Updated: Police arrest Lake Ave. bank robbery suspects

Nov. 7, 2016: Update: Middlesex County Prosector’s Office provided an update on the Metuchen bank robbery Saturday:

Police arrested brothers Donell Cheek, 32, and Dashawn Cheek, 27, both of Carteret, with robbery, theft and making a false public alarm, according to a statement from the Prosector’s office. Bail was set at $250,000 for each of the men, who were apprehended in Piscataway as they allegedly attempted to flee from police, the statement said.

One of the men allegedly entered the TD Bank on Route 27 in Metuchen around noon on Nov. 4, 2016, dressed in black and wearing a mask and demanded cash, according to the statement.

The man allegedly fled with an undisclosed amount of cash, but was traced by police, who followed him and his brother and pulled them over on Barbour Place in Piscataway, the statement said.

An hour before the robbery, one of the brothers allegedly anonymously called in a in bomb threat to Metuchen High School to create a diversion, the statement said. About 800 children at the school were evacuated and remained outside for two hours while the school was searched. No bomb was found and no one was injured, the statement said.

The investigation is ongoing and anyone with information is asked to call Metuchen Detective Sgt. Robert Belluscio at 732-632-8541.

Nov., 5, 2016: Crazy Friday in the old borough today!

Metuchen police Sergeant Arthur Flaherty provided the below update earlier today and declined further comment. I’ll update if and as I hear more:

It has been determined by the Metuchen Police Department that today’s bomb threat at Metuchen High school was hoax and possibly a diversionary act for a bank robbery at a TD Bank on Lake Ave in town. Piscataway police with the assistance of the New Jersey State Police and The Metuchen Police have apprehended both suspects in Piscataway. The incidents are still being investigated by The Metuchen Police and the FBI.

Company bids for Metuchen A&P liquor license

Oct. 28, 2016: An entity called Chase Spirits LLC made a $200,000 bid for the Metuchen retail distribution liquor license held by the bankruptcy estate of The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, Inc, which controls A&P stores. The company filed for protection from creditors last year.

The bid has to be approved by federal bankruptcy court in White Plains, New York, where A&P’s case is lodged. It’s not clear when a hearing for approval will be held.

Chase Spirits LLC is based in Hillsborough, New Jersey, according to bankruptcy documents. An individual named Dipen Shah is listed as contact for the company in court documents. Shah did not respond to an email request for comment this week.

A law firm called Pasricha & Patel LLC, based in Edison, is also listed in documents as a contact. Rishi Desai, an attorney with the firm listed in bankruptcy documents, did not respond to a request for comment.

Shah, controlling an entity called Chase Spirits – Ridgewood LLC, applied for a transfer of liquor license in the Village of Ridgewood in 2013 for a business called Super Cellars.

Earlier this month, Borough Council changed rules to eliminate distance requirements between businesses that sell alcohol for consumption. This was done to accommodate the Whole Foods and the Woodmont developments.

Council, however, left intact a distance requirement of 300 feet between businesses that sell alcohol for distribution, rather than consumption. Council left that rule in to keep control over the A&P liquor license.

“We aren’t certain where the A&P license is going … and we didn’t want two stores next to each other,” Metuchen Mayor Pete Cammarano said this week.

Will update if more info (or anyone gets back to me) becomes available.

 

 

 

Boro eases liquor rule for downtown developments

As the borough moves through early stages of managed development of the commercial district, older laws will have to be updated to account for the changing face of downtown.

Council dealt with one of the rules at the most recent Borough Council meeting, approving an ordinance that amends an older rule governing distance between businesses that sell alcohol for consumption.

Specifically, the old rule governs how far such businesses have to be from each other. The older rule set the distance at 500 feet; that distance limitation was removed from the ordinance as part of the amendment Council approved at the meeting.

Businesses that sell alcohol strictly for distribution rather than consumption still must abide by a required 300-foot separation. Council kept that rule in place to keep control over the one remaining liquor license in the borough, a distribution license that is part of the A&P bankruptcy proceedings.

“We aren’t certain where the A&P license is going … and we didn’t want two stores next to each other,” Metuchen Mayor Pete Cammarano said in an email response to questions.

