With groundbreaking ceremonies on two new large-scale — and controversial — developments, it looks like it will be a busy week in Belleville. On Thursday, October 22nd at noon, there will be a groundbreaking for “The Essex” at 74-102 Washington Avenue. The following day, also at noon, there will be another groundbreaking for “Terry Lofts” at 91 Terry Street.
Invitations to planning and zoning members to these ceremonies — the one for The Essex is visually appealing — is a far cry from the very low-key groundbreaking for the mixed-residential development on Belmont Avenue’s SuperFresh property in Silver Lake. The property once hosted a chemical and battery factory owned by Thomas Edison and has a 100-plus year history of environmental contamination.
Concerned residents as well as neighbors of the properties being developed attended Town Council and Planning Board meetings to question and oppose the development plans. They cited traffic concerns, added stress on Belleville’s infrastructure, the possibility of more children in Belleville schools, as well as the generous Long-Term Tax Exemption (LTTE) and Payment In Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) agreements the developers were awarded.
“The Essex,” 74-102 Washington Avenue
The history of proposed development for this property seems to go back as early as May 2015, when the zoning board heard and approved a scaled-back application they had earlier denied. Beginning in 2017 with the Ray Kimble administration, proposed developments on the property went under whirlwind denials and approvals, culminating under the Melham administration with initial Planning Board approval of 80 units and Town Council approval of a Long-Term Tax Exemption (LTTE) for the developer in 2019. In February 2020, the Planning Board approved changes to the development, allowing a total of 158 residential units and some retail space.
“Terry Lofts,” 91 Terry Street
Like “The Essex,” potential development of 91 Terry Street/371 Cortlandt Street began under the Kimble administration. The property is unusual, in that it begins at Terry Street (intersecting Cortlandt Street, half a block in) and stretches south all the way down to where Cortlandt intersects with Joralemon Street.
The Planning Board under the Kimble administration approved the Terry Street development. The Town Council, on advice from the Planning Board, declared the properties an Area In Need of Redevelopment (AINOR) and the developer was granted a Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) agreement.
The whole redevelopment process went through several twists and turns, including an illegal provision of the original redeveloper agreement, alleged violations of the Open Public Meetings Act as well as the Town Council canceling the PILOT program it granted the developer in February 2018, allegedly because the developer did not maintain its part of the agreement. Later in 2018, the Melham administration reinstated the PILOT/developer agreement, allegedly due to the developer threatening legal action against the Township due to breach of contract and OPMA violations.
In November 2019, the final development for 115 units was re-submitted to the Planning Board and approved.
Throughout the years of the Cortlandt/Terry development project being heard, approved, changed and approved again, residents of Cortlandt Street vocally opposed the development. There are about a dozen houses on Cortlandt Street adjacent to the Terry Lofts property, and more than a few homeowners and tenants of Cortlandt Street homes came to Planning Board and Town Council meetings throughout the years.
Some of the most vocal Corlandt Street residents were Diane Rothwell, Robert Schmitt and his wife Rhonda. The developer reportedly approached individual owners of three houses on Cortlandt Street to offer to buy their homes at fair market value.
Belleville At The Brink of Overdevelopment
Belleville is roughly 3.4 square miles, even less when you take parks, the county golf course and other properties that can’t be built upon. According to a fair share/affordable housing report prepared for the Town Council in 2016, the town is almost completely developed. Belleville’s 2019 estimated population, according to the Census Bureau, was roughly 36,500; that translates into almost 11,000 people per square mile, making Belleville one of the most densely populated towns in Essex County.
In addition to developments like The Essex (156 units,) Terry Lofts (115 units,) there is the Silver Lake/Belmont Avenue Project (238 units), the project at the former SoHo Hospital (240 units), the Franklin Ave project (56 units), the project across from the Motorcycle Mall (136 units), as well as several other relatively smaller projects. All of this adds up to close to 1,000 new residential units to Belleville.
