By Ron Leir
It’s been a year and two months since Gov. Chris Christie presided at a ballyhooed groundbreaking for Franklin Manor, an age-restricted 137-unit apartment complex for those 55 and over – the first such senior development for Belleville in more than three decades.
Since then, there’s been some land clearance work at the 2.5 acre site, Franklin Ave. and Mill St., but little else has happened except a lot of commotion over the project being gifted $6 million from a federal Sandy-relief pot for the project – even though Belleville homeowners were spared much of the storm’s wrath.
It was shortly after the $6 million was committed that Mayor Ray Kimble, a Democrat, endorsed Christie for re-election. Kimble and other township officials have said that it was the developer – not Belleville – who applied for the Sandy funds.
Last week, when The Observer called Robert Ricciardi, secretary to the Mill St. Development Urban Renewal Corp. and architect for the project, and asked when work would resume, he refused to comment and Paul DeBellis Sr., president of the corporation, couldn’t be reached.
But on July 22 there was some stirring … of paperwork at least … involving the project as the Belleville Township Council voted to authorize the mayor and township clerk to sign off on an amended redevelopment agreement and financial agreement with the developer who will be providing a PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) to the township.
According to Township Attorney Thomas Murphy, “The project is being done in two phases [86 apartments are scheduled for phase 1 and 51 for phase 2] which the developer needed to clarify to get financing and tax credits. The revised agreement will reflect an increase in longterm payments to be received by the municipality, from $2.8 million to $3.5 million.”
Murphy said the township has “already been paid for the land” secured by the developer for the project.
The township Construction Department issued two permits for work at the site: one on Feb. 26 for demolition of an overhead railroad bridge and a second on May 22 for partial footing and foundation only.
Aside from $6 million from the state Community Development Block Grant program (via federal Sandy aid), project funding was also expected from the N.J. Housing Mortgage Financing Agency Low Income Housing Tax Credit program and the Essex County HOME program, in addition to developer equity. Construction and land costs were pegged at about $18 million.
DeBellis’s Franklin Development Group has partnered with the Jersey City Redevelopment Agency to build several mixed-income apartment clusters in the city’s Heights section and has also developed Willow Manor, luxury duplex townhomes in Bloomfield.
Meanwhile, at the nearby Roche Diagnostic tract, Belleville continues in negotiations with David A. Mack Properties of Southport, Conn., for development of that 18- acre property which is being vacated by its owner. Mack was designated redeveloper in December 2013.
Township Manager Kevin Esposito said last week that there’s now some uncertainty about whether the Mack group would want to invest in the Roche site because of what he characterized as “longterm liability.”
The Mack group, Esposito said, “caters to residential and commercial-residential” development “but, based on restrictions for the site’s development, that site will not be residential, by the seller’s desire. We should know how this plays out within 30 days.”
There is, however, some movement at the former Soho hospital building at Franklin and Belleville Aves., which Essex County sold to Alma Realty of New York to redevelop. Esposito said that Alma has been issued local permits to clear out broken windows and frames and secure access points to the structure.
“Next step, we expect, will be submission of an application for site plan approval,” he added. Township officials said that Alma has talked about adapting the building to accommodate market rate residential units and possible ground-floor commercial use.
And, in another prospective development-related move, the township governing body has accepted the Planning Board’s recommendation to designate Kidde Place and adjacent land at the old ice house property on the west side of Washington Ave. near the Nutley border as an “area in need of redevelopment” in anticipation of development plans by investors for the proposed “Imagine Center,” envisioned as a multimillion dollar, mixed-use project consisting of hundreds of residential units and thousands of square feet of commercial/ retail space with a rail connection.