The impetus for the changed rule was the two new developments downtown — Whole Foods and Woodmont Properties — that hold inactive “pocket” liquor licenses, according to Susan Jackson, Metuchen borough clerk.

“We had to make the accommodations so that there won’t be any issues when they transfer them into active licenses,” Jackson said in an email response to questions.

“The change was because of concern that the new licenses at Whole Foods and the Woodmont project could be in conflict with existing licensed establishments,” Cammarano said.

Cammarano added he wasn’t sure why the original distance restrictions were created. “My best guess is it was intended to [not] have too many establishments congregated in one spot in town,” he said.

Metuchen has 11 liquor licenses: two club licenses; six plenary consumption licenses (which include the two currently inactive licenses); and three plenary distribution licenses.

Municipalities are granted liquor licenses based on population. Check out this guy’s blog for information about the various types of liquor licenses.

Police arrest Metuchen accountant for alleged theft of more than $495K

Aug. 29, 2016: Metuchen police charged Aaron H. Katz, 63, of Edison, with theft for allegedly stealing more than $495,000 from a Metuchen doctor and an attorney, police said.

Katz, a partner with accounting firm Stolz, Katz & Co. of Metuchen, allegedly used his position as the two professionals’ accountant to carry out the theft, police said. Police arrested him twice for each incident: once on July 29 and once on Aug. 24.

The alleged thefts from the Edison doctor began in 2014 when Katz began issuing himself checks from the doctor’s accounts, police said. Katz allegedly issued himself more than 80 checks without the victim’s authorization or knowledge, police said. He allegedly stole more $140,524 from the doctor, police said.

Police said Katz also allegedly stole $354,490 from a Metuchen attorney. Those thefts began in 2013 when Katz allegedly began issuing himself checks from the attorney’s account, police said. Katz allegedly cut himself more than 100 checks without authorization, police said.

Katz is charged with two counts of second degree theft and two counts of forgery.

No one answered the phone at Stolz, Katz & Co. Monday. The firm’s website listed on its Facebook page appears to have been taken down.

Boro to explore alternatives to re-painting Amtrak train trestle

May 16, 2016: The saga of beautifying the Amtrak train trestle hit a delay after what appeared to be a significant victory in November.

A grassroots campaign led by resident Nora Pagel to re-paint the trestle culminated in Amtrak granting the borough approval to re-paint the hulking, soot-stained structure.

However, the process appears to be too expensive. Borough Administrator Jennifer Maier told me in a recent interview the re-painting process will require lead testing and scraping old paint, which would drive the total to around $60,000 “before a paint brush even touched the trestle.”

“It is crazy expensive for what we’re trying to accomplish,” Maier said.

Instead, the borough is looking into a potentially cheaper alternative: stringing a banner across the trestle. “I’ll have to work with Amtrak,” Maier said. The trick would be to install a banner so it doesn’t block the blinking lights on the trestle.

Pagel made a presentation before Council in January on re-painting the trestle, which she had researched for two years, she said at the time. She researched other towns that had done similar projects and worked with Amtrak to figure out how to get permission for the project. “I feel this project would be amazing for the town, it would uplift the downtown,” she said in January.

Maier said she would be talking with Amtrak so I’ll update as soon as I get word.

 

Opinion: With MDA approval, progress wins

May 4, 2016: Perhaps 82-year-old Margaret Inglese said it best Monday night: “Sitting back and waiting doesn’t work for anything except letting your bread rise.”

Inglese, who spoke along with scores of other residents, business and property owners at the Borough Council meeting, said she “believed in looking toward the future.”

I agree with her. Council’s vote to approve the formation of the non-profit Metuchen Downtown Alliance, and designate a Special Improvement District to generate revenue for the organization, was a nod to the future. The unanimous vote was an acknowledgment that downtown Metuchen is good, but could be great. That Metuchen’s Main Street, beset as it is with vacant properties and a revolving door of businesses, should be as thriving as commercial hubs in Montclair or Westfield.

With an upcoming influx of new residents, it’s time Main Street becomes that destination where everyone wants to spend their time and money.

Like some who spoke at the Council meeting Monday, my wife and I chose to move to Metuchen after years in Brooklyn in part because of the Main Street. We saw the potential there, as did many others. It just needs a push, a concentrated effort on the part of people whose focus is 100 percent on improving downtown. That’s what MDA is intended to do.

