Town Hall Meeting on New Municipal Complex Draws Crowd
Fifty concerned residents turned out for a special town hall meeting on February 11 to learn about updated plans for the new municipal office complex, which would include a police headquarters as well as a new Somerset County Library branch, planned to replace the Mary Jacobs Memorial Library in Rocky Hill.
The site also would include affordable housing and space for Montgomery Emergency Medical Services (MEMS) — the plans of which have not been shared publicly.
Of the four township committee members present, only former mayor Ed Trzaska was part of the committee two years ago when plans emerged for the new municipal building and library at the former ConvaTec site, on Orchard Road just west of Route 206.
Residents addressed the committee and township administration with their feedback on the proposed cost (over $30 million), the change of libraries and the impact that could have on community members, plus concerns over the design of the new building and the site’s layout, which apparently (but not previously reported) also will include affordable housing.
Environmental Commission member Frank Derby of Skillman directed his comments to the newest members of the township committee as they did not vote on the original purchase of the ConvaTec site in quarter three, 2017. Derby raised eyebrows across the room as he asked why there was no public hearing process for the initial proposal and use of Somerset County Improvement Authority funding. Derby is also a board member of the Mary Jacobs Library Foundation, which owns the 1974 library building in Rocky Hill.
“I am not about to sing the praises of this project because there’s a number of elements hidden from view,” Derby said. “The entire project essentially dropped on the public as a fait accompli. and we were told it is ‘not alterable’ with the police department, municipal offices, and the new library were a package. You as new members of the committee now have the opportunity to say wait a minute, this isn’t necessarily correct. I wouldn’t quarrel about the need for a new police HQ, as that facility need is clear. But why is this presented to us as a package deal and where is the need demonstrated for a brand new library?”
Nancy Harrington of Township Line Road said she will hate to see the Mary Jacobs Library go and the MJL Foundation “lose what it has.” A Brandywine Road resident told the committee he’s searched for answers as to why Montgomery wants to build a new library. He said he came to the conclusion that someone in township government “has a case of biblio-envy” as there’s an SCLSNJ library in Rocky Hill and another in Hillsborough to visit, with none in Montgomery.
Deborah Ginsburg lamented the coming switch from Mary Jacobs Library to the new all-in-one municipal center akin to Hillsborough and Warren complexes. Ginsburg recalled her son taking his bike or walking to Mary Jacobs as a great quality of life factor.
“The idea of getting to the new site via car only changes the character of the library experience,” she said.
Reed Chapman moved into Montgomery in 1967, and he knows the new Orchard Road municipal building site well, having worked at ConvaTec for 22 years. Chapman supports the “community centric” sentiments of Ginsburg and said his son also grew up riding his bicycle to the Mary Jacobs Library.
Chapman said Frank Derby “nailed it.” Montgomery must acknowledge its own failure. “It was wasteful to me to buy this property and see us tear down more buildings. By the way (Committeeman) Trzaska is defending the library proposal it makes it seem like it’s not a done deal. We can rethink what we plan to do here. MJL has been very helpful and served our purposes well...Why can’t we reverse the scenario and the new building have a satellite library, while keeping Mary Jacobs open?” Chapman asked.
Acquisition of ConvaTec Site
Township Administrator Donato Nieman said Montgomery Township financed the ConvaTec purchase through the Somerset County Improvement Authority (taking advantage of its Triple A bond rating) for a purchase price of $5.9 million.
Township CFO Michael Pitts said in total $7 million would be bonded by Montgomery, and the Somerset County Improvement Authority (SCIA) would allow for a lease-purchase agreement allowing the township to buy the building and property back from SCIA. To pay for the new library Montgomery expects to pay $400,000 per year for 25 years — a total of about $10 million — paying back library construction costs of $6.5 million and interest at nearly four percent.
“We anticipate increasing our library contribution amount by about $50,000 every 15 years. That leaves us at a break-even point of 57 to 58 years,” Pitts said. “We are not going to increase taxes. Our gross project cost is $35 million.”
Committeeman Trzaska said for every $100,000 Montgomery Township will have to pay in debt the cost would be $13 per household, per year. He said it amounts to about $20 or $25 per person, per year in town.
Brett Borowski of York Drive said the estimated cost was $25 million in September 2017. Borowski listened as Pitts cover the estimates, and then commented “now we are at $35 million so from a cost perspective this has snowballed.” There needs to be a financial case for the benefit of Montgomery taxpayers to show how this project makes financial sense. “Otherwise this may be a luxury,” Borowski.
“And the way this project unfolded was problematic. Unfortunately that leaves the committee with a deficit of goodwill and understanding….by extracting it to the county level (with SCIA funding) it extracted the project away from residents and with these costs it is a little bit of a credibility gap.”
