Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Mayor's Forum on Redevelopment

Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs has scheduled a forum on redevelopment for 7 p.m. Wednesday (June 27, 2007) at Washington Community School, 427 Darrow Ave.

The mayor recently promised to have a forum in response to community questions about redevelopment. Concerned business owners from the Netherwood study area, merchants from North Avenue and property owners affected by a redevelopment proposal for the East Third/Richmond tract have all asked for a more open process.

Public hearings are part of every phase of redevelopment, but only a small legal notice is required to alert the public to the opportunity to comment. The new tide of redevelopment proposals has left residents and business owners curious and sometimes worried about effects on their property.

About 20 years ago, the main redevelopment targets were the 600 block of South Second Street, Park-Madison and Tepper’s. The Park-Madison block now has a four-story office building, stores and a parking deck on it. The former Tepper’s department store has been converted to 75 apartments, with stores and other uses on the ground floor. There are still parcels on the block that need redevelopment. The 600 block is currently a temporary parking lot for a nearby church.

During the eight years of the late Mayor Albert T. McWilliams’ administration, several more projects were added. Some are small, single lots and others include dozens of properties. Since Robinson-Briggs took office in 2006, the focus has shifted to transit villages, which are dense residential and mixed-use projects centered on train stations or mass transit hubs.

The City Council agreed in 2006 to let the Union County Improvement Authority take charge of redevelopment. With council approvals at each juncture, the authority has made studies, plans and agreements with developers.

So far, the only developer to get to the point of site plan approval is Dornoch Plainfield LLC, with a privately-funded proposal to build a new senior center along with 63 two-bedroom condos at 400 East Front Street. Construction is slated to start July 3. The city-owned tract was turned over to Dornoch for $1 in January.

Other proposals are being pursued under state redevelopment laws that allow for taking of property by eminent domain. The city must take all the steps laid out in the state statutes, starting with an “in need of redevelopment” study. The area, whether it is one lot or several acres, must meet at least one of eight criteria in order to be declared in need of redevelopment. Most have to do with deterioration or blight, but just being in the city’s Urban Enterprise Zone is enough reason to move on to the next step of creating a redevelopment plan. Each property’s status must be documented in the study.

The completed plan offers parameters for the types of uses in the redevelopment area. At this point, no development entity is named. As developers come forward, the city may choose one for “conditional designation” and set a time frame for an agreement to be struck.

In August, the city approved a 90-day conditional designation for Landmark Development as redeveloper of the North Avenue Historic District. Landmark proposes a new entertainment plaza and 415 residential units while retaining the ornate facades of the district’s 1880s buildings. AST Development Corp., which built the new Park-Madison downtown office and retail complex, also received a 90-day conditional designation to redevelop the West Front Street Marino’s tract, named for an auto dealership that vacated the site. A 70,000-square foot supermarket is planned for the West End site.

Landmark received two extensions before an agreement was signed in May. There is no agreement yet with AST Development Corp. for the Marino’s site.

The agreement spells out what the developer intends to build, as well as various obligations of the parties involved.

An agreement is still in the works for the East Third/Richmond development, where Capodagli Property Company received conditional designation for a proposal that includes 352 residential units in five buildings, with 700 parking spaces at ground level.

Besides the main projects, there are many others.

Twelve-unit luxury condos are proposed for a lot at West Second Street and Madison Avenue and also for a lot on the Tepper’s block on West Front Street.

A North Avenue extension includes the PNC Bank block and the East Second Street half of the block between Park and Watchung avenues.

The 600 and 700 blocks of South Second Street were to become part of a revitalization plan related to a new middle school, but the failure of the School Construction Corp. has held up the plan.

An East Second Street commercial neighborhood redevelopment plan is still conceptual.

Plans for the Macy’s block have not been discussed lately. The former department store is now a Supremo supermarket.

A needs study has been ordered for more than 90 properties around the Netherwood train station.

An auto repair site on East Fifth Street is slated for redevelopment, as is a former aluminum factory nearby.

The Arlington Heights project has 12 condos on one lot and six more are proposed for another lot northwest of the first block.

The 197 properties redevelopment plan involves scattered sites around the city. A Westfield developer was given permission to build on about 67 lots, but only built on about half of them before dropping out.

In the McWilliams administration, the deputy city administrator was in charge of economic development. Currently, there is an Office of Economic Development within Public Works and Urban Development, but the UCIA is now the main driver of redevelopment. Public Works & Urban Development Director Jennifer Wenson Maier is the city’s point person for redevelopment. Most documents pertaining to redevelopment are on file in the Planning Division on the second floor of City Hall, 515 Watchung Ave.

Park-Madison and Tepper’s received substantial city givebacks. On Park-Madison, only the retail portion yields tax revenues. The Horizons at Plainfield development on the Topper’s block received tax abatements. A key question to ask for future development is how each project will benefit the city in terms of tax revenues contrasted with impact on city services.

I will be unable to attend the forum Wednesday due to another meeting that I must attend. I hope those who go to Washington School will be enlightened and become motivated to keep track of all the proposals in the future. The city could change radically if the new transit village concept is carried out.

Stay strong and pay close attention, as they say on WBAI.

--Bernice Paglia


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