No matter what, Belleville wants the “Great Lawn,” an open space of greenery at the intersection of Belleville and Franklin avenues, as a public park. The 8-acre property sits across the street from Public School No. 10 and in front of the former Garden State Cancer Center, which was sold to a New York State developer for conversion to residential apartments.
At the Feb. 14 meeting of the township governing body, Mayor Michael A. Melham said Belleville would apply for state Green Acres assistance to acquire the privately-held land but, on Feb. 28, Township Administrator Anthony Iacono disclosed to the mayor and council that before the state agency would entertain such a proposal, Belleville had to first complete and close out three other projects still in process.
The township was previously awarded $484,000 to remediate a former rifle range at Joralemon Street and Hoover Avenue and turn it into a passive park; $601,000 to refurbish an old ballfield near the Second River; and $260,000 to repair a retaining wall along the riverbank, according to Iacono.
“We had considered the Second River projects part of the same application,” Iacono said. “But the state is treating them as two separate things.”
Despite the setback, Melham said the township remains committed to pursuing acquisition of the Great Lawn to expand available open space for residents.
“We’re having it appraised,” he said, with the idea of negotiating a price with the owners or, failing that, to move toward condemnation via eminent domain.
Asked whether the owners of record could be interested in using the lawn space for real estate development, Iacono said: “There’s no indication that there will be anything other than grass on that property.”
Township tax assessment records show that Lal M. Pathan, of Englewood, purchased the lawn property in 1999 for a total of $465,000. The land is subdivided into two lots. One lot, 233 Franklin Ave., is 6.53 acres and the other lot, 580 Belleville Ave., is 1.38 acres.
After taxes on the property lagged, the township placed both parcels on an accelerated tax sale last year, Iacono said. New Horizon Investment Corp., of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, acquired lien on the larger parcel for $350,000 and Azan International, Inc., also of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, bought the lien on the smaller lot for $115,000, according to township records.
Additional tax and cleanup liens, dating back to 2020, have been purchased by other parties.
Meanwhile, Alma Realty, of Long Island City, New York, is still in the process of completing conversion of the former hospital into an apartment complex since the firm purchased the property from Essex County in 2013.
“It’s probably about 95% done,” Iacono said. “We’re trying to resolve some outstanding issues with the owner.” These issues, he said, include “an arrangement for a PILOT (payment in lieu of taxation)” and “modifications to the original plan — (the owner) may be off on the number of one- and two- bedrooms approved.” He said he’d have to do further research to provide additional details.
While the township awaits the outcome of this real estate transition, there’s another part of Belleville’s landscape that’s also shifting — new parking meters being installed along the Washington Avenue shopping district corridor.
Last May, the township council authorized bonding up to $125,000 for upgraded meters and meter parts that accept only credit cards or a mobile app but no coins — a move that has upset many older residents who prefer the cash option.
Resident Vincent Frantantoni, who has run several coin-operated laundry businesses on Washington Avenue for many years, said customers have expressed their dissatisfaction about the switch. He said it appears the slots in some reconfigured meter heads have been sealed to prevent insertion of coins.
“I hope we can reverse this,” he told the mayor and council members.
Melham acknowledged that, “we are still getting complaints” conceded that a segment of the township’s population “is not going to get the (parking) app or put in credit cards.”
But the mayor defended the new policy as contributing to a more efficient and safer meter parking system, with local parking enforcement officers no longer having to spend time opening meter heads and extracting cash to deposit in a local bank which can refuse to accept unrolled coins, according to township CFO Frank DeMaria.
To those unhappy with the change, Melham asserted, “We say, ‘Evolve with the times.’”
In a separate parking-related development, Police Chief Mark Minichini said the police department’s traffic unit is in the process of updating the township’s reserved resident handicap parking space assignments.
Residents were advised in a Feb. 2 township website posting had 30 days to submit permit-renewal applications. “Failure to respond within 30 business days will result in the removal of your sign and space,” the notice warned. Permits must be renewed annually. Currently, 316 residents have permits, according to Police Sgt. Frank Pignataro, traffic bureau head.
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Ron Leir | For The Observer
Ron Leir has been a newspaperman since the late ’60s, starting his career with The Jersey Journal, having served as a summer reporter during college. He became a full-time scribe in February 1972, working mostly as a general assignment reporter in all areas except sports, including a 3-year stint as an assistant editor for entertainment, features, religion, etc.
He retired from the JJ in May 2009 and came to The Observer shortly thereafter.
He is also a part-time actor, mostly on stage, having worked most recently with the Kearny-based WHATCo. and plays Sunday softball in Central Park, New York