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Redeveloper selected for school site

By Ron Leir
Observer Correspondent

BELLEVILLE –

In a split vote, the Belleville governing body has picked the Riefolo Construction Co. to redevelop the old School 1 property for residential use.

On April 23, the mayor and Township Council selected Riefolo over its rival bidder, Group D Capital Partners I, which had pitched a “retail, commercial and/or professional” use for the site.

Riefolo, which offered to pay $1 million for the 1.6- acre property, has 10 days to provide the township with a $200,000 downpayment. The township and Riefolo have 30 days to sign a redevelopment agreement. A real estate closing is called for within six months.

Group D Capital Partners I pledged to pay $275,000 for the property, conduct an environmental and engineering study on possible contamination, pay up to $650,000 for tearing down the old school, pay up to $75,000 for asbestos abatement and pay up to $200,000 to remove underground oil tanks and remediate polluted soil.

But Mayor Ray Kimble joined Council members Michael Nicosia, John Notari and Steve Rovell in voting to accept the Riefolo offer, while Council members Kevin Kennedy and Marie Strumolo Burke voted against it without explanation. Councilman Vincent Cozzarelli didn’t vote.

Several weeks ago, governing body members had an opportunity to question representatives of both companies on their bids but the public was excluded from those discussions on the grounds they involved real estate negotiations.

Belleville plans to demolish the old school building and, at its April 23 meeting, authorized taking bids to accomplish that.

In its bid proposal, Riefolo said it would pay for an environmental study of the property – bounded by Academy St. to the north, Stephens St. to the east, Rutgers St. to the south and Cortlandt St. to the west – to determine if there was leakage from the former school’s oil tanks and, if so, the extent of the contamination. If tests determine that the spill polluted the surrounding soil, the company says it will pull out of the agreement.

If the company does go forward, it proposes to build 60 fair market apartments (20 one-bedroom units and 40 two-bedrooms) spread between two 4-story buildings and provide 120 on-site gradelevel parking spaces, with gated access via Cortlandt and Stephens Sts.

The township Planning Board, meeting in July 2011, found that the old School 1 property met the criteria for designating it as “an area in need of redevelopment” and noted that, “It is in a zoning district that permits a range of housing development” and that, “There is potential to create a distinctive project which would enhance the Rutgers Street gateway to Belleville.”

The Belleville governing body accepted the board’s findings and adopted a conceptual redevelopment plan prepared by the township’s consulting planner John Madden in March 2012.

Kimble said he preferred the Riefolo proposal because it “gave us a specific plan” that conforms to the township’s zoning for the area. “If we’d gone with the other proposal, we would’ve had to change our redevelopment plan, which would’ve cost us more money because we would need to [pay] a planner. Plus, if they couldn’t get a retailer to develop the project, then we would’ve had to start all over again.”

Nicosia, who works as a contractor, said he was familiar with the work done by Riefolo. He said his company has been “doing construction for many years and we’ve competed against them for various jobs. I can say they are more than capable and qualified to get this project done.”

Meanwhile, in a surprising development, Kimble said that the township is rejecting the offer of a $600,000 loan, payable at 4% a year over 10 years, from the state’s Urban and Rural Centers Unsafe Buildings Demolition Bond Loan Program.

“Four percent is too high,” Kimble said. “I can get a better rate with a bond.”

To find money for the demolition of the old School 1, Kimble said the township may be able to reallocate other bond money from other projects previously authorized but not yet tapped.

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