Union Hotel Redevelopment Causes Tension
Written: April 28, 2016
Flemington, NJ -- A development plan for the Union Hotel site in Flemington, NJ has been met with mixed reviews and has prompted public outcry.
The plan, proposed on Feb. 22 by John J. (Jack) Cust Jr., a Hunterdon County resident of years, former baseball player and co-owner of the Diamond Nation Baseball facilities in Flemington, would require the demolition of several historic buildings along Flemington’s Main Street, according to NJ.com.
This is including the Union Hotel, founded in 1878, which garnered fame and notoriety in 1935 during the trial of the then-accused Lindbergh baby kidnapper, Richard Hauptmann. The trial, which writer H.L. Mencken referred to the trial as “the biggest story since the resurrection,” according to the University of Missouri at Kansas City, has also been referenced as a “trial of the century.”
The Union Hotel found its way into this historic moment when Flemington Courthouse was chosen as the trial site, according to Hunterdon County records.
Weird NJ reports that since the hotel is directly across the street from the courthouse, “the hotel’s 52 rooms became the base of operations for scores of world-renowned journalists.”
Interest in the hotel reignited in 2011 when Weird NJ featured the building in its book because of claims of ghosts.
“Though the grand old hotel no longer accepts visitors today, there are said to be some guests who have never checked out,” the publication claimed.
The steady downturn of downtown Flemington has been a problem for years, but Cust believes his vision will restore interest.
“Over the last five to 10 years, we've all seen the deterioration in Flemington,” Cust said at the initial county meeting where the plan was revealed.
The Mayor of Flemington agrees with the notion that something has to be done.
“Our town needs something,” Flemington Mayor Phil Greiner said. “We can’t continue on like this.”
The proposed plan would include restaurants, a possible satellite college campus, a 100-room hotel, possible housing, retail space and underground parking, according to NJ.com.
When asked about the possibility of keeping any of the historic buildings on Main Street, Cust said “if you try to preserve any one of those buildings, you can't complete the vision.”
Flemington’s Mayor voiced a different opinion.
“It would be nice if we could find some way to keep it,” Greiner said. “I don’t want it torn down. I know most people don’t want to see it torn down. We are going to continue to have meetings and discuss it. Nothing has been fully decided on yet.”
Cust bought the liquor license once held by the hotel in Oct. 2015 for $1.2 million, according to NJ.com.
“As a long time area resident and advocate for the Flemington community, I felt it was in all of our best interests to maintain control of the license in hopes that the resurrection of Main Street could still be a viable option,” Cust said in a statement provided by Mayor Greiner.
The plan was met with initial support and thunderous applauds during the presentation meeting in February.
"If Flemington is going to have a future, it has to change," said president of Flemington Furs Bob Benjamin. Flemington Furs is conceptualized to be part of the redevelopment plan, according to My Central Jersey News.
George Dilts, attorney representing Cust, describes how Cust’s plan came to fruition.
“As a result of Mr. Cust’s coalition plan presented to the Borough in an open public meeting, he was unanimously designated as the redeveloper of downtown Flemington by the Borough Council,” Dilts said.
The initial support for the plan has not stopped members of the community from voicing their concerns over the demolition of historic buildings.
“There has to be a way to preserve this beautiful building,” Julie Parker, resident, business owner and founder of Small Biz Networking groups, said. “It can be restored. It should be restored!”
Joanne Maltese Braun, Hunterdon County resident and business owner, created a Facebook page titled “Save The Union Hotel.”
“I created this group to give a voice to the residents of Flemington and others who don't want to see it destroyed for the sake of progress,” Braun wrote in the description of the group.
NJ.com reports that Braun created an online petition to save the Union Hotel and so far it has over 700 signatures.
The main complaint about the plan is the destruction of the historical buildings in town.
“We need to value our history and historical buildings,” Parker said. “The Union Hotel has been a very special landmark in Flemington, the County seat. The famous Lindbergh trial took place in the Court House and the Union Hotel was a gathering spot for the people to discuss the trial over food and drinks.”
Some town members worry about the possible repeat of history the town felt when the famous Flemington Speedway was torn down and replaced with a Lowes and a Walmart. Flemington Speedway Historical Society reports that when it closed in 2000, the speedway was one of the oldest operating motor racing tracks in the U.S. Automobiles first raced at the track in 1915. At one point, NASCAR series came to Flemington to race at the track.
“The town of Flemington, if it has any claim to fame at all, is known for three things,” Disgruntled resident Adam Howell said in a letter to the editor. “First, the Flemington Speedway, which is now a Walmart… Secondly, the Historic Hunterdon County Courthouse and Union Hotel, somewhat historically-significant because of the Lindbergh case. And thirdly, the outlets – which at one time were quite a draw when they were outlets for major manufacturers' overstocks and irregulars.”
There are also residents who worry about the motives of both the redevelopers and the residents arguing with the proposed plan.
“It depends on the goals of the leaders,” Stephen Parker, a town resident said on Facebook when commenting on the proposed plan and the resistance. “To better the town in the long run, or to sabotage the work so someone else can buy it cheap.”’
Residents have been attending town meetings to learn more about the plan and voice concerns.
“I cannot in any capacity speak in public, but I still at least go to the meetings to encourage those who will speak out for me and share my concerns,” Resident Deborah Baldwin said on Facebook after attending a town council meeting.
Mayor Greiner has acknowledged that Flemington did not seek out the plan, it came to them.
“We did not seek out Mr. Cust,” Greiner said. “He came to us with the completed plan.”
Cust has responded to the large amount of backlash he has received over the plan.
“I hear the concerns about preserving buildings and/or facades and I respect the people with those opinions,” Cust said in a statement after backlash began. “I have instructed our architects to evaluate the possibility of incorporating these concerns into the plan and they are in the process of determining if it is viable.”
Most residents appreciate the plan in the sense that someone cares enough to create one, but they feel strongly about historical preservation.
“I personally believe there is a balance that can be achieved that would satisfy both sides,” Donna Stefanick, resident and standing director of the local Good News Home for Women rehabilitation center, said. “The town and Cust need to listen to what the people want and see if there is a way to compromise and come together. Right now there are too many egos and people stirring the pot for anyone to hear options.”
Some residents have also brought the long term impacts of demolishing history into the conversation.
“The proposed mix of uses, retail, restaurants, residents, and a college, is positive, but demolition of significant historic buildings is just not what any other town would permit in this day and age,” local architect Christopher Pickell said. “A project of this size will have profound impact for generations to come. As such, it demands serious consideration and deep thought.”
The plan has generated outcry from areas outside of Flemington, including nearby Delaware Township residents who call for preservation, according to NJ.com.
Mayor Greiner did acknowledge that new sketches for the plan are in the works amid continued concerns.
“We are waiting to see a subsequent set of drawings; there's another iteration coming,” Greiner said to NJ.com. “We haven't even seen a final plan yet but we have listened to anyone who wants to speak to us without any discrimination, and we still are and we still will.”
Some residents are still weary over the possibility of the Union Hotel’s destruction, and will continue to voice concerns until a final plan is decided on.
“The problem now facing Flemington is how to embrace its future without needlessly sacrificing its past,” Pickell said.
copyright 2020 Kimberly Stefanick
designed & created by Kimberly Stefanick