Winners and losers remain unclear in Newark's arena gamble: Newark NJ Star-Ledger, 10/19/07

NJ Voices

By Joan Whitlow

Yesterday, I found that the rough ways had been made smooth.

The smell of fresh asphalt hung in the air by Prudential Center, Newark's downtown arena, built in lopsided partnership with the New Jersey Devils hockey team. Roads that had been pockmarked with man-size holes and piles of dirt days before were paved, some glistening with new white lines and directional arrows, a transformation worked by men, machine and overtime pay.

The place was busy, with work crews putting on the finishing touches to the complex: building the concrete steps to the entrance, still fussing inside the parking deck.

I found a line of new arena employees waiting to take photos for their worker IDs. The security unit was passing out uniform shirts.

Speaking of security, there was talk last week about closing off the street next to the arena, Edison Place, to traffic as an anti-terrorism measure. Yesterday, I found Edison Place freshly paved and marked with turn arrows all the way to Mulberry Street and the arena entrance. The owner of Star Parking on Edison Place says she has been assured that the security plan won't block off the street until some point beyond her parking lot. She is betting the new red shirts that her parking crew wears on it.

I stopped to check on Virginia Duprey, who has lived in the area around the arena for 52 years and owns a home at the corner of Columbia and Lafayette. A few days ago, she showed me how the crews widening Lafayette into an arena-feeding thoroughfare had gouged up heaps of dirt around her house exposing her foundation. When she asked who was going to fix her house, she was told no one because her house was going to be demolished. That was news to her.

I e-mailed the Newark Downtown Core Redevelopment Corp., which is doing the roadwork, and asked about Duprey's house. I never heard back, but by yesterday, someone had neatly put back the dirt by her house where it was supposed to be. I'm sure that was the plan all along.

Duprey and her neighbor, Frank Eng, say they have lived with a wrecking ball over their heads since the arena was just a twinkle in an ex-mayor's eye.

The city slapped the neighborhood with a designation that allows the use of eminent domain to swap parcels of lands with developers. The official process, however, takes proper notice and time, adequate compensation and relocation expenses. A wrecking crew can't just slap an X on someone's house.

Eng and Duprey say they have been getting certified letters, some of them threatening, from real estate concerns that have no power to exercise eminent domain but imply that they do. One letter warned Eng to "avoid a hostile triggering of eminent domain which we will have to apply if you do not cooperate."

The neighbors have also heard from Edison Properties - owner of a sizable number of the parking lots around town and an official arena land swapper. The communications have all been pleasant and nonthreatening, I was told. Duprey said a representative from Edison has been trying to schedule an appraisal of her house.

There is nothing to stop someone from cutting through the eminent domain red tape by making the property owners an offer they can't refuse. Eng speculates that Edison may want to acquire the properties as soon as possible, then flatten them. One could make money on parking while waiting to see whether the arena takes off before investing in some other retail or commercial project.

The 71-year-old (but doesn't look like it) Eng is a retired Wall Streeter, so when he spoke finance, I listened.

I have tried to contact the owner of Edison Properties, Jerome Gottesman, to talk about the land swapping - and about a rumor that he may be planning to build a children's museum in the big yellow brick warehouse that still stands in the arena district.

In the meantime, the traffic plans for the arena have been revealed: new signage, systems for advising people about the good routes and bad, cops at the intersections holding devices that will let them change the traffic signals from red to green as need be.

Expect chaos - at least at first.

The great dilemma, the traffic planners explained, is that if they make things too comfy for the drivers, no one will do what they want people to do - take public transportation or park away from the arena area and walk.

Arenas are about competition, and there will be competition between those trying to get in or out of town for work and the arena-goers trying to navigate their way. In the long run, it should all even out. The city is betting its shirt on that.

Arenas are about winners and losers. Newark has to come out a winner on this one.

Newark NJ Star-Ledger: http://www.nj.com/news/ledger