A recent article published in The New York Times painted a highly idealized picture of Belleville. Belleville Watch wrote this open letter to writer Jay Levin, pointing out some things that perhaps our politicians and realtors would rather forget.

Dear Mr. Levin,

You recently wrote a short profile of Belleville, published by The New York Times on August 18th. I see you’ve done similar profiles as part of your “Living In” series on other New Jersey towns, such as River Edge and Haworth. I’m not a Times reader or subscriber, so I wasn’t aware of your series until our mayor, Michael Melham, publicly announced Belleville would be featured.

I am a former journalist, so I appreciate your writings and the time and effort you put into it. However, I find the piece to paint an idealized picture of recent changes to Belleville, without also featuring some of the problems Belleville faces, as well as the potential negative impacts of those changes.

I am a writer, blogger, civic watchdog and contrarian. In that spirit, I would like to highlight a few things that maybe you were unaware of while doing your research, or perhaps knew but didn’t have sufficient space to include (I am painfully aware of the stringent quotas of “inches” into which journalists must fit their stories.) If anything, perhaps you or some of your contemporaries may be interested in doing follow-up stories on some of the things I will discuss in this letter.

Apartment Development in Silver Lake

Your article mentions that Belleville is seeing much new residential development, which is true. You specifically mention a “232-unit, transit-oriented complex across from the Silver Lake light-rail station.” What you may not know is the history of the property it is built upon and the challenges the Silver Lake neighborhood will face with this development.

Driving down Belmont Avenue or up Honiss Street in Silver Lake and coming upon this development, it appears as if it were uprooted from a metropolitan area and then dropped into the middle of a small town. With the exception of Clara Maass Medical Center this new development, at five stories tall, towers over the single-frame homes or two-story mixed-use buildings predominant in Silver Lake.

The developers point to the Newark Light Rail’s close proximity as a primary transportation source, suggesting their tenants won’t own cars. That may be true of some people but most likely many will own cars; this is, after all, New Jersey. The development is feet away far from a congested, busy intersection at Belmont Avenue and Franklin Street. Thanks in part to the imperfect traffic signaling caused by the Newark Light Rail, congestion builds for blocks on Franklin during morning and evening rush hour and at lunchtime, and this was true even before this development existed and before the light rail was extended into Silver Lake. More residents and more cars in the neighborhood will only compound the problem.

Silver Lake is a historic neighborhood, once home to poor Irish and Italian immigrant families. Silver Lake was indeed so well-known in the area (and purchasing land there so inexpensive) that inventor Thomas Edison decided to build one of his factories there at the end of the 19th Century.

The Edison Chemical Works operated in Silver Lake from approximately the late 1880s until around the 1930s, Part of the complex was located on the property where the new development now stands. It’s no secret that many industrial companies weren’t environmentally aware; industrial waste was often dumped in local rivers and streams or buried underground. Edison — as well-documented by Edison historian Dr. George Hill in his book Edison’s Environment — was an environmental repeat offender at his companies but especially in Silver Lake. The complex was plagued by huge, destructive fires, pollutants were released into the air and water, and former workers Dr. Hill interviewed reported horrific working conditions. In 1916, an Essex County judge ordered Edison to pay a Silver Lake family $200 when phenol/carbolic acid from the factory polluted a local stream.

A 2011 report on the property submitted to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection noted harmful levels of substances in the groundwater and the soil — nickel, lead, cadmium and mercury, among others. These chemicals are consistent with materials Edison used to build his famed nickel iron and alkaline batteries.

The SilverLake Apartments as seen from Honiss Street. Note how the development dwarfs the smaller residential and commercial properties in the foreground and screams increased density in an already dense neighborhood.

In 2018, when this development was submitted to the planning board for approval, Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, went so far as to write an official statement demanding the property be fully cleaned of pollution before any construction began. During the planning board hearing, the environmental engineer hired by the developer testified that most likely the remaining contaminated soil would be capped in place and covered by landscaping, soil and trees. Despite resident opposition and serious questions about the property, the planning board approved the development.

