Friday, August 12, 2005

Matawan defends choice of Columbia Group

Published in the August 11, 2005 issue of The Courier.

Matawan defends choice of Columbia Group

Members of the Matawan Borough Council defended the borough’s selection of the Columbia Group as its lead redeveloper for the Aberdeen-Matawan Train Station Project. Meanwhile, former Matawan Councilman Michael Cannon recounts a version of events that directly contradicts statements issued by fellow Republicans, including state Sen. Joe Kyrillos.


Members of the Matawan Borough Council are not taking recent press reports and calls for investigation into the Aberdeen-Matawan Train Station Redevelopment Project lightly.

At the August 2 meeting of the Matawan Borough Council, Councilman and Matawan Republican Chair Paul Buccellato and Councilwoman Debra Buragina held an impromptu public information session on the project. Freeholder and former Matawan Mayor Rob Clifton attended the meeting.

“Reading the newspaper accounts of this project, one would have to believe that Matawan was wrong and that Aberdeen was right,” Buccellato said. “Number one, New Jersey Transit has endorsed this plan (the Columbia Group’s plan selected by Matawan). Number two, the Asbury Park Press has endorsed it, or favors it. And the state of New Jersey endorsed [the plan] by designating Matawan one of 14 municipalities in the state to be designated as a transit village. Everyone can’t be wrong and Aberdeen right.”

Aberdeen Township Manager Mark Coren said he has seen no official documents pertaining to any endorsement by New Jersey Transit for the Columbia Group’s plan.
Coren also critiqued the transit village designation.

“The designation of Matawan as a transit village is part of this whole process. [Columbia Group principal Jack] Morris’s representative said at presentations heard by officials from both towns prior to the designation [of the Columbia Group as Matawan’s redeveloper] that they were the local team and have friends in state government and can get things done,” Coren said.

Coren noted that, while areas of Matawan surround the train station, the station itself lies within Aberdeen.

Coren said, “How could Matawan even apply for a transit village designation when they don’t have a train station in their town?”

During the August 2 Matawan meeting, Buccellato said an official agreement had not been signed with Morris, but that a resolution had merely been passed designating the Columbia Group the borough lead redeveloper. The borough was still in the process of negotiating, Buccellato said.

“The mayor and council that is sitting up here presently, the freeholder (Clifton), we would not sell Matawan down the drain,” Buccellato said.

An audience member called out, “You already did.”

History of the project

In March 2001, Democrat-controlled Aberdeen and Republican-controlled Matawan joined into an interlocal services agreement for the redevelopment of the Aberdeen-Matawan Train Station.

In the early stages of the project, Aberdeen Township Manager Mark Coren said he worked closely with former Matawan Borough Administrator and current Middlesex County Republican Chair Joe Leo.

“Joe Leo was a real ace in this whole process. There wasn’t a problem that he and I couldn’t sit down and discuss,” Coren said. “He was an honest broker. I can’t say that for the people he was working for.”

In September 2002, five teams submitted plans for the project in response to the interlocal agency’s request for proposals (RFP).

Richard Coppola, planner for the interlocal agency, endorsed a proposal by Silver Oaks Properties saying, “This proposal most closely meets the agency’s plan that has been endorsed by both the [Matawan] Borough Council and the [Aberdeen] Township Council.” Aberdeen agreed, selecting Silver Oaks Properties as the town’s redeveloper.

A plan introduced by Morris’s company, the Columbia Group, was deemed “not consistent” with the interlocal agency’s vision of the redevelopment project. However, Matawan broke with the agency’s assessment and chose the Columbia Group, along with K. Hovnanian and Mack-Cali Realty, as the redevelopment team for the borough in a resolution adopted December 3, 2002.

On two occasions, once in November 2000 and once on or about December 16, 2002, Coren and Leo met with Kyrillos to discuss the redevelopment project.

Coren said that the first meeting was productive. “The senator told us the two towns should work together and hold a public process that was fair and open,” Coren said.

The second meeting, however, was not a positive one, in Coren’s opinion. “It was the first time that it became clear to Joe Leo and myself that there was a preference made by a state senator.”

Kyrillos confirmed that the two meetings occurred but denied that he lobbied on behalf of the Columbia Group.

