Zoners ponder youth center, container yard

Image courtesy Nash Interior & Design Construction Management/ A rendering of the proposed St. Mary and St. Mercurius Coptic Church Youth Center with three levels of parking.


By Ron Leir

BELLEVILLE – A local police superior was recently asked for expert testimony about security issues involving a 128-foot diameter dome-shaped youth center proposed by St. Mary and St. Mercurius Orthodox Coptic Church on Academy St.

But he wasn’t speaking as a witness at a criminal trial.

For the benefit of the township’s Zoning Board of Adjustment, Belleville Police Capt. Victor Mesce was evaluating safety measures incorporated into the design for an elevatorequipped 128-foot diameter “monolithic dome” that would house a chapel, meeting rooms, a computer room, multipurpose room and kitchen for adolescent church members, plus three levels of parking below for 96 cars.

The board is weighing an application by the church to knock down three homes west of the church and build a youth center next to the existing church building.

The existing church – which was converted from a former synagogue in 2002 – would remain unchanged. It plans to share a 30-space surface parking lot with the nearby township Public Library at the east end of the site.

At the Jan. 5 zoning board session, Mesce, who also serves as deputy coordinator for the township’s Office of Emergency Management, credited the project’s safety features, including bollards proposed as safety barriers around the dome, surveillance cameras to be posted around the facility, electronic parking gates and color-coded parking stickers for the garage, and a “10-inch-thick” concrete surface for the dome which he called “phenomenal.”

“We’re looking at things in general that could happen,” Mesce said, “like if somebody tries to take a shot from outside (the dome).”

That comment raised the hackles of Academy St. neighbor Alex Gasparo, who, like other neighbors, have voiced concerns about safety and parking issues related to the project.

When Gasparo pressed for more information about safety precautions, board chairman Anthony DelGuercio said: “Anything can happen. We’ve had planes crash on the White House lawn. … The town had security concerns (about the project). Nothing’s foolproof – 9/11 is proof of that.”

William Edwards, the project’s engineer, said that motorists would use a “bi-directional driveway” on Academy St. to enter or exit the garage and Brian Intindola, the traffic engineer, predicted that Academy St. “could process” the volume of cars that the garage and surface parking would generate, given that there are currently an average of between 600 and 700 vehicles that travel along the street each day.

In a phone interview, project designer Ralph Nashed said that development of the youth center would solve two problems for the church, which, he said, has more than 300 individual members.

First, he said, the congregation, mostly immigrant Coptic Christians from Egypt, “wants to have a place where a new generation of American-born, English-speaking youth, can learn the Coptic language and also have a Mass in the English language. They need a chapel, meeting rooms and a place for education so they can learn how to serve the community.”

As for parking, Nashed said, the neighbors won’t have to worry because “we will park every congregant’s car within the premises of church land.” Traffic will flow smoothly in and out and the church plans to create a 30-space lot it plans to share with the nearby Belleville Library, he said.

Photo by Ron Leir/ Roosevelt Ave. residents are upset over plans for a roll-off container yard proposed for the property behind them.


“If the board votes ‘yes,’ this will be an historic milestone for New Jersey, the first monolithic dome of this size to be built in New Jersey,” Nashed said. “It will be a victory for Belleville, a solution for the neighborhood and a blessing for the church.”

Nashed said a mechanical exhaust system would be installed in the underground portion of the garage while the two levels above would be left open to natural air. The youth center space will be equipped with HVAC systems, he said.

Nashed estimated that the dome would cost $5 million and would take six months to a year to complete. The second phase – the surface parking project – would follow, he said.

“In this project, we have in mind to merge history, culture and technology in this project,” he said.

The zoning board is due to reconvene a public hearing on the church’s application Feb. 2. The church is represented by attorney Frank Cozzarelli.

At that meeting, the board is also expected to continue its review of an application by Peter Garofalo to acquire property in the Valley section, at 95-107 Roosevelt Ave., for a roll-off container storage yard on a 17,600 square foot lot and a 700-square foot offi ce. Garofalo currently operates out of Garfi eld and Passaic.

Plans call for 40 container units, each about 35-feet long, to be stored on the site, which was previously used as a truck terminal and is now zoned for “light industrial/planned retail.” The project would account for six new jobs.

Garofalo plans to plant 43 trees and extend fencing at the site to create a buffer between the storage yard and neighboring homes in the rear of the property along Greylock Ave.

Garofalo is projecting six trips a day between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. but even that volume seems oppressive to disapproving neighbors who’ve signed a petition to stop the project.

Jeff Mattingly, a local business owner who is spearheading the opposition, told the board at the Jan. 5 meeting that, “Roosevelt Avenue is a quiet street with minimal activity where the remaining industries and residents get along.”

But Mattingly said residents fear that the proposed roll-off venture will be “noisy and dirty – that’s why they’re generally in heavy industrial sites.”

And, despite Garofalo’s assurances that the containers will be empty when stored in the yard, Mattingly said it’s still possible that the residue of dust and/or possible toxins from construction debris tipped out of the containers may remain, only to be spread through the neighborhood by wind and/or rain.

Several residents speculated that Garofalo’s proposed enterprise could grow, thereby increasing the prospect for additional truck traffic in the neighborhood.

Resident Raphael Jimenez said he was concerned about the safety of children who “walk to School 9,” just a block and a half away from the project site. And, he said, the new business could scare off his tenant.

“How am I going to sustain my property taxes without my tenant?” Jimenez asked.

His wife, Deby, added: “This is a very quiet block. You could basically hear a pin drop. And it’s a very clean street.”

Still, zoning board member George Smith suggested that Garofalo’s plan “is a very less intense use” that what the township zoning code permits for that site in terms of the number of trucks that could be parked there.

The board will take up the case again on Feb. 2.

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