This development was reviewed and approved prior to Mayor Melham’s election. Nevertheless, once elected, he latched onto the proposed development, hailing it as “progress” in Belleville. Melham and the town council actually approved a 25-year tax exemption for the development, allowing the developer to pay up-front only a fraction of the municipal taxes the property and subsequent improvements to it would normally generate. In 2020, just prior to the state’s Covid-19 lockdown, the mayor held a pitifully small and low-key groundbreaking for the project; it seemed no residents, media or county or state political dignitaries had been invited. Strange behavior for public officials who feted the development as “great progress” for Belleville, no?

Belleville Still Paying for 2014 School Board Deficit

A painful, unresolved issue of which you may not have been aware still plagues Belleville to this day. In 2014, the Belleville Board of Education, much to the shock of the Belleville community, reported a nearly $4 million deficit in the school district. Several factors led to the deficit, but the common cause is generally agreed upon: incompetence and mismanagement by several school district employees, essentially enabled and emboldened by the Board of Education’s apparent lack of oversight or an unwillingness to intervene.

In New Jersey, it is unlawful for a school district to operate with a deficit. Thanks to the work of concerned citizens, and Essex Watch — Belleville Watch’s parent site — residents began to take notice and local media reported on the problems in the school district. Once the state of New Jersey received required audit reports from the Belleville Board of Education, the state Department of Education took action, appointing a state education monitor and floating a $4 million loan to the district to cover the deficit.

Belleville’s taxpayers have been paying, for the past six years, an additional $500,000 annually through the school district to pay back the state’s loan. In accordance with the loan’s terms, the full amount of the loan must be paid back by 2024 — exactly 10 years after this travesty was discovered.

In addition to all this, the New Jersey State Auditor led a three-year investigation into the events and actions leading up to that deficit. The auditor’s report was released in 2018, and at the end of its introduction, then-state auditor Steven Eells wrote, “Certain matters were referred to the state’s Division of Criminal Justice,” better known as Office of the New Jersey Attorney General.

The cover of the State Auditor’s report on Belleville Public Schools released in 2018. In it, then-auditor Stephen Eells stated he referred certain matters to the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice. Belleville residents have been waiting at least three years for any word on a criminal investigation.

For the past several years, concerned citizens and organizations in town have been calling for the attorney general’s office to either investigate what had happened or, if it is investigating, to update Belleville’s residents on the investigation. So far, our town’s cries for justice have fallen on deaf ears. Belleville voters spoke loudly in school board elections in 2014 and after, and board members who were in office when the deficit was disclosed either were defeated at the polls or decided not to seek re-election. Despite this, many in Belleville still do not feel closure.

Although some may say, “Well, that was six years ago, and things must certainly have changed now that the state is involved,” there has been at least one troubling matter recently. In January, the Board of Education voted — upon the recommendation of Belleville’s Superintendent of Schools Richard Tomko, and ostensibly with state monitor Tom Egan’s blessing — to enter into a 5-year lease for office space in a building owned by current mayor Michael Melham. Melham stands to make roughly $200,000 from the agreement, paid for by taxpayer funds, through the school district.

It also merits mentioning that Melham served as campaign manager for two board members who voted to approve the lease. A third board member who voted to approve the lease received a contribution from Melham’s re-election campaign last year. The Board of Education has spent just short of $2 million buying residential and commercial properties around town for special academic programs and office space, so with all that newly-owned space, one can only hope it will vote to end the lease of the mayor’s property.

Belleville’s “Small Town” Sense of Place and Character in Jeopardy from Overdevelopment

One of the most salient points your article makes is that people are attracted to Belleville’s “feel” as a “small town.” I believe many Belleville residents would agree with you. Its history, its identity, and its “sense of place” are unique. Unfortunately, I fear those attributes are seriously jeopardized by the rush to “build, build, build” in Belleville.