Some at the meeting spoke of MDA as a government bureaucracy with no accountability, but the ordinance makes clear there will be accountability as well as transparency. Here’s a taste: the budget that will be created by the MDA’s executive director and board of trustees must be approved by Borough Council. That means it will be subject to public discussion (for those who pay attention).

The budget must include a report that describes how it contributes to the goals of the MDA. The budget also must be “reasonably” itemized to include projected revenues and expenditures; each source of revenue and a five-year projection of the MDA’s goals and a strategy for meeting the goals.

Also, an annual audit of the MDA’s books is mandated under the ordinance that will be filed with Borough Council, as well as an annual report of the organization’s activities.

The board of trustees, meanwhile, is meant to be inclusive of all community stakeholders, according to the ordinance. The board will comprise four owners of property in the district, four business owners in the district, a member of Borough Council, a member of the Chamber of Commerce, a Metuchen resident, a member of the Arts Council and a member of the Parking Authority. (The current board does not have this exact composition, but 10 of the seats on the initial board expire at the end of 2016).

One thing that should have been in the ordinance is some sort of built-in review procedure for the executive director. I suspect however the board will create its own metrics and processes for success or failure of the role.

I also don’t see the special assessment of commercial properties in the District as a tax. I see it more as a minimal contribution by property owners (who will pass the burden on to their merchant tenants) for the good of the entire community.

I hate taxes as much as the next guy, but in this I see a contribution for future prosperity for all Metuchen residents. And in fact, residents outside the District aren’t going to be paying for this — even better. Those directly impacted by the improvements to be driven by the MDA must pay for them.

Residents, meanwhile, must contribute in the form of volunteerism, because the MDA, while run by an executive director, is “powered” by volunteers. Read here for more info on that.

There have also been complaints about the District itself, and why it doesn’t include the area of South Main. Let’s be clear, this isn’t a real complaint because I’ve only heard it brought up by people against the MDA. If you don’t like the idea of the MDA, why would you care if it includes a larger area?

But this too: the District boundaries can be adjusted, so if going forward the board of trustees and executive director see a pressing need to shift boundaries, I imagine that will be considered.

When Main Street is a thriving destination for people from all over the area (and residents) in a few years, every property owner and merchant will benefit. Residents might benefit too with rising property values.

Will this drive businesses out of Metuchen? I doubt it, but if some businesses leave because of an extra $20 or $40 or $100 a month, it’s likely those businesses had bigger problems than the MDA.

What Metuchen needs are businesses all-in with future progress, merchants on board with turning Main Street from a slightly depressed and dull area into a thriving hub attracting not only residents but people from all over.

What do you think? Leave comments or email brainyboroblog@gmail.com.

Looking to the future, Council approves downtown management org

May 3, 2016: Borough Council made an historic decision at Monday’s council meeting that could very well shape the composition of downtown Metuchen for years to come.

After hours of vigorous public comments both for and against the proposal, Council approved an ordinance creating the Metuchen Downtown Alliance (MDA). The Alliance is a non-profit management corporation that will be run by an executive director and overseen by a board of trustees.

The ordinance also establishes a Special Improvement District that will be administered by the MDA. Commercial properties and multi-family rental properties with four or more units and mixes use properties within the district will be assessed an annual fee based on real estate taxes, which will fund the MDA. (See the ordinance for a list of every property in the district). Assessments will begin in 2017.

The borough will contribute to MDA funding using Parking Authority proceeds. In 2016, the MDA will be funded with $150,000 solely from the sale of the Pearl Street parking lot, according to the ordinance.

A stakeholders group that formed the initial proposal for creation of the MDA estimated in prior meetings the organization would need an annual budget of $275,000. This would be split between the annual fee paid by property owners in the district, and contributions from the borough.

Now that Borough Council officially created the MDA, the group’s board of trustees will meet to search for and hire an executive director. The 2016 budget sets out $75,000 for salaries as well as office rental, utilities and supplies. The rest of the $150,000 is slated for maintenance/cleaning, marketing, capital improvements, plantings and holiday decorations.

The trustees also must decide on a budget for 2017 that will have to be brought before Borough Council.

The point of all this is to put an organization in place to revitalize the downtown area. MDA will be responsible for marketing the borough, maintenance and cleanliness, finding businesses for vacant buildings and establishing the right mix of businesses downtown.

