Ventnor's changes offer new-look redevelopment: Press of Atlantic City NJ, 11/27/07

By Martin DeAngelis

Two years ago, Alba Borland was a poster girl, a human symbol for people convinced of the dangers of Ventnor's redevelopment plans. She even showed up in a TV commercial, a political ad in which she pleaded with city officials not to "take away my small business."

But last week, Borland and that business, Alba Boutique, were the stars in a photo opportunity arranged by officials working to revive redevelopment in Ventnor. City Commissioner Joe Schafer and others showed up at the women's clothing store to present her with a certificate that noted the excellent condition of her property and formally released Borland from any worries that the city will take her home and business by eminent domain.

And after that little ceremony, as she showed off her new certificate, Borland also showed she can make a good representative for either side of this long-running fight. Because the truth is, she sees both sides of the redevelopment debate - very clearly.

She's relieved that she doesn't have to worry anymore about losing her property, which also houses another storefront business. But she also believes that her northeastern Ventnor neighborhood truly needs the help that redevelopment's backers hope it can bring.

"I went through, excuse me, hell," says Borland, whose English is still thickly spiced with an accent - she's Italian by birth (as Alba Luciana Bottacci), but she spent most of her life in Turkey - even after 19 or so years of living above the Ventnor Avenue shop. "And then they give me this beautiful thing and make me very happy. ... They don't come and take my home away from me."

And now that she has that in writing, she wants to see her neighborhood be what it can be - or what it was when she and her late husband moved to New Jersey from Turkey in 1988, to be closer to their children.

"When we bought this building, this corner of Ventnor was beautiful, not like it is now," Borland says, tightly wrapping and then immediately unwrapping a measuring tape as she talks. So, she adds, "I hope they're going to do something about all the ugly buildings, because there are a lot of ugly buildings. ... Why should it be nice at the other end of Ventnor Avenue and ugly here? Atlantic Avenue is nicer: Why should it be nice there and ugly here?"

She still draws a hard line against eminent domain, against the local government having the power to take property from one private owner to give to a private developer. New Jersey's redevelopment law allows that, but opponents of Ventnor's plans protested against it bitterly from the start more than eight years ago, despite city officials' repeated assurances that it would only be used as a last resort to prevent greedy speculators from blocking rebuilding efforts.

"The city has to do something," Borland continues, walking out her front door and pointing to nearby apartment buildings that she says cause many of the neighborhood's problems.

Supporters of restarting redevelopment say that the city's new plan, passed earlier this month, sharply cuts the number of possible eminent domain targets, from 17 parcels of land between Jackson and Little Rock avenues down to seven. And most of those aren't residential, adds Julie Mealo, a member of the Planning Board committee that proposed the new plan; they include the now-razed Lou's Restaurant site, the former Twin Glass building and the boarded-up Ventnor Twin movie theater.

Also, the new plan encourages property owners to "earn" their way out of the chance of eminent domain - as Borland just became the first to do - by having their properties inspected and certified that they meet all legal codes. Mealo says several other residents are already in the process of getting certified that they're no longer subject to eminent domain, and she says officials are available and ready to consult with owners in the targeted parcels on what they need to do to get the same document Borland did.

The main thrust of the plan is to use code enforcement and financial incentives to get individual owners to rehabilitate their properties, since the city's designated redeveloper, Pulte Homes, backed out of a project that had included plans for 375 townhouses and 55,000 square feet of new commercial space.

Still, redevelopment critics aren't exactly sold on that smaller, less ambitious version of it.

"She never should have been in eminent domain," says Annamarie Dion of Jagielky's Homemade Candies, a neighborhood institution across the street from Alba's Boutique - and itself recently removed from the possibility of eminent domain, according to the new redevelopment map.

Richard Gober, whose home is near the redevelopment zone and who led an unsuccessful court fight against the old plan, credited the city with a positive step by shrinking the new one - but criticized it for waiting too long to do that.

"They eliminated a lot of people from the area, and that was a good start," Gober said. "It's a little too late to be thrilled, but better late than never. ... And they should be ashamed of themselves for allowing people to miss the hottest real estate market in history of the United States."

Gober also says he won't be satisfied until the city removes all threat of government taking private property to give to private developers - the power the city insists it needs to be able to get anything done in the troubled area.

So even if an Alba Borland can now see both sides of the redevelopment debate, the argument still may not end anytime soon.

Press of Atlantic City NJ: http://www.pressofatlanticcity.com