When Mayor Melham was elected in 2018, (he won a three-way race — no mandate, that) he left little doubt as to his plans to gentrify Belleville. In the past few years, developers have received approval to build large, high-density residential and mixed-use buildings. Taken together, the new developments add up to more than 1,000 new housing units. Granted, 2 or 3 of those developments were in the works prior to his election, but Melham’s stated goal of gentrification seems on track with the number of developments that have been approved.

Rush-hour traffic on Rutgers Street, to and from the Belleville Bridge. Two mixed-use developments with multiple residential units have been approved on this block alone within the past two years.

All this new development will have severe impacts on the town. Traffic congestion has gotten worse; rush hour traffic has become so bad it can sometimes take 10-20 minutes to get down Belleville Avenue from the Bloomfield border to the center of Belleville. Developers and their experts attempt to placate traffic concerns with suggestions that new residents will take public transportation or rideshare services.

While developers assure the town that few if any school-age children will reside in these new developments, the fact is that Belleville schools are already overcrowded. Instructional space is at a premium in our schools, why is among the reason why the school board has had a flurry of lease agreements and real estate purchases.

Add to this the additional strain all these new developments’ residents will put on Belleville’s aging infrastructure — water, sewers and roads. The flooding visited upon Belleville by Hurricane Ida should raise questions about overdevelopment’s environmental impacts. Although Ida certainly caused rare, 100-year flooding, even summer rainstorms flood parts of Belleville’s Valley section (the section closest to the Passaic River.) As more large-scale developments are approved and built, and Belleville loses more permeable land that absorbs rainwater and other weather runoff, flooding could become even more prevalent and damaging.

Finally, and probably the most egregious facet of these new developments, is that in 2020, the Town Council passed an ordinance declaring the entire township of Belleville an “area in need of rehabilitation.” This ordinance allows, among other things, new developments to almost automatically qualify for five-year tax abatements on any improvements made to the land. Such abatements mean less tax revenue in the public coffers and as property taxes are inevitably raised, it’s the taxpayers who suffer.

Speaking of taxes, you might have benefitted from interviewing some of the long-time small business owners in town, who have seen their property and business taxes steadily increase. I think here of residents Jeff Mattingly — who has run a cabinetry business in Belleville for 30-plus years — and Vincent Frantantoni, a 50-plus year resident and local contractor who also owns a laundromat on Washington Avenue. Both men could have given you insight into what it’s like to own and operate a business in Belleville, and its challenges.

To Conclude….

I appreciate that you profiled Belleville as a special place; it undoubtedly is. I have been a Belleville resident for almost 25 years, and I absolutely love my adoptive town. It has a rich history and a special identity as a suburban small town, and I wish to protect those aspects of it from those who only see dollar signs and wish to distort Belleville into something it is not. I wish to use my platform to defend Belleville as a special place to live, true to its history and character.

I can also appreciate why you do the “Living In” series for the Times. However, your article on Belleville, in many ways, was something I might expect from real estate media like Jersey Digs, which is big on highlighting new real estate developments, but not the potential negative impacts of all that building. I’m sure there are residents of the other towns you have profiled who would — given the opportunity — point out things that maybe don’t fit in with the rosy picture elected officials and real estate agents wish to paint. I will leave it to them to take the initiative on their towns.

Your article would have benefitted from speaking to some other Belleville residents, or by researching some of the issues and challenges Belleville faces today. I presented some here, but there’s not enough space to fully do justice to all of them, such as the mayor’s dubious explanations to residents for the steep water bill increases last year, or why Belleville — a town of 3.3 square miles with a population of roughly 37,000 residents — requires a municipal budget upwards of $70 million.

You are a good writer, and I don’t take critiquing another writer’s work lightly. I wrote this open letter in hopes you might be interested in doing an in-depth profile of Belleville, highlighting both the good things (of which there are many,) and at the same time the critical challenges and problems we face.

Best regards,

Frank F. Fleischman III (FF3)
Lead Editor
Belleville Watch