By Ron Leir
It may be hard to believe now, but working farms once prevailed over a chunk of Belleville’s Second Ward, including the area behind the old SoHo hospital building at Franklin and Belleville Aves.
Dee Hank, a 40-year township resident, says the building on Carpenter St. she has occupied since 1960 was the last parcel of former farmland to be filled in by residential development between 1944 and 1947. Altogether, she said, there were 24 four-family buildings, for a total of 96 dwelling units. Buyers typically acquired one or more of those buildings, part of which they’d occupy and partly rent out.
“Carpenter St. then was just a country road,” said Hank, who has researched the area’s history. “Back in 1947, there were no cars so the builder didn’t provide parking. In those days, most people living there worked in the old [Essex County] Isolation Hospital,” Hank added, so they had an easy walk to their jobs.
But things began to change after the hospital – having gone through permutations as a polio treatment center and geriatrics facility – was occupied by the Garden State Cancer Research clinic, which took over four floors in the hospital’s east wing but, ultimately, defaulted on a $5 million loan from the Essex County Improvement Authority and vacated the building in July 2011, leaving it open to trespassers who vandalized the property.
By that time, Hank said, many of the folks who’d been living in the Carpenter St. apartment cluster had retired from their hospital jobs or moved or died and the people who took over those apartments tended to have multiple cars.
And, for the past 10 years or so, parking on Carpenter St. – a 20-foot-wide one-way block – or on two small circles with spaces earmarked for owners/ tenants – started becoming problematic, said Hank, a retiree from Prudential Ins. Co. who commuted to work by bus for 25 years.
At any rate, each of the circles can accommodate 13 to 14 cars – hardly enough to satisfy the demand, she said.
“By 8 o’clock at night, every inch of available space is taken,” Hank said. “We’ve got people parking on the side streets – Berkeley, Smallwood [Aves.] – wherever they can find a space – and then hoofing it back here. A lot of the women are scared about having to walk alone at night. It’s bad news.”
One of Hank’s neighbors, Jose Hernandez, a self-employed plumber who moved here from Newark’s North Ward in 1994, said: “We’ve lost a lot of good tenants because of the parking. People were getting a lot of tickets for parking in yellow zones or other prohibited areas because they were desperate.”
And, Hernandez added, “let’s say you have visitors – where do they park?”
Now, however, some relief appears to be in sight, thanks to a cooperative agreement reached between the township and Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo.
Township Manager Kevin Esposito said last week that the county has agreed to yield several feet of right of way to the former hospital property to allow the township to widen Carpenter St. by a fixed length and thereby “create more parking for the residents along the street” by allowing residents to park on both sides of Carpenter, which will remain one-way.
The job – which will include removal of several trees along the right of way – will be done by A&J Contractors Group Inc. of Monroe Township, Esposito said. A&J is the same firm that has been contracted to pave several designated streets in the township.
“We definitely need more parking up there,” said Second Ward Councilman Steven Rovell.
Councilman Michael Nicosia said the township engineer has come up with a “preliminary estimate” that the work will price out at around $75,000. The township is looking at two ways to pay for it: either tapping unused federal Community Development Block Grant funds or using money from the sale of the former School 1 property.
Hank pointed out that the agreement was secured “after [the county] had put the [former hospital] property out to bid. We were nervous about that.”
Work on the right of way was expected to begin this week.
The county has tentatively designated Alma Realty of New York as the high bidder, at $3.7 million, for the 34-acre hospital property, conditional on the county freeholders approving the sale.
The status of the Great Lawn, fronting Belleville Ave., remains in question. Members of the Pathen family and a group of other investors have looked to acquire this property but the transactions have been stalled by litigation. The township has introduced legislation looking to the possibility of exercising the power of eminent domain to acquire the land to preserve it as open space.