NEWTOWN BOROUGH >> Developer Allan Smith presented conceptual plans on May 11 for a scaled-down Steeple View redevelopment project at the site of the former Stockburger Auto Dealership on South State Street behind the new Wine and Spirits Shoppe.
In a presentation made before borough council, Smith said since preliminary plans were approved for the mixed use multi-million-dollar Traditional Neighborhood development, trends in office and brick and mortar retail have changed dramatically requiring a new look at the project.
The plan approved in 2016 envisioned the redevelopment of eight and a half acres, stretching from Centre Avenue at the Newtown Creek south to the former Stockburger property on South State Street, with 11 mixed use buildings containing office, retail, restaurant and residential uses.
The plan also envisioned $15 million worth of public improvements, including a five-story 500 space public parking garage, a public piazza (town square) and a public walkway along the Newtown Creek.
It also included 15,000 square feet of new office space, 52,000 square feet of new retail space, 10,669 square feet of new restaurant uses and 110 residential condominiums.
“It took quite a long time to get approved. We had to change the zoning. And while that was going on, we found that we were being outpaced by technology,” Smith told council.
“Our world is much different now than it was 10 years ago when this plan was first broached,” said Smith, noting that retail has shifted from brick and mortar to the Internet and that office space is now being replaced by Zoom and at home work stations.
“Ten years ago you didn’t have Zoom and Amazon was selling basically books,” he said. “You didn’t have Uber and Lyft, where a car would magically appear in front of you and take you where you wanted to go. You couldn’t order food from a restaurant or a grocery store and have it delivered to your door ... While technology was moving ahead, COVID accelerated it. In essence this plan became dated before it was built,” said Smith.
Smith, who has a long and storied history of quality redevelopment projects in the borough and the township, from the Brick Hotel to the Stocking Works and the new Wine and Spirits Shoppe, said when he considered his options “they weren’t great.
“The first was to do nothing. At my age, I don’t know how long I can wait,” he said. “I could also walk away from the project. The problem with that is that I live here. And I fear that no one else is going to have the same interest I do in developing this project. And certainly not going to have the same interest in putting design over profits.”
The third option, he said, was to look at the plan in a new way and and to see if there was “a way to make the most important things happen.
“Ironically the important things to me are the ones that don’t make any money - the creek walk, the piazza and a pedestrian bridge across the creek. Maybe it’s my huge ego, but I consider this to be my legacy because it’s the last project I will probably do. The idea of sitting at the piazza and enjoying people enjoying it is something I would very much like to do.”
So Smith said he studied the plan and determined that retail wasn’t a good option due to the Internet and the fact that you can’t get financing from the banks. In addition, he said the future of office space now looks questionable because of Zoom.
“The most visible part of the plan that still works because the borough is such a great place is the residential,” concluded Smith. “The question I had was can the residential alone, eliminating all the office space, eliminating half the restaurants and much of the retail, how many condos would I need to build to make a significant dent in those legacy projects? If I can do 78 condos I think I can make it work,” he said.
Smith’s conceptual plan revision would eliminate the proposed 500 car parking garage along with 15,000 square feet of office space. It would also reduce the proposed new retail from 52,000 down to 18,000 square feet, restaurant use from 10,669 down to 5200 square feet and the number of condominiums from 110 to 78.
Several aspects of the plan would remain unchanged.
Smith is still proposing to build four three story residential condominiums on the south end of the property. The change in height from four to three stories essentially resolves an earlier issue residents had over the proposed height of the structures and how they would fit in with the surrounding cityscape.
Plans for the north end of the site - the location of the former Wine and Spirits store and municipal parking lot - would also remain pretty much the same as before. The site would be redeveloped with a public piazza or town square area and two new buildings that would help frame the square.
One of the new buildings, located directly behind Starbucks, would have retail on the first floor and condos up above. The second new building would be located to the south of the square along the creek. It would have a restaurant use on the first floor and condos above.
“We’re trying to frame the piazza because we think it will make it look much more attractive,” said Smith.
The former Wine and Spirits store would be torn down to make way for the piazza and the new building.
The plan also includes the creation of a formalized Creek Walk beginning at the Piazza at Centre Avenue and extending south. The walk would end at a proposed new pedestrian bridge connection at Carl Sedia Park.
“What’s exciting is that you will be able to use the Creek Walk to get out to the ballfields. Parents would be able to have a drink or a burger at the piazza while their children are playing Little League,” said Smith.
The biggest change to the plan is what will happen in the heart of the site behind the new Wine and Spirits store. Instead of five new buildings with retail and office uses, the area would be redeveloped with surface parking lots to service the new uses being proposed.
Overall, Smith’s revised plan would reduce new retail space by 65 percent, office space by 100 percent, restaurant use by 50 percent and condos by 20 percent.
“Previously all this square footage was paying for the creek walk, the piazza and the bridge. So now I’ve lost all this square footage, but the cost of that creek walk, bridge and piazza remain. That’s why I need the 78 condos to pay for that.”
To make the plan work, Smith said he’ll need the support of borough council to either change the parking requirements under the ordinance or to support an application for a zoning variance.
Smith is looking to provide nearly 300 parking spaces, while the borough ordinance would require 400 spaces.
“A small change in parking ratios are going to have a large impact on whether we can get this thing built,” said Smith. “If I use the borough’s 2.2 car parking ratio, I would only be able to build 59 condos. If we used 1.5, which is suggested by the Institute of Traffic Engineers, we can do it.
“I have to ask, ‘Why do we have more parking than what’s needed?’ We’re trying to save the environment. We’re not trying to pave it anymore. We want less cars not more,” said Smith. “There’s just not a need for it,” he argued.
“If we want the creek walk, if we want the piazza, if we want the bridge, I have found a way to make it happen,” he said. “To give you an idea, those three projects are about $3 million. Hopefully those condos will put enough of a dent in there that I can make it all work.
“I want to work with you to see if we can make this happen,” said Smith. “If the council decides it doesn’t make sense, I’ll understand, but if you think, as I do, this is our shot of really improving the borough, let’s make this happen.”
Borough councilors asked a handful of questions, but none of them expressed objection to considering a lower parking requirement than the borough’s ordinance requires given the scaled down nature of the plan.
“Certainly we will need to digest this and talk at greater length and have Allan come back with more specific details,” said Council Vice President Julia Woldorf.
“We are interested in working with you on this,” added Council President Tara Grunde-McLaughlin. “While we can’t offer you anything specific at this time you won’t be going in the wrong direction to take the next step,” she told Smith.
Regarding the overall concept, Councilor Nicole Rodowicz directed her comments to the surface parking area now planned at the heart of the project. “I’d like to see if we could work something out to make it more appealing and a nice focal point that pulls it all together versus putting in just as many spots as you can fit.”
“Through plantings and walks and that kind of thing we can make it much more attractive,” assured Smith. “We’re replacing the car lot. That’s what Stockburger was. We got to do better than that.”
Several councilors also asked Smith whether this would be the final plan or whether it could change again in the future.
“Let’s call it the foreseeable future plan,” said Smith. “It’s going to take us a few years to get this up and running. At that time we can take a look at where the world is.”