Residents Critique Design
Reed Chapman said Montgomery does not need a silo or gabled roofs “to remind us of how buildings used to look. I would prefer an integrated, cohesive look.” He added the proposed flat roofs are a nightmare for maintenance and skylights can become a leaking problem.
DMR Architects’ Partner and Director of Design Kurt Vierheilig said the project would result in Montgomery having a modern municipal building that will last another 75 years, "but has roots in the community and has elements that people can identify with." He detailed a few of the design components of the proposed building from gable roofs and extended bays, strokes of mid-1800s style but with modern materials, invoking "shapes and forms that build the community."
A silo will serve as the entranceway to the municipal and police portion of the complex with a grand staircase leading to administrative offices and divisions.
Vierheilig said the siding would be of a stone and wood appearance, "bringing warmth into the building." Components of the exterior include silver-corrugated metal and brown metal roofing, with metal finishes to the silo entranceway and a metal roof on the canopy adjacent to it. The main "multipurpose" meeting room in the building, which architects called "Council Chambers" a few times, will have a barn-like appearance, wood beams and a gray roof.
Resident Greg Kaganowicz disapproved of the exterior appearance DMR Architects presented to the community, calling the design “too much of too muchness.” He added that not enough details are revealed and issues on stormwater runoff and two retention basins on the former ConvaTec site need to be scrutinized. He spoke about Montgomery’s ordinance requiring 14 trees per acre on developments, which would mean a total of 600 trees. Kaganowicz says parking area and exterior parts of the site allow for many plantings, so he expects the township follows through.
Kaganowicz added that solar panels on the building’s roof would be a great idea, especially with funds pitched in by the state. “But when it comes to carbon footprint there is no debate that more trees comes ahead of solar panels, especially for the parking lot,” he said.
Environmental Commission member and Sustainable Montgomery volunteer Mary Reece voiced her support for the new municipal complex project and added hope for solar panels to be included.
Jesse Havens of Belle Mead spoke about what she considers the "mish-mash, hodge-podge" design of the new municipal building, commenting that apparently architects could not make up their minds.
“What’s being proposed is highly regrettable," Havens said. "It does not say anything about who is Montgomery, it appears to say ‘we could not make up our minds so we gave the town one of everything.’ If the architects can’t come up with a coherent design that proudly announces ‘This is Montgomery Township’ then maybe we should call in someone else for the design, as the exterior is only lines on paper at this point.”
Committeeman Trzaska defended the project approved by a majority Republican Committee in 2017 and 2018. He called the new building an integral piece to a "unified community." Trzaska asked: "Are we are truly "One Montgomery" or divided neighborhoods serviced by a fragmented library system?"
Last August, Somerset County Library Administrator Brian K. Auger said at a Township Committee meeting that most patrons offer feedback that they enjoy the flexibility of visiting several SCLSNJ branches often, for different programs and needs.
For the new Montgomery branch library, Auger says the comparison to Mary Jacobs is “apples and oranges” because Mary Jacobs has total 21,000 square feet of space and the new library would have a net of 20,000 square feet, “all usable space” on one floor, minus MJL’s wide corridors, an elevator core and the staircase.
“As the architects mention this was designed from the ground up and has not had to have had additions to enlarge it. It will have very efficient use of space, and we will have plenty of room for materials and people as we have identified deficits to address,” Auger said.
The Great Divide?
In between residents’ questions, Trzaska intermittently read a few emails supporting the new Montgomery library branch proposal. Some thoughts referred to specific library services, spaces and limits of the Mary Jacobs building.
But Mayor Sadaf Jaffer confirmed that over the last six months township administration has also received negative emails and letters from residents about the new municipal building and library project and about the conceptual plans presented in August. The mayor didn’t run through copies of every email during the February 11 meeting. Instead she recognized the concerns residents presented to the Committee and asked Auger if there was a way Montgomery “could creatively support keeping Mary Jacobs in SCLSNJ operations,” planted seeds for an olive branch to the people of Rocky Hill and supporters of MJL (which includes Montgomery residents).
“It does not sit right with me to abandon a library that has served our community and a space that’s very important to our broader community and to our neighbors. I would like to have some productive and cohesive way to move forward for both of our communities instead of saying Montgomery is separate and ‘we’re doing this for ourselves’ — do you (Auger) have suggestions?” Mayor Jaffer asked.
Auger said currently 90 percent of users of MJL come from Montgomery Township and SCLSNJ expects every one of those to come to the new library branch. He added that 5 percent of MJL users are from Rocky Hill and 5 percent from elsewhere. Auger says it's improbable the library system can support two libraries within two miles of each other, stating “we simply can’t justify the costs of running a library with those kinds of numbers."
Auger told the committee there were exploratory meetings held to see if the Mary Jacobs Library Foundation could partner with SCLSNJ and host a satellite branch or programming extension in the current Rocky Hill site, Auger said there were issues involving restrictive covenants on the trust set up for MJL to operate within, arranged by Mary Jacobs' widower over 50 years ago.
