Will empty classrooms become new apartments?

Photo Credit by Anthony J. Machcinski/ School no. 1 is being targeted for redevelopment.


By Ron Leir

A 90-year-old school building whose classrooms have been empty since 1980 is now being eyed as a site for new housing and/or retail use.
School 1, a 3-story structure, sits on a 1.6-acre parcel at 81 Stephens St. The property includes a fenced lot to the north and east of the school itself accessed via Cortlandt St. where school buses are parked. Another part of the tract fronting Rutgers St. contains a lawn area with several mature trees.
Over the years, the building has become something of an eyesore due to the lack of maintenance.
As noted by township planning consultant John Madden, the building’s exterior has cracks in its brick veneer on its northeast side; deteriorated limestone coping; several rusted steel doors; several broken and/or boarded-up windows, and a damaged roof.
Inside, the gym (added to the building in 1967) is a wreck; the roof is leaking, floor tiles are crumbling and plaster is falling from stairwell walls and ceiling. Paint is peeling on the first and second-floor corridor ceilings. Much of the third floor’s flooring has been removed.
In Feb. 2011, Madden notes, Township Construction Official Frank Delorenzo Jr. declared the building an unsafe structure due to “structural damage, hazardous electric, friable asbestos (and) blocked exits.”
“Occupancy is prohibited until the issues noted are remedied,” Madden said.
In July 2011, the Belleville Planning Board voted to classify the School 1 tract as an area in need of redevelopment, a recommendation endorsed by the mayor and Township Council shortly thereafter.
On Dec. 8, the Planning Board convened a public hearing on a proposed conceptual redevelopment plan for the site and voted to adopt the plan, pending certain amendments dealing with parking.
The board is suggesting the governing body consider “a variety of higher density residential uses with the potential inclusion of small scale supporting retail activities… Development of more residential units in close proximity to Washington Avenue will reinforce the (township) Master Plan goal of strengthening Belleville’s main commercial street. The plan (also) serves to improve the Rutgers Street corridor, which functions as a gateway entrance into the Township of Belleville.”
To that end, the board sees “attached or multi-family housing” as the best way to approach that goal, because “residential development is the only viable land use capable of undertaking the substantial financial costs to remediate School 1’s contaminated building and grounds.”
Development strategies pitched by the board are:
Stacked townhouses, with 42 townhouse units, 24-feet-wide, and 42 on-site garaged parking spaces. (“Stacked” means a one-family dwelling unit attached to other one-family units which share the same vertical and horizontal walls and are separated by firewall or tenant separation wall. Each one-family unit has an attached garage with room for at least one vehicle.)
Multi-family development of two buildings with 56 dwelling units and 57 on-site parking spaces.
At least five of the mature trees on the property are to be preserved under either scenario.
The plan also allows community/recreation facilities and swimming pools, along with up to 2,500 square feet of retail space “where the retail use is located on all or a portion of the first floor and the remainder of the building is occupied by multi-family dwellings.”
For the stacked townhome scenario, the planning consultant proposed a maximum building height of three stories/45 feet and 30 dwelling units per acre; for the multi-family dwelling plan, the board suggests 38 units per acre, a maximum building height of five stories/60 feet, and a mix of 70% one-bedroom apartments and 30% two-bedroom units. Stacked townhomes must have pitched roofs.
In consideration of the possibility of parking under the building, the board is considering an amendment that, according to board attorney Thomas DiBiasi, “could allow the building to go up another 10 feet.”
On-site parking can be located “under the building, underground or on the surface,” at a ratio of one garage space per stacked townhouse unit or about one space per unit in a multi-family dwelling.
However, because board members were concerned that there may not be sufficient and convenient parking for residents, the plan will be revised to reflect the need for additional parking, either on or off-site, possibly at a ratio of 1.5 to 2 spaces per dwelling unit, Madden said.
Sidewalks around the development site are to be at least five feet wide and must provide access for the physically disabled.
No dwelling units can be used for professional or business offices by the occupants or any others.
As an area in need of development, the property will be eligible for tax abatement in the form of a PILOT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes).
The township is looking to acquire the School 1 property from the Belleville Board of Education. The property is currently assessed at $916,700 – $566,700 for the land and $350,000 for the building.

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