and the City of Long Branch. If this plan wasn’t good for the neighborhood last time around, they wonder, then why is it suddenly being backed by the Mayor and City Council?
“What many people in this room are trying to figure out is what is going on and why there wasn’t a public hearing, on the public record, at a Council meeting, besides this one, in the form of a presentation of the West End overlay, so they can ask these questions and decide if it is in the citizens best interests instead of a government entity taking it upon itself to decide that,” local activist Vince Lepore said. “I requested a postponement, and tonight, apparently, you have ignored it.”
Lepore also warned that the City government was heading in a potentially troubling direction, setting a precedent that could very well run amok: “The City has now ventured into dangerous territory in fashioning an ordinance to accommodate subsequent litigation, particularly outside of a redevelopment zone, and sets a troubling precedent,” he said.
Others feared an increase in traffic and a lack of parking in the West End. Critics pointed out that there is likely a viable reason such development isn’t zoned for that area: for starters, parking is already scarce now, never-mind if existing spaces are taken away for new construction. And what if the bulk of the new spaces are being utilized by worshippers at Chabad: where will tourists and shoppers go? Ultimately, such concerns were dismissed by the legislative body.
“The parking will be better,” Councilwoman Kathleen Billings assured the skeptical attendees. “I know some people can’t visualize it, but if you read the ordinance, there will be shared parking. When the theatre is not having a play, they will let the public park, so there will be places for the public to park where they haven’t been able to park before.”
There were still others who feared that the move would negatively impact West End by altering its small-town appeal. These concerns were perhaps best summed up by Leslie Amato, a life-long resident of the neighborhood.
“Can’t we keep West End the gem that it is?” She asked. “Can’t we have small community businesses?”
Despite the public outcry, the City Council unanimously approved the ordinance, though before Chabad can actually break ground, their proposal will have to be approved by the city’s planning board.