By Ron Leir
Belleville is taking the vacant 18.5-acre Roche Diagnostics parcel at Franklin Ave. and Mill St. off the owner’s hands in hopes of putting itself in a position to market the environmentally compromised site.
As part of the deal, according to Town Attorney Tom Murphy, Roche has agreed to provide $5 million to be applied toward the cleanup of the site, once the location of a copper mine with arsenic byproducts.
Most of that money would be placed in a trust account to be dedicated to the remediation effort and the township will look to have some discretionary use of the balance, Murphy said.
Last Tuesday, the Township Council – except for dissenting members Joseph Longo and Marie Strumolo Burke – voted to take possession of the property for $1.
Longo told The Observer he felt this was “a bad deal” for Belleville because of the possibility that the environmental cleanup cost could well exceed $5 million and even if the township finds someone to buy the property, it – as the seller – would be stuck with the bill for the overage.
As of 2013, the Roche property was appraised for $13 million but Longo said that assessment does not take into consideration cleanup costs.
In December 2013, the township designated David A. Mack Properties LLC of Southport, Conn., as redeveloper of the Roche site, about a year after the Belleville Planning Board had recommended that the township designate the property as an area in need of redevelopment. In July 2013 the township adopted a redevelopment plan that proposed medical offices, medical research, related health uses and housing as acceptable uses for the land.
But Mack has dropped out of the agreement, according to Esposito. “That’s not going to work,” he said.
Reportedly, Mack wanted to develop the property for residential purposes. “Some of his clients were less interested in medical offices and ancillary uses,” Esposito said.
Still, Esposito remains optimistic about the future of the site. “We feel the land has great potential for many commercial applications, given its proximity to Clara Maass Medical Center. It could support such things as a strip mall, restaurant, bank, small boutiques – maybe even a small hotel/conference center.”
Maybe so, Longo said, “but if the property is so valuable, there should be developers lined up out the door. I don’t see them.”
Asked to comment on the latest development involving the property, Roche spokesman Bob Purcell, who is based in California, sent an email on Feb. 26 saying, “At this point, we cannot comment on the proceedings as we are still waiting to be informed of the outcome by the [township]. … Once the deal is completed, we should have more information to share around the details.”
Meanwhile, a new development of sorts involving the other Roche site straddling Nutley and Clifton occurred last Tuesday when the Nutley Planning Board voted to rec ommend that the property bedesignated as an “area in need of redevelopment.”
“Now it’s up to the Township Council to ratify the board’s recommendation,” said Town Attorney Alan Genitempo. If the council obliges, “that opens up a new tool box for working with a prospective developer on what happens with the property.”
Aside from the joint venture of Hackensack University Health Network and Seton Hall University signing a deal with Roche to develop a private medical school on a portion of the property, “other people are still negotiating with Roche” to lease the remainder of the 118-acre site, Genitempo said.
He said that Roche has reported that the pharmaceuticals firm “is down to three” prospects. “We’ve been waiting to see when they’d designate [that tenant]. We’re optimistic we’ll hear that shortly but these are complicated negotiations.”
Genitempo said that Roche has agreed to “maintain responsibility” for an environmental cleanup of the site, some of which is now in process on the property.