By Ron Leir
The township is retreating on one prospective real estate development front while pondering a 180-degree flip by the would-be builder on another.
By a 7-0 vote last Tuesday, March 24, the Belleville governing body rejected an ambitious redevelopment plan that pitched several thousands of housing units in towers extending up to 50 stories at the old Jacobs property at 630-632 Washington Ave. and stretching down to Main St. on the old Kidde property.
In doing so, the Township Council turned aside a Planning Board recommendation made in December to approve the plan.
In a pre-meeting public caucus, attorney Anthony J. Frese, representing O&R Urban Renewal Co. LLC, and its principal Joe Orlando, asked the council to consider allowing his client to shift gears on development plans for the old School 1 property on Stephens St., by installing a Quick Chek retail store/gas pumps.
Frese said that O&R “has run into serious issues developing this property as a 60-unit apartment complex.” A Quick Chek, on the other hand, would be “clean and simple” and would offer a chance for “hiring 40 people” to work there in shifts around the clock.
But several council members had reservations about the plan: Kevin Kennedy wondered if the township would run into legal problems with a rival bidder who had proposed a retail use for the site; Marie Strumolo Burke and Dr. John Notari worried about safety issues that a 24/7 operation might generate; and Steven Rovell had concerns about adding to existing traffic congestion on the approach to the Rutgers St. bridge.
Mayor Ray Kimble ended the discussion by saying, “The next step is to discuss this among ourselves and our attorney.”
During the regular public meeting, the council dealt with the Northeast Area Redevelopment Plan by passing a resolution that found that, “… the proposed density, building height and intensity of development proposed development Option 3 [which called for at least one 50-story high-rise and others ranging from 10 to 20 floors] is out of scale with the existing and planned land use character of Washington Ave. and its surrounding neighborhoods.”
And it further determined that, “… there is no evidence in the near future, beyond development occurring along the Hudson River in Hudson County or Bergen County, that development [as proposed under Option 3] would ever find a feasible market in Belleville.
“That said, it makes no planning sense to approve a redevelopment plan for an unrealistic development of this scale and invite unforeseeable legal or zoning challenges.”
At the same time, the council unanimously voted down a resolution that would have send the Northeast Redevelopment team’s application back to the Planning Board “for further fact finding and deliberation and possible revisions.”
Rovell told The Observer: “We’re not into the type of extreme density being proposed by the developer. As I understand it, [one member of the team] already has prior approvals to put up a 135-unit apartment building on a portion of the site but nothing has been built.”
Going along with such a huge project “is a lot to ask for in a bedroom-type community like Belleville,” Rovelle said. “Why would you change the look and feel of the community? It’s not that I’m against development but I’m a proponent of reasonable and rational development.”
The council decision was warmly greeted by residents Vincent Frantantoni and Jeff Mattingly.
“I’ve finally got a reason to thank the council for doing the right thing,” Frantantoni said, “because this project is so out of scale with Belleville. In our entire town, we have 11,800 housing units. This developer wants to come and add between 4,500 and 6,000 units and this town cannot handle this.”
Mattingly chose to take hope from the council’s action, “if it was meant as sending a signal to the developer to come back with a smaller project.”
Otherwise, he said, granting the team carte blanche would amount to nothing less than “a land grab to take over a [contaminated] property 10 years in the process of being cleaned.”
Putting a 50-story highrise “only 100 feet away from a utility electric tower is not a place for a residential development,” he added.
What the development team will do next remains to be seen.