8/04/2006

Newark to rethink blight designation for Mulberry Street: newark (NJ) Star-Ledger, 8/1/06

Developer planning 2,000 condo units

Jeffrey C Mays

After more than three years of back and forth, the Newark City Council may consider removing the blight designation from a 13.5-acre area surrounding Mulberry Street where developers want to build 2,000 market-rate condominiums.

Councilman Augusto Amador, who represents the East Ward where the project is located, said he will bring the item up for discussion during today's special council conference meeting and possibly for a vote at Wednesday's session.

"If they want to negotiate with property owners they should do so on their own without the threat of eminent domain hanging overhead," said Amador. "I'm not against the project. I just want it to be built on its own merits."

The redevelopment area covers nine city blocks, a mix of residential and industrial uses, small shops, parking lots and private homes near McCarter Highway and the federal courthouse.

Amador said he was also concerned about infrastructure improvements such as water and sewer upgrades and street reconfigurations that the administration of former Mayor Sharpe James promised to the developers of the $550 million market-rate project.

Pat Smith, a spokesman for the project's developer, the Mulberry Street Urban Renewal Co., said his clients were unaware of any changes to their plans.

This would be the second time the development, designed to at tract middle- and upper middle- class residents to live downtown, has faced major alterations. The previous city council asked the planning board to investigate whether the area was blighted in 2003 before rescinding the order. They then restarted the process to have the area declared blighted and approved a redevelopment plan for the area in September.

But with a new mayor and seven new council members, things have changed. The new council also deferred a 20-year tax abatement for the project.
Amador placed an item on the agenda that would rescind the redevelopment plan but said that was not his intention and that the item will be removed from consideration. Amador said his goal is not to end the project, just to rescind the blight designation.

George Mytrowitz, a spokesman for the Mulberry Street Coalition, a group of residents and property owners who formed to oppose the use of eminent domain for the project, applauded the latest development.

The group filed a lawsuit chal lenging the blight designation and accused the former mayor and council of being swayed to approve the project because of campaign contributions. One of the developers, Emilio Farina, was a former aide to former Councilwoman Bessie Walker, who said the connection was not enough to make her abstain from voting.

"There is so much property here they can develop without hurting anyone," said Mytrowitz, whose family owns an auto body repair shop on McCarter Highway. "Eminent domain is a very powerful tool once it's on the table. It's a loaded gun pointed at a property owner's head."

The first phase of the project has already received approval from the Central Planning Board. That portion of the project is slated to be built on land already owned or under contract by the developers. John Buonocore Jr., an attorney for the Mulberry Street Coalition, said the recent planning board approval shows the project is viable without eminent domain.

"We said all they had to do was rezone the area and there was land to build the project," Buonocore said.

But the James administration, the developers and city officials ar gued the best way for the project to be successful was to create an entirely new neighborhood. The project was billed as Newark's first attempt to create a new neighborhood downtown.

Newark lags behind Jersey City in creating downtown housing. Cogswell Realty is completing 1180 Raymond Blvd., a former office building that that will have 317 apartments.

Councilman-at-large Carlos Gonzalez said he wants to discuss the blight label with his colleagues but that he doesn't think the city should provide the developer with infrastructure.

"This project is being sold at market-rate so by providing infrastructure we are enhancing his profit. It has to provide benefit to citizens," Gonzalez said.

Despite his reservations, Gonza lez said he believes that providing housing downtown is a necessity.

"We need to bring residents downtown so the city is not a ghost town after 5 p.m., but it has to be done right," he said.


Newark Star-Ledger: http://www.starledger.com