The proposal was met with vocal opposition made up mostly of merchants and property owners in town who don’t want to pay what they call a tax. Opposition was led by Nancy Jessen of Victorian Office Rentals on Main Street. Jessen created and distributed the “I Love Brainy Boro” signs and shirts that have appeared throughout the borough in recent weeks.

At Monday’s meeting, Jessen invoked her relatives who fought in the Continental Army against British taxation. “I’m against the MDA because I believe it’s a tax increase on small businesses,” Jessen said. “To say that the Metuchen Downtown Alliance is not government, governments levy taxes, you don’t get a choice whether you pay a tax or not. I don’t think we should be raising taxes on small businesses.”

Councilman Jay Muldoon, who worked with the original stakeholders group that created the MDA plan over a year of work, said before voting his approval the MDA does not represent a tax increase. He said the MDA will help Metuchen be “proactive” about revitalizing downtown.

“One thing I believe is absolutely certain, if we continue doing what we’ve been doing for the past 20 years on Main Street, we’ll continue to get the same or much worse results,” Muldoon said. “The status quo is absolutely unacceptable in my view and hopefully to everyone here.”

Boro embarks on ambitious parks improvement process

April 4, 2016: Metuchen plans to review and potentially improve every park in the borough over the next few years.

This process started with a block grant application for construction of handicap pathways and parking at Olmezer Park at Main and Christol streets, Jennifer Maier, Borough Administrator, said at a Borough Council meeting last month.

That is the first step in what will likely be a multi-year process across Metuchen.

The borough also anticipates an “overhaul” of Oakland Park in the fall to be paid for using funds from the sale of the Pearl Street lot, as well as matching county grants, according to Mayor Peter Cammarano.

“This will include making the park accessible and replacing equipment,” Cammarano said.

Finally, the borough will survey the remaining parks to gauge their needs to establish a schedule into the future, Cammarano said.

“Parks are a priority for me. Many of our parks have not been updated in years and the equipment needs to be replaced. Additionally, most of the parks are not accessible to all residents,” he said, adding: “All of our parks hopefully will get the attention they need over the next couple of years.”

William Allen of Kentnor Street said at the Borough Council meeting March 7 the pocket park along Kentnor Street should be given priority. The property contains dead tree limbs and garbage and represents a safety hazard to children playing there.

Maier responded that the borough has done some clean-up in the park, but said she would work to address Allen’s concerns.

 

Group asks Council to form downtown management organization

March 22, 2016: Deborah Zupan, co-owner of Marafiki, a fair trade business that ran out of a storefront on New Street, believes her store would still be open if Metuchen had a downtown management organization in place to help small businesses.

Marafiki closed its doors about three weeks ago and Zupan and her partner Linda Koskoski are running the business online.

“If we’d been operating our business while such an organization existed, we’d still be open today,” Zupan said at the Borough Council meeting Monday. “Any downtown retailer no matter how great they are is going to have a hard time surviving if there aren’t other downtown retailers or other attractions to draw customers there as a destination.”

Having a downtown management organization in place to help promote the business district would have been helpful, Zupan said.

The idea of forming a downtown management organization took center stage at the Council meeting. The volunteer stakeholder group trying to bring this idea into reality asked Council to consider an ordinance to form the downtown organization as well as approve the boundaries of a business improvement district inside of which commercial property owners would pay an annual fee on real estate taxes.

Members of the stakeholder group, including Jan Margolis, who spoke Monday, believe the downtown management organization is the best way to deal with the growing number of vacant storefronts downtown.

The organization would help promote the business improvement district, maintain it and keep it clean and perhaps most importantly, figure out the right mix of businesses for the district, help bring in new businesses and retain those already there.

Council took no action at Monday’s meeting. Mayor Peter Cammarano said Council will formally discuss the idea at the next meeting. If Council decides to move forward with an ordinance, there would be an introduction and then a public hearing at a later meeting, Cammarano said.

“There will be plenty of time for public comment,” he said.

To review, the idea is this: Council would pass an ordinance creating the downtown management organization, a non-profit called the Metuchen Downtown Alliance led by an executive director and a board of directors.

