Irish pub owner seeks Cranford zoning board’s help

Photo by Brian Trusdell STAYING PUT — The Kilkenny House on South Avenue across from the Cranford train station apparently is not moving around the corner as planned.

CRANFORD, NJ — The owner of a popular Irish pub that was set to switch locations as part of a mixed-use project has sent a letter to the local Zoning Board of Adjustment saying the restaurant is staying put.

Barry O’Donovan, who opened Kilkenny House 10 years ago, said it will stay at its South Avenue location, according to an Oct. 15 letter addressed to the board.

According to the letter obtained from O’Donovan’s attorney, O’Donovan and Westfield-based Iron Ore Properties “operated in good faith, but the final agreement required despite subsequent negotiations did not come to fruition.”

O’Donovan said the plan was to sell the property Kilkenny House is situated on across from the Cranford Train Station, and then lease space around the corner at the intersection of Walnut Avenue and Chestnut Street.

Since the sale could not be completed, it’s unclear where that leaves the project. The plan called for the razing of four homes and the construction of a three-story, mixed-use development consisting of 24 residential apartments on the second and third floors, with Kilkenny House occupying about 5,000 square feet of the nearly 21,000-square-foot property on the ground level.

On Friday, Oct. 26, work continued on the construction of the building. The frame of the bottom floor was taking shape and stacks of wooden boards and bricks sat ready to be assembled behind orange traffic cones.

Kilkenny House was the lynchpin to the project, which received a conditional use variance, four other variances and one waiver from the board at board’s meeting on June 19, 2017.

According to a copy of the application, O’Donovan gave testimony on such issues as parking and delivery schedules. He also assured the board it would continue to be operated as a “family restaurant.”

Applicant Daryl Boffard, who subsequently hired developers Iron Ore, was granted variances for front yard setback, parking and impervious coverage.

A conditional use variance was issued so the 24 apartments could be built on about a half-acre of land. The application notes that a town ordinance only permits 20 apartment units per acre, but permission was granted “because the impact will not change the character of the neighborhood; in fact, it will improve the properties substantially by constructing a principally permitted use, a restaurant, as well as the residential units on the second and third floors of the building.”

A township requirement that a commercial building have at least one off-street loading space was waived.
O’Donovan said in an Oct. 26 interview that, when he testified before the board, he had a handshake deal in place to sell Kilkenny House to Boffard. He was eager to move because the new location is not in a flood zone. Additionally, the new kitchen would be built from scratch to his specifications and there was to be an area for outdoor seating.

He said when he went to sign a contract in February, Boffard had brought in Josh Mann and Joshua Sternberg at Iron Ore Properties. O’Donovan said the deal offered at that point was not the one to which he had originally agreed.

“So, I would have never gotten in front of the Board of Adjustment knowing that it was a pipe dream,” O’Donovan said. “I thought I had a deal (with Boffard). We shook on it and I perceived it to be an honoring handshake and that the deal would come through. Because I knew they wanted this property, so I did not think anything would change in what I perceived to be the deal. Now, obviously, they have another idea of what the deal was, and they disagreed with me. But this is what I did, I got in front of the Zoning Board under oath and told them I was moving.”
Mann said O’Donovan’s plan to stay on South Street “does not affect our project at all.

“So, we wish Barry the best of luck,” Mann said. “We tried very hard to make a deal. We weren’t able to do it and we wish him well.”
When asked if the project can go ahead even though the variances were granted based in part on O’Donovan’s testimony and the assurance that Kilkenny House was part of the project, Mann said, “I wasn’t there for the approvals. At the end of the day, the project stands on its own and we look forward to completing it.”

Kilkenny House is a modern-day immigrant success story for O’Donovan, who said he came to United States from Kilkenny, Ireland, at age 18 with a thick brogue and a dream of making it in the restaurant and bar industry. He has served as a busboy, waiter, bartender and manager in Manhattan and Brooklyn. When he moved to Cranford, he noticed a lot of Irish names, but no Irish pub.

Kilkenny House, which is known as much for its shepherd’s pie and fish and chips as the inviting glow of its fireplaces, has become part of the fabric of the community in the 10 years since it opened.

In fact, O’Donovan said the township rallied to help him after waters from Hurricane Irene in 2011 left the basement flooded and ruined computers, refrigerators, freezers and the electrical system. It warped the floors and left the establishment under 12 feet of water.

“We were able to open our doors in six weeks thanks to the generosity of the people,” O’Donovan said. “Everyone came to help.”
The story of Kilkenny House’s recovery reached the Small Business Administration in Washington, which gave O’Donovan its Phoenix Award in 2012, recognizing a business owner who overcomes tremendous odds after a natural disaster.

And last year, Kilkenny House was voted the best Irish pub in New Jersey by the readers of New Jersey Monthly magazine.
Considering how the community has come to embrace his restaurant, O’Donovan said he feels badly that he had told the board he planned to move.
“That’s what disturbs me most,” O’Donovan said. “This whole dragging on has taken 10 years off my life. I told people in town I was moving. Everyone thought I was. In fact, I am not now is devastating, but I also know I own here.

“Kilkenny House is still here in Cranford and it’s going to be the same exact. It may not be newer and better, but it’s still going to be Kilkenny House.”
Ronald Marotta, the president of the Zoning Board, refused to comment. Zoning Officer Ronald Johnson did not turn a message left for him at his office at his office.

O’Donovan is represented by attorney Frank Capece, who writes a regular column in LocalSource that focuses on local politics.