Is Passaic Ave. complex unsafe?

Photos by Ron Leir/ The former Clark Thread Co. Building on Passaic Ave. in East Newark



By Ron Leir

They’re supposed to be allies in fostering the conversion of a long-dormant factory to a new apartment complex but they haven’t been able to agree on contractual terms to accomplish that goal.
Worse yet, they can’t even agree on what shape the existing eyesore should be kept in – even before any of the proposed improvements begin.
For the last several months they’ve been legal adversaries, battling in court over the condition of the bricked- and boarded-up structures that comprise the former Clark Thread Co.
Since June 8, the Borough of East Newark has asserted that Alma Realty Corp. of Astoria, N.Y., the current owner of the old industrial facility off Passaic Ave., has failed to remedy these alleged fire code violations:
• Safeguard vacant premises
• (Provide) security on premises.
• Disconnect unnecessary utilities.
• Remove interior combustibles.
• Remove all exterior debris.
• Fire apparatus access in and around buildings.
A borough “notice of code violation and order to pay penalty,” dated June 8, 2011 states “all violations must be abated by June 24, 2011.”
As of this past Oct. 10, the East Newark Fire Department’s Fire Prevention Bureau has assessed penalties totaling $176,000 – and counting – against Alma for having allegedly failed to correct the deficiencies.
On Nov. 29, lawyers for both sides faced off in the borough’s municipal court before Judge Kenneth J. Lindenfelser but after only a few minutes of back and forth, the stalemate continued.
Victor Nuzzi, the Dover attorney representing Alma Realty, claimed this was the first time he was seeing the notice of violation and added he’d “have to do some research” but believed that “some of these (violations) have been abated.”
The judge instructed Nuzzi and Edgewater attorney Thomas Wall, special counsel for the borough, to return on Jan. 3, 2012. By that time, the judge said, he hoped that the lawyers would have hammered out an agreement on what has been remedied and what hasn’t.
Outside the courtroom, Nuzzi told The Observer that, “We’re trying to work it out.” But he also said that he might opt to subpoena East Newark Mayor Joseph Smith as a witness. And, if he can’t reach an agreement, he added, he might decide to ask for a change of venue, meaning transferring the case to another court jurisdiction.
For his part, Wall said that based on a visit to the Passaic Ave. site in October, “We do concede that some of (the violations) are abated. It’s just a question of when they were abated and if they were abated sufficiently.”
Ultimately, Wall said, it will be up to the court to “determine what was abated and when.”
“We will explore all avenues in trying to get an agreement,” Wall said.
When asked if there was any imminent danger resulting from any of the alleged violations, Wall said: “I can’t answer. That’s the subject of this litigation.”
In a phone interview last week, Borough Fire Code Official George Kondek, who wasn’t asked to testify at the court session, agreed that the owners had taken some positive steps.
“There had been a lot of debris inside by the front entrance,” Kondek said, and there was so much that “you’d never be able to get to a fire inside – but they cleaned that up.”
Also gone from some of the buildings in the complex, he said, are various “flammables,” such as wood pallets and boxes with building materials, but he said combustibles still remain in other buildings.
And, Kondek said, the owners need to disconnect “unnecessary electrical wiring” running through the complex. If they want to light the guard shack, for example, “they need to get Public Service to run separate, temporary wiring with separate meters,” he said. “You don’t need transformers all over.”
As for the required 24-hour a day security, Kondek characterized that as an “on and off thing.” A few weeks ago, he said, police reported a break-in at the complex.
“Now that it’s getting cold,” he said, “all you need is a fire going inside one of the buildings.” The owners were permitted to de-activate the sprinkler system after the water pipes burst a few winters ago and flooded the interior of the unheated buildings.
Mayor Smith said that under an initial redevelopment agreement for the complex, dating from about 2007, Alma Realty had proposed 630 luxury residential condominiums with “wrap-around” parking but, later, after the economy tanked, revised its plans to propose more than 800 rental apartments.
Smith said an independent demographer calculated that the project could generate 50 to 70 school-age children that East Newark might have to absorb – no easy feat for the financially strapped borough.
On its web site, Alma Realty highlights its previous development of Taaffe Place Complex in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill – a conversion of four former warehouses used as a knitting factory and by furniture and cabinet makers into loft apartments.
Alma Realty’s web site says the firm owns and operates more than 6,000 residential apartments and more than 1 million square-feet of office and retail space in the tri-state area.

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