By Ron Leir
A project that was started some 15 years ago – but left largely unfinished – is now back on the township drawing board.
On Nov. 27, the Belleville Township Council voted 4-1, with Marie Strumolo Burke dissenting, to hire DC Bloom Consulting LLC, of Belleville, to come up with strategies for a proposed streetscape project for Washington Ave., the township’s main business district.
DC Bloom will get $150 per hour and a maximum of $17,400 in total under the terms of the professional services contract which wasn’t put out to bid because it didn’t meet the minimum bid threshold of $17,500.
Councilman Michael Nicosia, a proponent of the streetscape, said, “We’ve been talking about doing such a project for years. I’ve been trying to put it through for the past six years.”
While the township has seen some evidence of past efforts at beautifying the main drag, as reflected in red brick pavers at intersections between William St. and Rutgers Court and wrought-iron benches installed in front of the Municipal Building and across the street, no substantive work has taken place.
What’s different now, according to Nicosia, is that Dawson Bloom, head of DC Bloom, is a civil engineer who will, ultimately, report back to the council “with different ideas, a cost analysis, engineering and design criteria, what other towns are doing.” Then, “after we put a plan in place, we go after grants (to finance the job).”
Asked how long the process would take, Nicosia said: “We haven’t discussed a time frame yet.”
Whether the township would look to do the entire mile-and-a-half length of Washington Ave. – from Mill St. at the Newark border to the bus depot at the Nutley line – or just sections, remains to be seen.
Officials said that would likely hinge on how extensive the improvements would be and how much money could be tapped to pay for those improvements.
Bloom, a former Belleville school board member and a lifelong Belleville resident, said he’s consulted on prior streetscape work for the City of Newark, concentrated on Broad St. in Downtown Newark. That work, some of which is continuing, will cost many millions of dollars, he said.
“The first step along the process to start in Belleville,” said Bloom, “is to get input from the community. We’ll do a ‘charette,’ an open forum where we’ll ask property owners, business owners, concerned groups, for ideas so we can have a guide to moving forward. We want to see what’s on the mind of the community. I don’t think that’s been done before.”
Bloom said he’s aware that there have been previous attempts to launch a streetscape project on Washington Ave. which, he noted, “have never been followed through.”
To make this new effort successful, Bloom said it’s important to consider any proposed “aesthetic improvements” together with “economic development” of the avenue.
In turn, he said, that means “consideration of such issues as transportation, parking, property maintenance and zoning policies.” If improvements are to be done, Bloom said it’s up to the township to decide whether those changes will, in fact, benefit the businesses on the avenue, attract new customers and what the best ways to maintain those improvements are.
Then, he said, “you can move forward with those businesses you want to see thrive along the avenue.”
Another vital piece in the process, Bloom said, is “finding ways to fund improvements.” Here, he said, it’s important to weigh the scope of the project against the available cash to finance it “so we don’t come up with something unachievable.”
Asked about the project, Mayor Ray Kimble said: “Until I see the proposal, I don’t think I could comment on it.” Kimble said the motivation behind it seems to be rather than moving on a piecemeal basis, “we’d be doing things in a uniform way.” Ideally, he said, “I would hope to get CDBG (Community Development Block Grant) funding for it or pass on the cost to a developer.”
But citizen activist Vincent Frantantoni said the township already has a streetscape plan on file with the construction department at the Municipal Building. “We keep awarding engineers contracts but we never finish the ones we got,” he said. “Now we’re spending $17,000 – for what?”
For his part, Bloom said that anything the township has available will be part and parcel of the process of discovering what’s in the best interests of Belleville to pursue.
Bloom said he anticipated getting started this week, “gathering all the data available, any previous plans, historical documents that can help in an upfront assessment.”
“Then I’ll be meeting with the streetscape committee – Councilmen (John) Notari, Nicosia and (Vincent) Cozzarelli and mapping out a schedule and process with them. That should take us into the spring or summer of next year (at which point) we come back to the entire council with a recommendation of whether they should move forward and, if so, how to do it, including timetable, sources of funding.”