By Ron Leir
Just like the commercial jingle says, “Like a good neighbor,” Belleville “is there.”
Township officials have practiced aggressive listening in agreeing to amend a proposed redevelopment plan for the Roche Diagnostic Systems property at 11 Franklin Ave.
Roche continues ownership of the property but, with adoption of the plan, Belleville will have input into what becomes of the land in future.
The 52-page plan, prepared for the township by John Madden of Maser Consulting of Red Bank, was approved by the Belleville Planning Board July 11, one month after the Township Council had voted to designate the 18.7-acre area at the southwest corner of Franklin Ave. and Mill St. and opposite Essex County’s Branch Brook Park as an area in need of redevelopment.
In the plan, Madden recommended a variety of possible principal land uses for the site, chief among which, is a “medical services district,” since the site “is uniquely situated [just north of] the Clara Maass Medical Center, one of the few remaining regional hospitals, making it a likely ‘anchor’ for a variety of land use activities focused on medical services that gravitate to a location near a prominent hospital.”
Madden goes to suggest that, “Medical offices of a wide variety as well as doctor’s offices are the most logical land use activities near a hospital like Clara Maass; with the ever increasing advances in gene therapy and bio-scientified businesses, [the site] could well become a mixed use center of research facilities and laboratories, same day surgery facilities and doctor and dentist offices. There is an unmet demand for modern office facilities for medical practitioners in the area and serving Clara Maass, as many of these professional are confined to using older, outmoded buildings.”
Other supportive uses envisioned by Madden included a “pharmacy with a drive-through facility,” home health agencies, a fitness center, a health spa, restaurants, a hotel, retail shops, banks and a 1.5- acre park in the center of the site near Franklin Ave.
Among other permitted uses listed by the plan are: hospital, ambulatory healthcare center and ambulance services.
These three notions, however, rankled representatives of Clara Maass who spoke at the public hearings on the plan held by the Planning Board and the Township Council, according to Township Manager Kevin Esposito.
They were “not interested” in those particular suggestions, Esposito said. “They didn’t want competing hospitals coming into the area.”
The Observer tried to reach Clara Maass President/CEO Mary Ellen Clyne, who appeared at those hearings with the hospital’s attorney, to learn more about the institutional rationale for its position on the redevelopment plan, but hospital spokeswoman Elizabeth Moore said that it was the hospital’s preference that the media seek out a township and/or Planning Board tape or transcript containing Clyne’s remarks.
Unfortunately, the Township Clerk’s office hadn’t time to work on the tape for the council meeting to find the desired commentary and the Township Construction Code Official didn’t return a phone message requesting permission to listen to the tape from the Planning Board session.
In any case, respecting the wishes of Clara Maass, Mayor Ray Kimble and the Township Council obligingly voted to remove the objectionable proposed uses, namely, “hospital,” “ambulatory healthcare center,” and “ambulance services” from the plan.
The governing body also deleted a separate proposed use for a “medical helicopter landing pad.”
Reflecting on those actions, Councilman Michael Nicosia said: “While it’s not our duty to help any one entity on preventing any competition, still, the hospital came before the council and expressed their concerns. And the council agreed that a hospital was not a good use.”
Moreover, Nicosia added, “it’s not likely that the state [Department of Health] would grant a certificate of need for another hospital so close [to Clara Maass].”
And, he said, allowing a chopper pad would be “burdensome on residents” who live nearby. Northwest of the Roche site are single-family detached homes along Montgomery Place, as noted in Madden’s plan.
What will happen now? “The next step is, hopefully, we’ll have a developer,” said Esposito. Asked if the township would solicit a Request for Proposal from prospective developers, Esposito said: “We’ll see what the mayor and council have to say about that.”
When the same question was put to Nicosia, the councilman said he presumed the township would “go back to Roche [as the property owner] to find out their final intentions for the property. We’ll probably decide what to do next by September.”
Roche Diagnostic (now known as Roche Molecular Systems, headquartered in California) spokesman Bob Purcell said the company has “had discussions” with Belleville “regarding the next steps for the property.”
Purcell said the company has been kept current on the newly amended redevelopment plan.
“At this point,” he said, “no decisions have been made. We will provide more information as this process comes closer to resolution.”
Roche acquired the land from the Andrew Jergens Co., which produced lotions, hand/ face creams and detergents from 1939 to 1975. Before that, the site was occupied by the Copper Rolling Mills. During its Belleville tenure, Roche did research and development, manufacturing, packing and repairing diagnostic kits until shutting down operations in 2008 and demolishing several on-site buildings in 2010. One year prior, it initiated investigation of compromised soil and groundwater on the site. Between 2010 and 2012, the property’s assessment declined from $19.2 million to $2 million and taxes fell from about $520,000 to about $65,000.
Meanwhile, Roche is continuing deliberations with members of the Joint Repurposing Committee on the disposition of the company’s 119-acre property on Rt. 3 West that straddles Nutley and Clifton “to determine the best [redevelopment] options for that site,” said Roche spokeswoman Darien Wilson. The Committee has picked international architects Perkins Eastman to help develop those options.
Nutley is counting on the passage of state legislation to help compensate for the loss of tax revenues upon the final phase-out of Roche operations there.
“We’re still downsizing at the Nutley/Clifton site,” Wilson said. “We’re down to about 500 employees and we plan to slowly decrease those numbers through the end of December. Our goal is to sell the property by 2015. We are still doing remediation of the site.”
The company plans to send its findings and a plan for cleanup to the state Department of Environmental Protection by May 2014 and to carry out that plan between then and 2015, Wilson said. In April, Roche provided a $300,000 grant to the Committee to help pay for remediation costs, she added.