These units will be leased by single persons — many, we would assume, are in a relationship and couples, either married or unmarried. They will bring with them their cars, which will add more traffic to our already overcrowded streets (see how long it takes you to get from Franklin Avenue to Washington Avenue travelling Belleville Avenue or Joralemon Street at rush hour.)
The developers are banking on the idea that their tenants will use car-sharing services and public transportation; it’s a big gamble. Many of these developments will most likely charge their tenants for parking on the property; people will be smart enough to try to park on-street when they can to avoid that. This will aggravate our town’s already-desperate on-street parking situation. More development means higher demand — on water and sewage (if you think your water bills are high now, just wait,) and on public services like police, fire and EMS.
There is also the strong possibility that these developments will result in more children in our schools. Developers and their representatives often poo-poo these concerns, claiming their developments will add few if any children to the school system. They and our elected officials rely on statistical analyses and often quoted but often disputed demographic reports from 2006 and 2018. Statistics can be used to prove or disprove just about anything. As Mark Twain once noted, “There are three types of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.
But, let’s look at another statistic: the New Jersey birth rate. According to the New Jersey Department of Health, in 2010, New Jersey’s birth rate was about 13 children to every 1,000 people. Figuring in the 1,000 units that recent developments will bring to Belleville, we could be looking at between 13 and 26 new kids in the school system.
Belleville’s Recent Developments: The Fatal Flaw
In recent years, many of the high-density residential and mixed-use projects that both the Kimble and Melham planning boards have approved, and for which township councils in both administrations gave generous tax breaks, all seem to be founded on a lot of assumptions: that young people with disposable cash who work in New York City will move into these developments, won’t clog our streets with cars and will generate demand for new stores and services.
Another assumption that at least The Essex and Terry Lofts could have been predicated upon was the possibility of the Paterson-Newark Light Rail proposal, which allegedly would use part or all of the Conrail train line that runs through Belleville’s Valley Section. That was, most certainly, one of the rationale’s behind the monstrous (and thankfully defeated) Second River Station project, which would have brought huge, 50-plus story high rise buildings to the properties south and east of Belleville Shoprite on Washington Avenue.
At one time, these assumptions may have had some ground to stand on; since the Covid-19 pandemic, they seem laughable. People are fleeing New York City due to heavy-handed restrictions and a remarkable increase in violent crime. Due to the pandemic, government revenues from taxes is down, and most likely high-minded projects like the Paterson-Newark Light Rail will either be shelved or be long-in-coming (besides, can you imagine what traffic backups would be on major roads running east-west through the Valley, such as Little Street, Joralemon Street, Rutgers Street and Mill Street with a light rail going through?)
Shoveling Dirt Toward “Hoboken On The Passaic?”
Mayor Michael Melham, who will undoubtedly be at the groundbreaking ceremonies for both projects this week, was quoted in a local newspaper in 2017 after he announced his mayoral candidacy for the 2018 election. In the article, the mayor is quoted as saying he agreed with opponents of large-scale residential projects, that Belleville wasn’t the place for “large apartment complexes.” (Melham later claimed he was widely misquoted in the article.)
It seems, however, that since the election, he’s made his peace with large-scale residential or mixed-use developments. That shouldn’t be surprising of course; during his tenure as a councilman from 2000-2004, Melham was a key supporter of a large-scale development scheme for the Valley, which wound up harming some Valley residents and businesses.
Melham made no secret of his support for redevelopment when he ran for mayor, but he might have been sketchy on his vision for Belleville. It appears he, along with the majority of Town Council members as well as the Planning Board, seek to make Belleville something different than the working-to-middle class suburb it has historically been. It seems he’s seeking to make Belleville more like Hoboken or Jersey City, (both cities, not towns) with its young, hip populations with disposable income.
Instead of encouraging development that is respectful of, and conforms to, Belleville’s small-town, suburban character and history, it appears the Melham administration is doing what so many other local towns are doing: building, building building with the hope that people will move in and spend their money in town.
The groundbreaking ceremonies this Thursday and Friday will be a few more shovel-stabs toward a vision of Belleville as “Hoboken on the Passaic,” and to hell with Belleville’s history and small-town character.