New developer for Roche site

BELLEVILLE –

Like the disappearing, then reappearing, rabbit in the hat, a redeveloper for the vacant Roche property in Belleville was unveiled – but in revised form – last Tuesday night

As officials huddled in the office of the Township Clerk perusing their meeting agenda, interim Township Manager Kevin Esposito was asked about a resolution proposing the appointment of Tulfra Realty II LLC and Hampshire Global to make over the 18.5-acre parcel at Franklin Ave. and Mill St.

Tulfra, Esposito said, is “a highly qualified developer” with “a multitude of commercial sites throughout the state” on its resume and Hampshire, he added, is responsible for a number of “retail, office and commercial properties.”

The firms would combine as a “joint venture” for the Roche project, he said.

“I feel positive and excited because they’re both very capable developers and have experience in dealing with properties like this [with environmental issues],” Esposito asserted.

Officials then proceeded to the Township Council chambers where, during a pre-meeting caucus, Township Attorney Tom Murphy had a surprise announcement.

“We’re removing Hampshire from the resolution,” he said.

Murphy told Mayor Ray Kimble and members of the Township Council that changes in the phrasing of the document were requested “by the attorneys.”

“The essence of it is that the township is going to be continuing negotiations for a redevelopment agreement. I was under the impression that Hampshire was going to do [the Roche project] jointly with Tulfra,” Murphy said.

Instead, one council member later told The Observer, it is likely that there will be some type of partnership, with Hampshire involved “on the construction side” and Tulfra, as “the main guy,” handling the overall development, possibly finding tenants to occupy the space.

Murphy added that Tulfra, Roche and the township must come to an understanding about responsibilities for undertaking a remedial investigation and environmental cleanup of the site.

Still, Murphy advised the governing body, even with the revisions made to the resolution, this is not yet a done deal.

“If this [negotiating a redevelopment agreement] isn’t going to be done in 90 days, it’s not going to happen,” he said.

Later, Esposito told The Observer that, “if we appointed both companies and if, down the road, there were controversy between the parties – if, say, each partner had a different vision for the project – that could lead to litigation which could’ve tied us up for years.

“It would have mucked us up if we appointed the two parties as the redeveloper,” he added.

Ultimately, the governing body – with the lone dissent from Councilman Joseph Longo – voted to designate Tulfra as the “conditionally designated” redeveloper of the Roche site for 45 to 90 days, depending on how long it takes to conclude redeveloper and property conveyance agreements.

In a prepared statement, Longo said he has opposed the township purchasing the Roche property “unless the [current] owner cleans it up first. … The township should not acquire a property that is known to be contaminated, period. The taxpayers of Belleville should not be responsible for the cleanup of that site – the owner should.”

Roche, according to Murphy, has pledged up to $5 million toward the cleanup of contaminants at the site, but Longo has cautioned that the actual cost could be much higher and that the township shouldn’t take the chance of ending up on the hook for the balance.

But the township is putting responsibility for any remediation on the redeveloper.

The resolution says, in part, that, “The township believes that Tulfra Realty II LLC would be “… capable of … providing acceptable assurances to both Roche and the Township that both current necessary remediation and downstream environmental liability would be appropriately addressed by Tulfra Realty II LLC, including but not limited to, an N.J. DEP (Department of Environmental Protection) approved transfer and assumption of environmental liability agreement, by performance of required environmental remediation, insurance acceptable to Roche and the Township, performance and maintenance bonds, or any combination thereof ….”

So what is Tulfra planning to do with the property? The redevelopment plan adopted by the township permits such uses as medical offices, medium to low intensity manufacturing, an office park and some retail like a pharmacy, bank, restaurant and a small hotel, and residential, but no hospital or ambulatory care center. Roche is reportedly against permitting housing on the site.

In December 2013, the township designated David A. Mack Properties LLC of Southport, Conn., redeveloper of the Roche site but Mack – who reportedly wanted to build residential units on the site – eventually withdrew.

Tulfra President Sonny Jumani told The Observer last week, “We’re super excited – we like the opportunity a lot. We’re bullish about Essex County and Belleville.”

But Jumani declined to provide details about the company’s concept for the Roche site. “Unfortunately, I can’t go into details now. We’re still in the middle of open issues that have to be sorted out.”

Ron Leir | Observer Correspondent

Ron Leir has been a newspaperman since the late ’60s, starting his career with The Jersey Journal, having served as a summer reporter during college. He became a full-time scribe in February 1972, working mostly as a general assignment reporter in all areas except sports, including a 3-year stint as an assistant editor for entertainment, features, religion, etc. He retired from the JJ in May 2009 and came to The Observer shortly thereafter. He is also a part-time actor, mostly on stage, having worked most recently with the Kearny-based W.H.A.T. Co. and plays Sunday softball in Central Park, N.Y.