However, Michael Dasaro, a Democrat candidate for the 13th District Assembly, called the timing and amount of the contributions from Morris to Kyrillos “a little strange” at a press conference on Thursday, July 21 at the Aberdeen-Matawan Train Station.

From April 1999 to June 2005, Morris, his companies and individuals employed by his companies contributed $50,200 to Kyrillos’s campaign funds.

“A quick review of the timeline shows that: one, the municipalities entered into an interlocal services agreement; two, the Columbia Group’s proposal was inconsistent with the plan; three, Sen. Kyrillos lobbied on behalf of [the] Columbia [Group] in Republican-controlled Matawan; four, [the] Columbia [Group] is designated redeveloper in Matawan; and five, Sen. Kyrillos backs then-Matawan Mayor Rob Clifton over long time Freeholder Ed Stominski in the 2004 freeholder election,” Dasaro said. “The residents of the 13th District can no longer sit idly by as their quality of life is bought and sold for campaign contributions and political support.”

Former Matawan councilman
defends Coren, Leo

Former Matawan Councilman Michael Cannon, a Republican, said recent newspaper coverage of the Aberdeen-Matawan Train Station Redevelopment Project has led him to believe that former Matawan Borough Administrator Joe Leo was fired for a different reason than what Cannon was originally told.

“Joe Leo and Mark Coren got along very well. I think [some members of the council] were afraid that Mark and Joe Leo were getting along too well,” Cannon said. “Mr. Leo told me a number of times that there would have to be a compromise [between the two towns] on the train station redevelopment. I think those turned out to be prophetic words. I don’t think that some people on Matawan’s side wanted to hear that.”

Cannon, who was a member of the Matawan Borough Council from January 2001 until July 2005, said he believed that Matawan officials have painted an unfair portrait of Coren.

“Matawan tries to portray Coren as an all or nothing type of guy. I don’t think that’s the case. The bottom line is you have to be honest enough to look back and say does [Coren] achieve things? The answer is yes. If Matawan ran the town half as good as Mark runs his own town, we’d be a lot better off,” Cannon said.
Additionally, Cannon’s account of events that took place while the fate of the Aberdeen-Matawan Train Station Redevelopment Project was being decided contradict statements made by Kyrillos.

Cannon said that, while Kyrillos never contacted him directly, he did recall a conversation with Councilman Joe Penniplede, now deceased, in which Penniplede said Kyrillos placed a phone call to him and discussed the train station project.

“[Kyrillos] wanted to know [from Penniplede] how I felt on the train station redevelopment,” Cannon said.

However, Kyrillos firmly denied that he ever met or even spoke to any member of the Matawan Borough Council regarding the Aberdeen-Matawan Train Station Redevelopment Project.

“Even if I had lobbied these people, which I didn’t and, in fact, had no communication [with Aberdeen and Matawan officials] outside of the two administrators (Coren and Leo) in my office at the same time, so what?” said Kyrillos, noting that he did not have a vote on the Matawan Council and therefore could not exert any real influence on the project.

Cannon’s statements also contradicted comments issued by other Matawan Borough Council members.

During Dasaro’s press conference, Buccellato said that he was not a part of the joint management committee formed by Aberdeen and Matawan officials.

Cannon called any suggestion that Buccellato had not participated in joint management committee meetings “laughable.”

“If he wasn’t officially on the committee, he sure attended a lot of meetings,” Cannon said.

According to Cannon, the Matawan officials who frequently attended meetings of the joint management committee were Buccellato, Buragina, Clifton and Matawan Attorney Brian Mullen. He said it was his recollection that Buccellato, Buragina and Clifton attended “99.9 percent” of joint management committee meetings.

During his time on the council, Cannon said he attended one of the redevelopment meetings.

According to Clifton, Morris’s portion of the project—some 500 apartments—had been immediately removed from the redevelopment plan after the Columbia Group was selected as Matawan’s lead redeveloper for the project. Cannon concurred that that was the case.

Clifton also said that Morris has not attended any negotiations with the Borough Council since the apartments were removed from the redevelopment plan.
However, Cannon said that representatives from the Columbia Group have met with Matawan officials within the past six months. He noted that he was unable to attend any council meetings during March and April of 2005 when he was battling leukemia, and thus could not comment on any events that occurred during that time.

Cannon denied that any members of the council or other elected officials attempted to influence his vote.

