By Ron Leir
It’s a fortress-like structure with an immense front lawn and it sits off a major east/ west transportation artery leading to highways and to Manhattan.
Last occupied by the Garden State Cancer Center (GSCC) research facility before it went belly up, the property was foreclosed on by Essex County after the owners couldn’t meet their loan payment obligations to the county Improvement Authority.
So it has sat empty – except for intruders and vandals – for the past year, but it may see new life now that the nine-acre tract at Belleville and Franklin Aves. has been sold at auction by the county.
Alma Realty Corp. of Long Island City, N.Y., outbid seven other prospective purchasers with a bid of $3.7 million, according to County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr., who said it will take time – and potential hurdles – to complete the sale.
DiVincenzo said the Board of Freeholders still has to approve the auction, then hold public meetings in Belleville and Newark, then take another vote to finalize the sale.
If all goes well, he said, the sale could be completed by the spring.
“In this time of fiscal stress, Essex is selling a facility that we no longer use for government purposes and is receiving $3.7 million in revenue,” DiVincenzo said. “Auctioning the old SoHo property to a private owner offers an opportunity for economic development for Essex County and Belleville that contributes to the community and the local property tax base.”
The Dec. 21 auction attracted interest from a variety of bidders that included Garden Commercial Properties, Bergen Regency LLC, C&C Holding Co./BH, and individuals Patrick Wilcox, Leslie L. Lustbader, Robert Grogan and Danny Bensusan, and the successful bidder, John Mavroudis, listed as a vice president/project manager on the Alma Realty website. Although the building lacks state or federal historic landmark designation, its lengthy Belleville history, dating from the early 1900s, as a home for orphans and for the elderly, as an isolation hospital, and its use as a backdrop for the 2001 film “A Beautiful Mind” has made it a property local residents would prefer to see preserved.
Several Belleville officials shared a one-hour “meet and greet” session with Alma representatives including company CEO Efstathios Valiotis and Alma’s Caldwell attorney Paul Jemas.
The Belleville contingent included Mayor Raymond Kimble, interim manager Kevin Esposito, attorney Tom Murphy and Township Council members Steven Rovell, who represents the Second Ward where the former GSCC property sits, and Michael Nicosia, a member of the township development committee.
Murphy characterized the meeting as “very positive” and felt that Alma “wants to plant some roots in this community with a sensitivity toward the surrounding neighborhood.”
And, Murphy added, while “no commitments were made” by Alma to any specific development plans, “we’re very certain they don’t want to continue (a medical) use of the property.”
Esposito said Alma would “like to see the building converted to market apartments and potentially a commercial space.” Because the property is zoned for medical research, “they’d have to go before the [zoning board] to get that accomplished.”
Based on research done by Esposito and others, Murphy said local officials believe Alma executives are “capable, experienced developers and the kind of developers who could start with a project and bring it to completion.”
Also “excited” about the future prospects for the property is Nicosia, who said that Valiotis – on the strength of his presentation last Thursday – “seems to be a very qualified developer who has built over 15,000 (residential) units in New Jersey. He owns a bank, other businesses, and our research shows he’s the 14th wealthiest Greek-American in the United States. In 2010 he was worth almost $800 million. And (Alma) is a family-run business. He’s got his son, daughter and son-inlaw in the business.”
Based on the firm’s track record, Nicosia said that, typically, Alma “will take an historic site or a factory and redevelop it into residential parcels.” And, Nicosia added, Valiotis has “got his own contractors, engineers, architects. He has a cabinet company that makes cabinets that he puts in the kitchens of his new apartments. So he almost needs nobody (outside his company).”
Nicosia said Alma is currently “doing projects in Paterson and Jersey City.”
Still, Nicosia said, “The only thing he’s committed to doing in Belleville is keeping the (existing 200,000 square foot) building and renovating it. He wants to have an engineer go through and lay out the building structurally to get an idea of how it can be divided up for residential units.”
If such a scenario developed, Nicosia said, “I believe he would like to put in moderate to upper income units and probably some commercial shops on the ground floor.”
For Kimble, a desirable outcome would be “some type of luxury townhouse concept and maybe some retail on the lower floor.”The mayor suggested that it would be an ideal location for people who work in New York since, with nearby access to train service, “you could get into Manhattan in 20 minutes.”
Belleville collected $250,000 in taxes for 2011 after negotiating an agreement with the county corresponding to the time when GCCC vacated the partly tax-exempt property. Currently it is fully tax-exempt.
The Alma website highlights among its recent projects the Taaffe Place Lofts in the Clinton Hill section of Brooklyn, a conversion of a former furniture factory complex into residential lofts.
And this past fall, Alma filed an application to build 1,800 apartments spread among four towers and a retail promenade on eight acres along 26th Ave. in Astoria, Queens.
Despite its apparent successes, one hard-luck venture that’s stymied Alma is its efforts to redevelop the old Clark Thread Co. buildings on Passaic Ave. in East Newark where Mayor Joseph Smith continues to cry the blues over stalled negotiations with the company.
East Newark and Alma have been at loggerheads since the tiny borough designated the company as the redeveloper of the long-dormant factory complex. Alma, Smith said, had grandiose plans to install 600 residential units, as a combination of “large luxury one and two-bedroom units.”
However, he said, Alma then revised those plans to propose 700 smaller-sized apartments and wanted the borough to accept responsibility for providing “affordable” units. Parking became an issue, too, he said, along with a request for a PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) arrangement.
Things deteriorated to such a point that, over the past several months, the borough has taken the company to court over alleged fire code violations and has threatened to impose thousands of dollars in penalties. That matter is still pending in Municipal Court.
Smith said the five-year timetable to conclude the terms of the redevelopment agreement ended in 2012 with no solution in sight. “Right now we’re at a stalemate,” he said.
And, Smith added, there’s really nowhere else for the borough to turn. “We know of no other takers (for the property) outthere.”
Still, the Passaic Ave. property – even in its present state – generates the largest amount of tax revenues for the borough – about $560,000 a year, as estimated by Smith.
Alma representatives couldn’t be reached for comment.