A proposal by Lambertville Mayor Julia Fahl to sell City Hall and the public library and consolidate several municipal facilities into a single new building has engendered a public backlash.
Her recently announced community development plan includes construction of an affordable housing development at the current police department location and a new public municipal building, possibly at the ACME site. At around 30,000 square feet and a cost of up to $14 million, the latter structure would house City Hall, city council and the mayor’s office, along with the court, police and library.
Fahl wants to sell or lease the current library and City Hall, which she says are in “major disrepair” and would cost up to $9 million to rehabilitate and fully modernize.
“We can identify these as historic landmarks and provide support through the right private investors to ensure they’re maintained they way deserve to be,” she said. “This is not just about facility maintenance. We have other constraints, including our deficit, debt load and an affordable housing location.”
Lambertville resident Robert Jordan believes that selling or leasing the buildings is unnecessary and ill-advised. He’s worked in the civil engineering industry for 30 years, and has become a de facto leader of local opposition to the community development plan.
“I believe she’s showing inflated numbers to justify the construction of a new building,” he said of Fahl’s assessment. “Those facilities can be brought up to code to service the needs of Lambertville citizens. A third-party team needs to be brought in to give a fair assessment of what needs to be done to the structures, and how that fits in with our finances. You’re talking about potentially doubling the city deficit of $13 million at a cost to the taxpayers.”
Jordan says the potential choice of the ACME site for a new municipal building is particularly problematic because of its location in the floodplain.
“This site is a mapped FEMA floodplain and has been prone to flooding in years past,” he observed. “There is no reason to think that the issues with climate change will not have further ramifications moving forward. I cannot comprehend the notion of putting our most essential city service, our police department, in a building subject to flooding.”
Fahl emphasized that the ACME site is but one of several being considered.
“Every single site we’re looking at has significant constraints,” she said. “Whatever site we choose, no site is going to be a perfect site. We’re vetting all the sites, putting together a list of constraints. It’s the lone site we own; all the rest of the sites are private, and we are in conversations with private owners.”
Fahl said the ACME option should be viewed as an illustration of a potential vision for a consolidated municipal building, not as a formal proposal.
“We put a concept together to show people what it might look like,” she explained. “We have said over and over this is not a plan, it’s just a vision — an idea.”
“They chose this site because it’s a piece of property they own as a starting point,” countered Jordan. “To put any structure in a flood plain in this part of the community is asking for trouble. I’m not sure the construction of this giant white elephant in the center of the city business district makes any sense, and it’s not in keeping with the historic character of Lambertville.”
A scheduled city council meeting Thursday had some concerned that a possible decision would be made to move the project forward. Fahl said that an ordinance related to the affordable housing portion of the plan that would “move away from the condemnation of Academy Hill” would be considered at the meeting, but a decision on a new municipal site was not in the near future.
“This will be a community conversation, not an up and down vote,” Fahl said. “In the next six months we’ll go through a reasonable amount of due diligence. We will be working on identifying that site, and come to the public with a series of choices, or one standout site.”
Regardless, Jordan and others are gearing up for a protracted fight.
“They’re taking our essential services and dropping them in the worst possible location,” said Jordan. “Putting any structure there defeats the purpose of protecting the health, safety, and welfare of the community. Our community is saying ‘hell no, we don’t want this’ to the point where they’re talking about hiring an attorney to organize a recall vote for the mayor and any council person who doesn’t have the interests of the taxpayers of this city in mind.”
“We have an opportunity as a community to have a conversation about what the future of Lambertville will look like,” said Fahl. “We’re at the beginning of this process, and have asked ourselves questions about where and how we want to invest the public’s money. I have excitement and optimism about what we as a community can accomplish together.”