"It has always been exploratory as we (SCLSNJ) have never run satellite services like a story time or a book locker pickup. We have never run that type of program so we have no experience in it, so SCLS is open to exploring it,” Auger said.
Residents asked if there could be a dedicated children’s library branch of SCLSNJ at the current Mary Jacobs, and Auger said there are costs to evaluate with creating that, again saying SCLSNJ is void of experience for usage or functions of children’s libraries and the projection for usage if “a full service” Montgomery Library exists 2.5 miles away.
Committeeman Trzaska says Montgomery must take its 23,000 residents “with no public center" into account. Though, some may argue that the Otto Kaufmann Community Center is, in effect, a community center.
“In Montgomery," Trzaska says, "the north part of town mostly goes to (SCLSNJ) Hillsborough, the south part of town mostly goes to Princeton Library and then we have the center of town, who may go to Mary Jacobs. How many affluent communities of 23,000 have you heard of that do not have its own library?”
Layout, Landscape, LED’s & LEED
Trzaska said there will be walkable and bikeable access from Montgomery school buildings to the new library facilitated by a sidewalk running down Orchard Road. DMR Architects met with the Environmental Commission and received feedback recently, as well as from the Shade Tree Committee. Ideas and topics included landscaping and native plants to rain gardens and the LED lighting, LEED. certification standards, and more were discussed and incorporated into the plans.
The non-profit U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) developed standards known as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) that apply to new and existing buildings, homes, and communities. When a structure is designed, built, and operated in a sustainable way that aligns with the LEED standards, it is eligible to earn a LEED Certification label. It does not appear that the proposed Montgomery municipal complex would meet any certification levels.
Donald Marshall was baffled that the municipal operations side and Montgomery Police HQ would not face the Route 206 side. DMR Architects' Pradeep Kapoor said the design allows for greater energy efficiency in summer time and there is the higher energy performance facade for the south portion of the building, housing the library and facing Orchard Road.
Through questions to the Committee and DMR Architects, residents debated the layout of the "L" shape concept and if that could be turned around to face north/south Route 206 traffic. Trzaska commented that perhaps due to the proximity of Montgomery's public schools in Skillman, there would actually be more vehicular traffic coming from the west of the building than from the Rt. 206/Orchard Road intersection.
Lois Pauley, a 54-year resident of the township, said it doesn't make sense to show off the back of the building to Route 206. Lt. Gill said there was better safety for police and municipal employees for the rear of the L-shaped building where they would park and enter and exit from to be buffered by 600 feet of open space and trees between Route 206 and the complex. He noted how a Pennsylvania state trooper was shot and killed leaving his station as a shooter could target him without any buffer from the building.
Ewa Zak, a member of the Environmental Commission, asked questions about the Headquarters Drive and the exterior appearance of the municipal building. She asked for a dignified color and typeface to the building’s exterior signage instead of red in one of the DMR renderings. Also Zak said the complex should be promoted as “Montgomery Town Hall” and not “Montgomery Municipal Building.”
Functional Space, Parking Plan
Longtime resident Bruce Barrett questioned the functionality of a library housed in the same space as a municipal center, thinking of Plainsboro Library as their township headquarters evolved. Barrett says the need for more community meeting rooms in the new building was evident. Trzaska told him there were a total of five meeting/activity rooms to be built, ensuring adequate space in case a municipal meeting such as the Township Committee takes place at the same time as a special library event.
Bill Forbes of Belle Mead said his wife visits Mary Jacobs library multiple times a week, with many uses, positives and conveniences to it, save for one major issue — its parking lot. The new library would have almost 100 more than what Mary Jacobs has, and Forbes noted that this would be one of the biggest “pluses” he finds with the project. A total of 130 parking spaces will surround the new municipal building to service all the various functions.
Christine Newman of Sunset Road asked about dedicated parking at the new complex. The audience learned that all parking areas of the complex are open to the public, but employees for SCLSNJ, the municipal staff and the police will be directed to park in the north section of the lot, behind the building from its Orchard Road entrance.
Newman also heard the estimate given by Administrator Nieman for Montgomery to grow by about 3,000 residents in coming years, and she questioned why the police force of 34 officers now would grow by about 36 percent (to 45 officers). Nieman says MTPD is well below the FBI average of 2.1 officers per 1,000 residents and Montgomery’s number is 1.3. “Three new shopping centers added to town alters the nature of our policing, plus whether we like it or not traffic flow is only set to increase,” he explained.
Mayor Jaffer noted on a positive dynamic of the project and anticipated growth in the police force: better facilities for future female police officers which the current station does not have. The MTPD welcomed one new female officer, its first in several years, this January. ■