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HARB says left in dark by Borough Hall on Odette’s re-developent plans; votes down latest proposal

Gateway to New Hope attorney Ed Murphy

Gateway to New Hope attorney Ed Murphy

Developer Gateway to New Hope, LLC continued to press its demand to demolish the historic remains of a 1784 tavern in an appearance before New Hope’s Historic Architectural Review Board (HARB) Tuesday night, but was voted down.

Gateway to New Hope has sought since April 1 to tear down the historic Odette’s tavern to make way for a boutique conference center. Borough Council voted to allow submission of an ordinance change by Gateway on Sept 16, in effect circumventing the Zoning Hearing Board and HARB.

Council said it would send the proposed ordinance change on for review and comment by the Borough Planning Commission and the Bucks County Planning Commission. Ordinance amendments include a provision potentially permitting the construction of a much taller building than originally envisioned and that currently exists along the New Hope waterfront.

The Gateway proposal to build its 25,000 square foot per use resort complex by disassembling and symbolically incorporating pieces of the original 1784 tavern could be voted on by Borough Council as early as November. HARB wants the group to save and incorporate the intact historic structure, a move that Gateway says would cost them approximately $434,000 and cause expensive design changes. The total cost of the resort complex has been estimated in excess of $20 million.

HARB Chair Iain Haight-Ashton began Tuesday’s meeting by saying, “I asked some of the Gateway Group to come back and have a sit-down with HARB to review plans from when we went in June to look over the structure; this never happened. No one made an appointment with JoAnn [Connell] to work together with HARB on ideas to save the structure, moving it, cost factors, or anything.”

“The developers are asking for a zoning change for their plans to go through,” continued Haight-Ashton. “The maximum height presently is 40 feet, and that could be increased. HARB in the past has gone ahead with plans while waiting for possible zoning changes, but this is no mere business sign or white fence, this is a $20 million project and a big footprint that will change the landscape forever.”

“It is my notion that we go back and review the old information before we look at the new building plans we just got last week,” added Haight-Ashton. “We must review and have closure on all issues on the 1794 building before we take on the new plans. Our job is to protect historical buildings and the past first, to incorporate what is possible, and take down only what is dangerous. Let’s give the past a chance before the future begins,” he concluded.

HARB member Allison Kingsley disagreed, saying, “Eight years of having a derelict building in the beginning of our town isn’t doing anyone any good.”

Member Dee Dee Bowman said, “My concern now is that the proposed zoning change could greatly impact what could be allowed to be built there. So, I don’t know how you can look at current proposals when we don’t know what’s going to get allowed in that space.”

Addressing Gateway team member and former site owner Mike Amery, HARB member Kevin Joy said, “I agree with Allison that right now the site is an eyesore — unsafe, unpleasant — but I think maybe you could have done a few things, Mike, in the meantime to clean and help while we’re waiting for a determination on all this. I don’t think that destroying an iconic building we have down there and altering the landscape forever is a solution to an eyesore. I think there’s a way to save that building.”

Amery contended that upkeep of the property was the duty of the the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. “That is their responsibility,” he said.

HARB members complained that they received neither the revised site proposal nor information on the proposed zoning ordinance changes from Borough Council or the applicants until days before the meeting. Gateway investor Scott Kelley asserted that he had supplied the historic restoration cost analysis previously promised to Haight-Ashton in June to Borough Manager John Burke in July. Burke did not respond to a request to explain why he had apparently not forwarded the document to HARB since then.

Haight-Ashton observed, “Yesterday was the first time I’ve ever seen it, so I’m sure it’s just a technical glitch in the system.”

Gateway to New Hope Lawyer Ed Murphy said, “To suggest that we somehow inhibited your ability to move forward is, I think, incorrect.”

Although five of the seven Borough Council members were in attendance at various times during the meeting, none volunteered to address HARB and clarify why the advisory group had apparently been left in the dark by Borough Council leadership — a leadership that has in recent weeks made clear its view that advisory groups like HARB and the Zoning Hearing Board are limited in scope to officiating simple technical opinions, and are unqualified to render strategic or “policy” decisions like those involving the Bucks County Playhouse and former Odette’s site.

The Gateway to New Hope team asserted that their project would improve visitors’ first impression of New Hope as they entered from the south on Route 32. They described how Lambertville has enjoyed an economic resurgence, while New Hope’s dilapidated south end has become a haven for vapor cigarette stores and tattoo parlors. They also decried the lack of “high-quality” overnight accommodations for visitors to New Hope, saying they consisted of several small bed and breakfasts and the Ramada, and that “quality” riverside restaurants were limited to Martine’s and the Landing.

Said Gateway principal Scott Kelley, “My friends from Princeton used to come here. They used to come on Route 95 across Scudder Falls and up River Road. They don’t do it anymore because the first thing they see in town is a very depressed New Hope.”

Observed HARB member Kevin Joy, “At the end of the day you’re talking about demolishing Odette’s, which kind of flies in the face of everything we do as preservationists.”

Board member Bowman urged compromise, saying “We all understand that HARB is an advisory board that makes recommendations to Council, but we’ve already been given a hint about how council feels about this, so we know what we’re up against.”

“I think the idea of taking random stones from the old building and using them in the facade is kind if Disney-ish to me,” added Bowman.  She proposed a compromise be reached by moving the remaining building to a nearby location on the property. Others suggested saving some portion of the original structure — perhaps one or two corners, creating a more limited, but historically accurate anchor to the proposed boutique conference center.

Nonetheless, Gateway to New Hope demanded a vote be taken on their new project plan before the meeting’s end, and were handed a 6-1 defeat.

Whether or not they will submit compromise plans to HARB, or continue dealing only with Borough Council leadership is unclear. “We’ll look into it,” said Kelley, saying he also wished to compromise, and that he might consider using old stone from the original structure to create a main entrance that would “pay homage to the old Odette’s.”

Gateway lawyer Ed Murphy said, “Okay, I think we’ve gotten direction — you don’t like what we’ve done, and you’re willing to consider a plan, if we choose to present one, that might preserve some corner of the building. It’s our choice if we want to do it or proceed.”

New Hope’s Historic Architectural Review Board (HARB) originally considered a conceptual plan April 1 that would see the remains of the famed but flood-ravaged Odette’s cabaret club torn down and replaced with a four-level “boutique” hotel/banquet hall designed to look like a 19th century paper mill.

On June 3, Borough Council President Claire Shaw said that HARB’s request April 1 to retain an independent structural engineer to assess the practicality of preserving the former Odette’s restaurant had not only been overruled, but that “Council decided to handle this from this point forward.”

Shaw, despite owning a home adjacent to the proposed site, has said, “I have no intention of recusing myself from the decisions on this project.”

About the author

Charlie Sahner

“Once you can accept the universe as matter expanding into nothing that is something, wearing stripes with plaid comes easy." - Einstein

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