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‘Imagining’ new development

Photo courtesy www.alexsahlstrom.com
“Imagine Center” team members and Belleville offi cials. From l.: Tony Regan, Township Manager Kevin Esposito, Leslie Wang, Mayor Ray Kimble, Rich
Bischoff and Richard Chang.

By Ron Leir
Observer Correspondent

BELLEVILLE –

A,development team, reportedly backed by Chinese investors, is floating a concept for a multi- million dollar mixed-use Belleville project that would include a rail connection.

Representatives of that team behind closed doors with Mayor Ray Kimble and members of the Township Council at the Jan. 14 meeting. Kimble said the public could be excluded because the discussions involved real estate negotiations.

What the governing body did reveal, however, was that the talks concerned the disposition of the “Jacobs Property,” site of the old ice house on the west side of Washington Ave. near the Nutley border.

And, during the meeting’s public portion, the council voted to ask the Planning Board to undertake an investigation to determine whether the property at 630-632 Washington Ave., listed as owned by Belleville Development, of New York, and a portion of Little St. owned by Conrail, can be designated as “areas in need of redevelopment.”

Those areas, officials say, are lands where the unnamed development team is looking to build.

The resolution passed by the council is conditional on the “interested parties” providing $37,000 “to fund professional services required by the Planning Board to conduct its investigation.”

Belleville Councilman Kevin Kennedy, while declining to give details about the development proposal sketched by two representatives of the team, was clearly impressed by its grand scale.

“They want to build a Xanadu,” Kennedy said. “Residential, shops, restaurants – it takes your breath away. And they’ve got investors from China.”

One of the representatives, who identified himself as Tony Regan, declined comment, as did Peter Steck, who is serving as the team’s planning consultant.

But apparent references to the potential project appear on an Internet web site, www.alexahlstrom.com, a resume for Alexander Ahlstrom, who lists himself as an American market analyst, marketer and project manager for WealthPlus Management Group, with offices in China, California and New York.

Ahlstrom also describes himself as a market analyst and primary marketer for “Imagine Center,” a $1 billion multi-use real estate development 28 minutes from Manhattan” and a “Mandarin/ English negotiation interpreter for [the] Belleville mayor, Chinese investors and real estate developer of the Imagine Center.”

“The Township and State governments … will build a train station at the bottom of the Imagine Center,” the extended resume says. A spokesman for NJ Transit said last week that the agency wasn’t involved in such a project. The state Dept. of Transportation couldn’t be reached for comment.

The resume goes on to say the project will consist of a total of 34 stories of about 1.4 milion square feet of space plus more than 3,000 parking spaces. Since the township zoning code currently restricts buildings in those areas to eight stories, that would allow at least four separate buildings to be accommodated, based on the project’s description.

There would be 756 residential units totaling about 1 million square feet spread over 27 floors; one floor of nearly 400,000 square feet of commercial office space; one floor of doctors’ offices; one floor of retail space; and four stories of underground parking, all to be built on 4.5 acres of land with a projected build-out of three years.

Additionally, according to the resume, there would be Manhattan views “above the fifth floor,” plus “a penthouse on every floor with a private garden,” along with “a shopping center, theater, spa [and] running track around the development, two pools and a fitness center.”

The development team expects the project will “create 4,000 jobs” and is seeking a 10-year “tax break.” Additionally, “construction costs more than 15% over budget are paid for by the developer.”

Kimble said the township will continue to research the development team’s credentials and await the results of the Planning Board’s investigation before passing judgment.

John Madden of Maser Consulting, the township’s planning consultants, and Councilman Steven Rovell said that the project’s impact on traffic in the immediate area would have to be evaluated.

Aside from that, Rovell said the township would also have to determine whether such an enormous development would be a good fit for Belleville.

Madden said that he wasn’t aware of any local or state plans to accommodate a rail station but, given that the lower part of the development site is close to a Conrail track extending to Paterson, “it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that Belleville would be selected as a rail link because of its proximity to Newark and New York.”

Both areas being eyed for future construction are state-designated “brownfield” sites, according to Madden, so there would be some degree of environmental cleanup costs attached to any development.

Some years ago, a developer got approvals for a “River Run” residential/retail project at the Washington Ave. site but a dispute with the property owner over payment for cleanup work killed the project, Madden said.

Meanwhile, in other development news, Madden said the Planning Board has scheduled a public hearing for Feb. 13 on a proposed redevelopment plan for the old Geriatric Hospital building, last occupied by Garden State Cancer Center, and environs at Belleville and Franklin Aves.

John Mavroulis of Alma Realty, Astoria, N.Y., bought the eight-story former hospital building from Essex County for $3.7 million in December 2012. The draft redevelopment plan permits a conversion of the structure for residential use for up to 245 apartments (studios, one- and two-bedrooms), or as a hotel/conference center, offices or research facility.

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