The organization would be powered by volunteers who would contribute to things like communications and public relations, education, fundraising, design, marketing, beautifying the district and retention of businesses.

The organization would have a $275,000 annual budget, about half of which would pay administrative costs, including the executive director’s salary of $60,000 to $70,000 a year. About 27 percent of the budget would go to capital improvement projects in the district, with the balance going to things like holiday decorations, marketing and recruitment and retention of businesses.

The funding mechanism for the organization is a structure called a Business Improvement District — a pre-defined area inside of which commercial property owners pay an annual fee on real estate (which would likely get shared by merchant tenants). Residents would see no tax increases as part of this process.

The proposed BID would include properties fronting Main Street from Durham to Amboy avenues; from the train tracks to properties fronting Middlesex Avenue; the Sportsplex; the Whole Foods development; the Woodmont redevelopment; and the Forum Theater. The BID can be adjusted to fit the needs of the community, said Eric Berger, a member of the stakeholder group, at a prior meeting.

In 2016, the half-year budget would be $150,000, solely from the borough through the Parking Authority sale of the Pearl Street lot. Next year, the funding would be split: $150,000 from the Parking Authority and $175,000 from the business district assessment.

This ratio would continue to shift from the borough to the BID, until 2020 when the borough would pay $75,000 and the BID would raise $200,000.

Property owners in the district would ultimately pay a fee of 5 percent of real estate taxes, phased in over several years. For example, in 2017 property owners would pay 3.2 percent of real estate taxes. That would increase to 5 percent of real estate taxes in 2020.

One business owner, Nancy Jessen of Victorian Office Rentals on Main Street, opposed the plan, calling it a “tax increase.” Jessen started an online petition opposing the idea. that had 24 supporters as of Tuesday.

“We don’t need a $275,000 bureaucracy,” Jessen said.

She said instead of hiring an executive director to help guide new business owners through code approval processes, make those processes easier to deal with. Also, she said marketing, a big function of the management organization, can be handled today by business owners for low cost online, through social media, which can target specific audiences.

For more information, visit Metuchen Downtown Alliance’s website.

Boro explores banning trucks on Main Street

March 15, 2016: Our truck-hungry Main Street bridge may be going on a diet soon.

Mayor Pete Cammarano announced at the Borough Council meeting last week the borough is looking into banning trucks from Main Street. Ideally, the ban would encompass the entire length of Main Street, he said.

The ban would be based on certain weights and lengths, Cammarano said, but would definitely include the kind of big tractor-trailers that keep getting stuck under Metuchen’s Truck Eating Bridge.

The Mayor said the ban would not include delivery trucks, which have to be able to deliver to local businesses.

“We’ve been talking about this since I was a kid,” Cammarano said about trucks getting stuck under the Main Street bridge, which is owned by Amtrak. “This seems to be a reasonable way to prevent bridge strikes as well as get the trucks off of where they don’t belong. It’s been a long time coming.”

The idea emerged out of discussions of applying for a grant to prevent bridge strikes. “It dawned on me that the cheapest and most common sense way to prevent it is to eliminate as many trucks as possible from Main Street,” Cammarano said in an email Tuesday. “Why spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to research and fix something when you can just ban them from the road.”

Borough Council doesn’t have the authority to ban trucks from Main Street, which is a county road. It’ll have to work through the county, and I imagine that comes with all sorts of red tape.

The Mayor characterized the process as “pretty extensive,” but said ” I don’t think we’re looking at a big hurdle … to get trucks off of Main Street.”

So who knows how long this process could take. But the process is moving forward. The borough engineer will work on coming up with that alternate route, which is a required part of the process, Cammarano said. Then the borough will apply to the county and state for the ban.

“Trucks present several challenges. In addition to bridge strikes, trucks going out Central Avenue will often come up Route 27 and turn left onto Main Street, past an elementary school and then follow the road to Plainfield Avenue to Central Ave.,” Cammarano said in an email. “I’m not sure why this is the case when they could just go left and pick up Central Ave. at the intersection of Middlesex [Avenue].”

It’s always baffling to me when I see a massive tractor-trailer cruising down Main Street toward the bridge, the driver looking slightly nervous as that dingy steel and cement monstrosity rises up from its dip in the road. There’s gotta be a better way to go.

For everyone’s sake, let’s put that bridge on a diet.