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Alma agrees to pay

By Ron Leir

Observer Correspondent

EAST NEWARK –

A three-year legal battle between East Newark and Alma Realty Co., the owner of the former Clark Thread/First Republic Industrial Center, 900 Passaic Ave., has finally ended.

On July 30, in East Newark Municipal Court, Alma attorney Vincent Nuzzi signed off on an agreement to pay the borough $100,000 in fines arising from allegations that the company had failed to correct numerous fire code violations at the empty 35-building complex.

The agreement calls for Alma to compensate the borough with two payments of $50,000 apiece within two weeks.

Meanwhile, East Newark Mayor Joseph Smith said that talks between the borough and Alma over concluding terms of a stalled redevelopment agreement for the desolate 13- acre site remain “at a standstill,” with no end in sight.

Ironically, only nine miles away in Belleville, Alma is preparing to redevelop the old SoHo Hospital building at Belleville and Franklin Aves. after having successfully bid for the property which Essex County foreclosed on after the last occupant, Garden State Research Center, failed to make the required payments.

Back at the old First Republic site in East Newark, Smith said the borough has been in and out of court with Alma in efforts to get the company to properly secure the property against the potential of breakins and fire.

“They had to make sure that the buildings were boarded up safely, that all the electric was taken out, that the gas and water were shut off [with one exception], that nothing combustible was stored there,” Smith said.

As a safeguard that would allow two wireless companies to place antennas on the roof of two buildings, Smith said that Alma “had to put in a sprinkler system for the two cell towers within the stairwells that provide a means of egress for each building so you’d have a self-contained fire suppression system.”

Most of the infractions cited by the borough were fire code violations, according to Smith.

The mayor said the amount of the fines “mushroomed” over time, from the initial citations, as the company continued to contest the allegations, “and it took almost three years to cure all the violations.”

After initially engaging attorney Thomas Wall as special counsel in the matter, the borough later assigned its municipal prosecutor Michael Cifelli to take over, on the premise that as a specialist in environmental law in his private practice, Cifelli could expedite the case.

Legal fees will be part of the settlement agreement with Alma approved by the court, the mayor said.

Alma was represented in court by Dover attorney Vincent Nuzzi, who represented one of two N.J. state troopers who lost their jobs in the aftermath of being involved in a high-speed escort of a caravan of luxury cars along the Garden State Parkway in March 2012.

Now that this distraction appears to be settled, the borough can again refocus on its negotiations with Alma on what will happen to the former factory complex.

Both sides had five years to conclude a redevelopment agreement for the site, but now, according to Smith, “we’re well into our seventh or eighth year” of talks.

Smith said Alma initially intended to convert the industrial buildings – which have been registered as federal historic landmarks – to several hundred residential condominium apartments but when the real estate market turned sour in 2008, the company proposed switching to rental units.

Representatives of the borough and the company squabbled over the configuration and number of on-site parking spaces and over the tax abatement sought by Alma.

Smith said that while the borough was willing to go along with some form of an abatement, it had to be assured that it would be getting enough money to cover all the municipal costs associated with the project, particularly educating children living at the site.

At times, Smith said, discussions back and forth became heated and, finally, “we got to the point where we only had the lawyers and planners meet.”

Smith said he couldn’t recall when the last negotiation session was held.

The borough is also battling with Alma on another front – real estate taxes. Alma is appealing the taxes on its property from 2008 through to the current year, according to Smith.

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