Newark makes two moves toward redevelopment: Newark (NJ) Star-Ledger, 6/17/05

Plan for new downtown area opens door for eminent domain

By Jeffrey C Mays

The Newark City Council approved two pieces of legislation that will have a major impact on development in the city. One will create an entirely new downtown neighborhood on 13.5 acres, and the other will make it easier to transfer city-owned land to developers.

Both met resistance from residents at Wednesday night's council meeting, but the council said they felt the changes were in the best interest of the city.

A redevelopment plan for 13.5 acres of the downtown Mulberry Street neighborhood was approved by a vote of 5 to 4, clearing the way for the city to officially designate a developer and begin taking private property using eminent domain.

In another move, the entire city of Newark has now been deemed an area in need of rehabilitation, by a 6 to 3 vote, making it easier for the city to create the type of redevelopment plan being used on Mulberry Street.

"We are talking about enhancing neighborhoods," said Councilwoman Bessie Walker.
The Mulberry plan is a 13.5-acre project to build more than 2,000 market-rate condominiums and create an entirely new neighborhood.

The redevelopment plans calls for mixed-use buildings with stores on the bottom, wide plazas, a park and the option of an arcade.

City officials say it is the first effort to create an entirely new neighborhood and not just build two- and three-family houses.

"It's an exciting day, a historical day for the city of Newark," said Emilio Farina, a principal in the Mulberry Street Urban Renewal Co., the developer that will probably be chosen for the project.

Supporters of the project packed the council chambers wearing T-shirts and buttons. The central planning board unanimously decided to recommend the plan to the city council on Monday.

George Mytrowitz, a spokesman for the Mulberry Street Coalition, a group of property owners fighting the use of eminent domain for the project, urged the city council to postpone voting on the plan until his group's lawsuit challenging the blight designation is decided.

"We knew it was a foregone conclusion," said Mytrowitz. "The city is wasting taxpayer dollars to come up with a plan when they know we are contesting it in court."

Councilman Augusto Amador, who voted against the Mulberry Street plan, said the city council should have waited until the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling on a case it is hearing regarding when the government can take private property for a public use and exactly what constitutes a public use.

Mytrowitz said he was also concerned about the city council declaring all 24 square miles of Newark as an area in need of redevelopment.

"The city is trying to fast-track development. Your house or business, your most important possession, may not be safe," said Mytrowitz.

Right up until the vote, the city council had questions about what the designation would mean. Assistant Director of Economic and Housing Development Johnny Jones and Corporation Counsel JoAnne Watson explained that the designation does not change the process the city would have to follow to use eminent domain.

Instead, city officials said the designation would allow for smaller areas to be targeted for redevelopment. The city would be able to take city-owned parcels and combine them with parcels owned by developers to create neighborhood redevelopment plans.

To meet the standard for rehabilitation, an area must show a pattern of vacant, substandard or deteriorated housing; have half of its housing stock or water and sewer infrastructure at least 50 years old; or stand to benefit from rehabilitation to prevent more deterioration. Newark's sewer system is at least a century old.

City planning officials currently declare an area in need of redevelopment if they want to put together neighborhood plans. That designation allows the city to take private property and devise plans to redevelop the area. It also allows the municipality to convey city- owned land to private developers without going through the public bidding process.

In order to be declared in need of redevelopment, an area has to meet several criteria, including unsafe and dilapidated buildings, underused land, and abandoned commercial or industrial areas.

The city council has to ask the central planning board to investigate whether an area is in need of redevelopment. Hearings must be held by the planning board, and the council must approve the planning board's recommendation.

Jones said that process can take from six to eight months and can cost the chance at outside funding.

Attorneys from McKirdy and Riskin, one of the leading firms on eminent domain issues in the state, questioned why the city would need to be declared in need of rehabilitation when the state's redevelopment laws already give the city broad powers.

Nancy Zak, a community activist who works for the Ironbound Community Corp., said the city should concentrate on finishing its Master Plan and updating its zoning laws. Proper planning and zoning would eliminate the need to do so many neighborhood plans, she said.

"I have no problem voting on different areas in need of redevelopment, but I don't believe all sections of the city of Newark are in need of rehabilitation," said Councilman Donald Tucker, who along with Amador and Luis Quintana voted against the designation.

Newark Star-Ledger: www.starledger.com