“No one approached me on how to vote. There were suggestions by [members of] the council on what was best for Matawan. Clifton and Buccelato expressed their opinions but they never tried to influence me. I never spoke to Joe Kyrillos directly,” Cannon said. “The only thing I would question would be that there were a lot of meetings [of the joint management committee] that other council members attended. The only people who ever attended those meetings were Clifton, Buccelato and Buragina.”

According to Cannon, the three officials were responsible for reporting to the rest of the council on what took place at the joint management committee meetings.

Cannon said that he believed and still believes that, of the RFPs submitted, the Columbia Group’s proposal represented the best plan for Matawan.

In light of recent coverage of the Aberdeen-Matawan Train Station Redevelopment Project, the events that took place before the interlocal services agreement disintegrated have become “more clear” in Cannon’s mind, the former councilman said.

The future?

“I’m mostly sad for the residents,” Cannon said, noting that he does not know when or if the Aberdeen-Matawan Train Station Redevelopment Project will ever come to fruition.

Meanwhile, Dasaro has called for the Office of the State Attorney General to investigate the financial relationship between Kyrillos and Morris.

One thing seems certain: trains won’t be leaving a redeveloped Aberdeen-Matawan Train Station any time in the near future.


September 23, 2002 memorandum from Coppola &
Coppola Associates, planner for the Interlocal
Agency formed by Aberdeen and Matawan

To: Mark Coren, Aberdeen Township Manager

From: Coppola & Coppola Associates

Subject: Request For Proposals
Commerce and Transportation Center
Aberdeen Township & Matawan Borough

Silver Oaks Properties

This proposal is the most consistent with the “Plan” in terms of square footage and the number of dwellings (1,185,800 s.f. of commercial in Aberdeen and 861,600 s.f. of commercial in Matawan, with 60 townhouses and 360 apartments in the Borough). A significant amount of parking spaces (11,497 spaces) are proposed in the garages which form the platforms for the commercial development above. Proposed road improvements are significant, as with the “Millennium Homes” proposal [which wasn’t selected by either town], but appear to be more feasible than that proposed by “Millennium Homes.” While there is a need for an addressment of the required COAH units and there is concern with the sensitivity of the design to the neighboring properties, the proposal could be refined to address these issues.

1. Most consistent with the “Plan,” including non-residential square footage and number of dwelling units.

2. High level of detail and cost projection.

3. Road improvements include use of the Henry Hudson trail for new access ramps parallel to the NJ Transit line to GSP and for a new road to Route 79 using the old transit line.

4. Buildings are high (up to 10 stories); parking garages create platforms for commercial and retail uses above, although some retail will be at ground level.

5. Orientation of commercial area inward to rail line, with plazas and levels of buildings tiered down towards plazas; orientation of residential areas also internal as well as to vistas beyond center.

6. Residential units are in two (2) areas at edge with vistas to lake and marshes; no flats over retail. Office, retail and parking are all intermixed within the core buildings around the train tracks and plazas. Not as sensitive to existing developed areas outside the center, since the buildings will be elevated on top of parking garages (with some street level retail possible).

K. Hovnanian [Columbia Group]

This proposal does not have the detail of the others, especially regarding road and other infrastructure improvements. A total of 1,000 dwelling units are proposed, but with less than 270,000 s.f. of non-residential space in Matawan Borough, and only 382,000 square feet of office/retail space in Aberdeen. The buildings tend to be massive in six, with a six (6) story L-shaped parking garage of 3,800 spaces bordering the existing uses in the area of Harrison and Dolan Avenues.

1. Not consistent with the “Plan”; proposed 1,000 du’s but less than 270,000 s.f. of non-residential space in Matawan and only 382,000 square feet of office/retail space in Aberdeen.

2. Moderate level of detail, but mostly oriented to residential uses.

3. No discussion of infrastructure improvements, except site plan shows “proposed Henry Hudson access road and trail.”

4. Building heights are not clearly specified; 10-story mixed use building in center with one 5-story parking garage in Matawan and two (2) massive stand alone 6-story parking garages and a surface computer [sic] parking lot in Aberdeen.

5. Orientation to central “Village Square,” which has a low profile; most existing development north of Harrison will face two (2) sides of a massive 6-story parking garage.

6. Residential buildings are 4-stories with interior surface parking, all located outside center core and west of Atlantic Ave.

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