Friday, July 20, 2007

Blight Plan Needs Revision

A Planning Board discussion of a revised “in need of redevelopment” study for the proposed North Avenue Extension resulted in putting off an Aug. 2 public hearing for further refinements.

The North Avenue Extension study initially included the south half of the block between East Front and Second streets and Park and Watchung avenues. It also included the PNC Bank block to the west. On Thursday (July 19, 2007) George Stevenson of Remington & Vernick modified his findings, but planners and Planning Board attorney Michele Donato disputed some of them, saying they were too broad and would probably not stand up in court.

Recent eminent domain challenges in Belmar and Paulsboro have been successful because the term “blight” was applied too broadly relative to the 1947 Constitution. See a summary of the Paulsboro case here.

Planners said Stevenson’s example of a mattress behind the Thomas Furniture store on Park Avenue and trash behind the Elks building on Watchung Avenue were code enforcement matters, not criteria proving a need for redevelopment.

Just saying a property is not used optimally is not enough, Donato said.

“You must prove that it is going to negatively affect public health and welfare,” she said.

Donato noted the stance of Public Advocate Ronald Chen, who is calling for strict adherence to redevelopment criteria.

“It’s a hot-button issue – the button’s only gotten hotter. The proofs have to be within the statutory criteria,” Donato said.

“You need more proof than what you have,” she told Stevenson, but he continued to dwell on the issue of the mattress and a vagrant he saw lying on it.

“I think we need better clarification and a consensus among the players in this game, Planning Board Chairman Ken Robertson said.

Robertson called for Donato, Plainfield Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson, Planning Director Bill Nierstedt, Union County Improvement Authority attorney Ed Boccher and Stevenson to meet on “how far we are going” with needs studies. Robertson said he was personally not comfortable with holding a public hearing on the revised plan. To read a story on the previous version of the North Avenue Extension needs study, click here.
( Scroll down to second story.)

The Union County Improvement Authority was placed in charge of redevelopment last August. It is shepherding various projects through the stages of needs studies, redevelopment plans and developer’s agreements, with City Council approvals at each milestone. For the North Avenue Redevelopment plan, which encompasses the city’s only commercial historic district next to the main train station, the city has an agreement with developer Frank Cretella’s Landmark Development Corp. of Jersey City. In a presentation Aug. 21, Cretella projected 415 residential units and 130,000 square feet of retail space in the project. He also envisioned an entertainment center that would draw visitors to the site.

In the redevelopment process, properties that meet at least one of eight criteria may be deemed in need of redevelopment. Since the process has been opened up to redevelopment for economic reasons and not just for projects such as roads and schools, there has been a citizen backlash. On Thursday, an Essex County Superior Court judge set aside a finding that a part of Mulberry Street in Newark was in need of redevelopment because it did not meet the constitutional requirement of blight. Click here.

The requirement for stricter proofs could slow down the city’s ambitious plans for transit village development that covers hundreds of properties across the city.

--Bernice Paglia


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