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Back to drawing board to lure Passaic Ave. redevelopers

By Ron Leir

Observer Correspondent

KEARNY –

A hoped-for makeover of Kearny’s waterfront district – buoyed a bit when the town approved a conceptual residential/retail redevelopment plan for the area in July 2001 – has hit a hiccup.

Weeks ago, the town had circulated a Request for Proposals from prospective developers for the 77-acre tract, bounded by Passaic Avenue to the east, Belgrove Drive to the west, Bergen Avenue to the north and the East Newark border to the south.

Deadline for submissions was Sept. 7 but sad to say, as noted by Mayor Alberto Santos, “There were no responses.”

By contrast, neighboring Harrison – after spending nearly a decade assembling parcels for its own Passaic River waterfront redevelopment area – is just now seeing activity on several fronts with the opening of a professional soccer stadium, completion and full occupancy of 275 rental apartments as the first phase of the the project “Harrison Station,” start of demolition of the old Hartz industrial site that’s to be replaced by hundreds of new residential units and the soon-to-begin upgrade of the Harrison PATH station by the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey.

And even more projects – such as a new hotel to be built next to the Harrison parking deck – are on the Harrison drawing board.

So what to do? “We will have to re-strategize whether the proposed uses are problematic or whether it’s the environmental conditions,” Santos said.” I suspect it’s the latter. We may have to do more diligence: summarize the (state Department of Environmental Protection) case files on each contaminated site so any potential bidder would know costs for remediation. We’ll have to sit down with our planner (Susan Gruel) and discuss that.”

Among those pollutants, according to Santos, are “heavy metals” stemming from a facility that manufactured aluminum bats “about half a century ago,” and from the American Strip Steel plant that closed about six years ago; and toxins from the former chemical manufacturer Spartech which shut about two years ago.

Town Council members Carol Jean Doyle and Susan McCurrie, who sit on the council’s finance committee, expressed disappointment in the non-response to the RFP.

“I’d like to see that property cleaned up and go back on the active tax rolls,” Doyle said.

Like the mayor, both agreed that it would probably be appropriate to draft a revised RFP that would list the contaminants that have been identified as being on the property. “

At least that way,” Doyle said, “we give (the prospective redevelopers) a benchmark. Once they know that, they have a starting point and what the cleanup costs could be.”

McCurrie, who served as Kearny’s representative on the Hudson County Brownsfields Pilot program, said it’s hoped that with that information spelled out, “it may make it easier for developers to look at these properties and … get an idea of what is developable and try to find out how much environmental work has been done before they put themselves out there so they’re not starting from square one.”

Looking at Harrison’s experience may be an unfair comparison, McCurrie suggested, because “they went through a condemnation process a lot more than we did.”

Additionally, McCurrie said, while Harrison managed to snag some Brownfield remediation funding from the state, Kearny applied for similar aid “but when the (state) budget crisis hit, (the program) ran out of money…. We’re in line (for funding) but maybe about a year away from getting funded.”

Another bump in Kearny’s real estate roadmap has turned up with the Schuyler Crossing development at Schuyler and Bergen Avenues.

While a new large retail pharmacy and bank have surfaced and a restaurant is expected, Santos said the developer – Russo Development Co., of Carlstadt – has asked the town to consider a tax abatement on the residential portion of the project – 132 rental apartments.

And, Santos said, instead of setting aside a percentage of “affordable” units as part of the project, Russo is proposing to make a contribution to the town’s affordable housing trust fund.

“We’re still hoping the project will come to fruition in 2013,” Santos said, “but the revenue projection from rentals at full taxation is now less than what was foreseen two years ago (when the project was approved).”

At the time, the mayor said, the town was banking on netting more than $550,000 in annual taxes from the new apartments.

Both Doyle and McCurrie had reservations about the proposed abatement.

“I’d like to look at it and get an idea of the numbers and see what works for the town and the developer,” McCurrie said.

Doyle said she’d “want to know how long the abatement would be for.

”I just feel that has to be looked at in terms of the impact on our taxpayers,” Doyle said.” If (the abatement) isn’t going to help us financially, what’s the point of giving one? It’s asking an awful lot of all of us. Remember, we’ve just gone through some employee layoffs and furloughs. And, being (Town Council) finance chair, and looking at (recent municipal) budgets, it’s not getting any easier.”

One bit of good news: Helo Holdings, LLC, operator of the year-old heliport in south Kearny, will be expanding now that the Kearny Zoning Board of Adjustment voted Sept. 4 to permit the company to build a two-story, 9,420 square foot structure to house offices and a maintenance shop and an additional one-story, 39,960 square foot steel and concrete hangar on Western Road. The hangar will rise in an area now occupied by truck parking.

Doyle credited the operators for being “very good about keeping their promise” to avoid flying “over Kearny proper” and said she saw no problem with the heliport expansion “as long as they keep their flight pattern the way it is. We’ve already got enough to deal with from Newark (Airport).”

Doyle also commended Zoning Commissioner Carole Swanstron for following up on another promise made by Helo Holdings to offer aviation classroom lessons at Kearny High School.

“That assurance apparently fell through the cracks,” Doyle said. “But (Helo’s representative) has reassured the board that (the classroom lessons) are going to come to fruition.”

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