By Celeste Regal
The drama being played out in the south end of Harrison is about more than the validity of eminent domain. What will transpire over the next decade with the waterfront redevelopment project may be a live broadcast about what’s in store for New Jersey’s future. At last count, at least 100 of the state’s 566 municipalities are involved with eminent domain. But the pros and cons of redevelopment involve more than property ownership and architectural solutions. The cast of characters about to throw the dice includes entities concerning infrastructure, affordable housing, transportation alternatives, demographics and a handful of contemporary issues facing land use in overcrowded, economically at-risk communities.
Not a pretty picture Manhattan lawyer Steve Adler and his family have had businesses in Harrison for more than 50 years. Adler owns 9.43 acres of property off of Frank E. Rodgers Boulevard at the south end of Harrison. He is currently in litigation against the Harrison Redevelopment Agency, the town of Harrison and Richard Miller, whose firm, The Pegasus Group, will develop the site where Adler’s acreage is located, known as Harrison Commons on the redevelopment master plan. “The situation is intolerable,” Adler said. “They’re taking (the town) from one private owner and giving the property to another.” Adler’s suit was filed with the U.S. District Court in on July 6. According to the complaint, there are two issues at hand. Firstly, that the HRA was illegally formed and unconstitutional and secondly, that redevelopment plan devised through the agency is negligent. The compliant cites such issues as lack of secured funding for flood control as well as street and highway improvements. The lawsuit documents state that without this funding in place, using eminent domain to take the property of landowners in the project area would “defeat the public purpose justification for taking” thereby violating the rights of said property owners.
“The pictures (of the redevelopment plan as a whole) are pretty,” Adler said. “But the impact of the project on the town is not.” Adler said a municipal impact study, as well as a traffic impact study, has not been done.
About the Benjamins?
On July 10, the HRA filed a complaint with the Hudson County Superior Court against Alder and his property, to condemn and take his land. The lawsuit document declares the total amount of compensation for “all properties and interests sought to be acquired is $15.1 million.” That’s the amount of the assessed value made by Livingston appraisers, Value Research Group LLC. The amount deposited in the condemnation action is the actual appraised amount of the 9.34 acres of Adler’s properties.
Alder filed his first lawsuit in Federal District Court two years after the master plan was made public in 2001, he said. “We didn’t think the (redevelopment) plan had any legs to stand on when it began in 1997,” Adler said. “But then we realized they were serious.”
He said after the first lawsuit, Alder began negotiations with Miller to sell his property. He said he had an agreement at one point with the Hoboken developer, but the set amount that went with their handshake deal was offered for much less at a later date.
“In January, we had a deal – but by June, the offer was a third less, Adler said. “I don’t have anything against Miller – I personally like him, but to go from one number to one-third of that offer is not (negotiations in) good faith.”
Miller’s said both he and Adler agreed on $20 million, but Adler came back later and wanted another $10 million. “I thought we reached a contract amount at $20 million, but he wanted another $10 million,” Miller said. Adler also said if Miller had agreed to the purchase price he wanted, he would not have filed the complaint. “I have a right to sell as a private owner,” Adler said. “I didn’t want to use legal measures.” The HRA has filed a motion to dismiss Adler’s federal lawsuit on multiple grounds, and a decision by the court is now pending on both cases.
Making way for the future
The question that is being asked across the country and in New Jersey in particular is whether eminent domain is being used for private gain. Certainly, that is what people like Adler, and the other property owners in Harrison, are asking. There are those at the grassroots level who say what is going on in a redevelopment project in Hoboken is about strong-arming property owners and taxpayers. They say eminent domain gives all the power to the prevailing government.
Property is taken from those who are not deemed to be for the good of the whole and given to developer who it is hoped will provide more rewards for everyone concerned.
Then there are those who believe those very same redevelopment projects, like those on the Jersey side of the Hudson River, and across the Passaic River at NJPAC, are success stories that would not have happened without the aid of eminent domain ä and that these projects helped revitalize suffering neighborhoods. In any event, both sides in Harrison believe fervently their position is the correct one.
And by most of those involved, only time will tell what the outcome will be.
“People laughed at us at the beginning. We’re pioneering – it’s about a vision for the long run,” Miller said.