By Ron Leir
Unlike the neighboring town of Harrison, where the sounds of pile-driving, excavating and actual construction can be heard in its riverfront development area, the relatively modest stretch of waterfront property in Kearny remains fairly silent.
The one exception is demolition activity proceeding on the site of the former American Modern Metals industrial complex on the east side of Passaic Ave. where an explosion and fire at a bat manufacturing facility took the lives of two employees in 1986.
But town officials say they’re uncertain what the future may hold for the property.
Several years ago, after designating a 77-acre section of its southern waterfront bordering the Passaic River, along Passaic Ave. from Bergen Ave. south to the East Newark border at Johnston Ave., as an area in need of redevelopment, the town commissioned planner Susan Gruel to draft a conceptual redevelopment plan for the area and the study was released in November 2007.
Since then, the town took a step backward when, in March 2012, Pathmark – an anchor supermarket for the past 19 years – shut its store on the river side of Passaic Ave., putting about 100 employees out of work. Vornado Realty, the landowner, has sought to market the property but there’ve been no takers.
So, at the last Town Council meeting, held on Aug. 7, Kearny called on the state Department of Community Affairs’ General Planning Services Division to offer an assessment of the plan in hopes of learning how to better showcase the site for prospective developers.
Mayor Alberto Santos said: “We’ve not had much success, in part, due to the bad economy and, in part, due to environmental issues so we’ve focused on the adaptive re-use of existing buildings.”
The plan advises setting aside a 46-acre shopping center district with retail, banks, movie theaters, health clubs and deck parking; an 11-acre “overlay district” within the shopping center district for mixeduse development of artist live/work spaces, galleries, night clubs, restaurants, bars, fitness centers, offices; a 28-acre area also for “mixeduses,” and a 3-acre residential district off Belgrove Drive and Clark Ave. that could include senior housing and/or assisted living facilities. Drive-thru uses would be prohibited throughout the area.
The plan suggests creating a mixed-use district in the Toch Industrial Park complex including lofts, retail, offices and entertainment uses. It also proposes a passive waterfront park on the west side of Passaic Ave., along with a continuous waterfront walkway; improved pedestrian crossings across Passaic Ave.; wider sidewalks; separation of vehicular and truck traffic where feasible; and a jitney service to and from the Harrison PATH station.
Robert J. Tessier, a professional planner with DCA, recommended that the town consider making its bulk standard requirements for retail operations less restrictive. The plan now calls for no more than 40,000 square feet for single-story retail and a maximum of 120,000 square feet for two-story retail.
And, Tessier said, requirements for such things as “decorative walls” for parking configurations are “all adding costs to prospective developers.”
Envisioning a waterfront plaza park facing mudflats and industrial scenery in Newark isn’t going to be “a pretty picture for people sitting on their decks in condos,” so the town needs to be more realistic about those prospects, Tessier said.
Kearny needs to spur action on cleaning up the “brownfields” (areas of contamination) in the area, Tessier said. Despite a memorandum of agreement with some property owners to clean up certain sites, “there’s been no movement.” The town also needs to press the railroad on a right-of-way abandonment situation on one property where “there is siding going to a dead track.” He said DCA is working with the state Department of Transportation to try and resolve it. “That could be a big lift,” he said. Then there’s the issue of the “flood plain” running through the west side of Passaic Ave. which is likely be a “design constraint” for future development there, he said.
Still, Tessier said, the town can find some positives in the fact that existing retailers in the area like ShopRite, Applebee’s and Burger King “are doing well. Those are hints of what will work here.”
Also, Tessier said, “If you took down certain structures, you could come up with five commercial retail yields for 10 pad sites and five midsize big box retail facilities that would generate 541,000 square feet of commercial/retail – if you took the handcuffs [bulk standard restrictions] off.”
Additionally, Tessier said, the town should reconsider its current prohibition on drivethrough uses for such things as fast food places. “I can’t say that would tip the balance but you should discuss it,” he said. “Get a consultant and re-do the plan.”
Santos said the town is getting some proposals for “small residential in-fill. The bat factory and Inland Steel sites could have the potential for residential development,” comparable to the new St. George Apartments in neighboring East Newark.
As for the drive-thru issue, Santos wasn’t particularly receptive. “If it leads to fast food proliferation, I don’t think that does anybody any good,” he said.