By Frank F. Fleischman III (FF3), Lead Editor

One of several comments on the Belleville Watch Facebook page from a builder/developer working in Belleville.

In December, a local builder/developer made disrespectful comments about Belleville and its senior citizens. The comments seem in line with a long-held suspicion about developers and Belleville: that they don’t care about our community or its people. This letter takes that individual to task.

Dear Sir,

This letter should come as no surprise to you. In December, you made comments about Belleville and some of its residents on Belleville Watch’s Facebook page. I found the comments rude, and I believe many Belleville residents would feel the same. Instead of continuing a back-and-forth with you on the page, I thought I’d write this letter. While it is directed to you specifically, I hope your contemporaries will also take heed.

From available evidence you, and presumably those you appear to partner with or have partnered with, have several development interests in this town. Some have been completed, others appear to be in the beginning stages and it appears a property you and some associates owned has been acquired by the Belleville Board of Education to build a parking deck by the Belleville Middle School. One could be forgiven for imagining that you and your associates are competing with another well-established developer to see who can corner the market on development In Belleville! As an aside, one of the things that brought you to the Facebook page was a comment about unpaid property taxes on those properties; I’m glad to see that it appears the 2023 property taxes are now all paid, because Belleville relies on that tax revenue.

At any rate, you and your partners/clients appear to be enjoying success in Belleville. This is unsurprising, given the political environment Belleville now finds itself in; but more on that later.

I’m a longtime resident of Belleville (almost 30 years) and while I accept the need for development, I believe that such development should honor Belleville’s history and character. More fundamental than that, however, is that I insist that developers who wish to come to Belleville to build and make a profit, show respect to the community.

With your comments in December about Belleville, I believe you failed the respect test.

Your Comments Were Bad Optics For Developers

In the past, your comments on Belleville Watch’s Facebook page have been few and were usually in reply to a local civic activist. You also routinely called me and other civic activists “stooges” and “clowns.” Being called names doesn’t bother me; I’ve been called much worse and yet here I remain, doing this critical work. But last month, on a post discussing the November 2023 school board election, you made some disrespectful remarks about this community – one in which it seems you and your partners/clients appear to be doing well, financially.

Your remarks seem to confirm a suspicion that I think many Belleville residents hold about developers who come into town. For a long time, it seems as if developers have come in, promised Spoon, Moon and June to the community, got their projects approved, built their projects and high-tailed it out of town, leaving any of the project’s side effects (increased traffic, added stress on essential services and infrastructure, more kids in the school system) for the community to deal with. There’s a perception of many developers looking upon Belleville as open territory to tear down, build up, make money and once the well runs dry or something more profitable presents itself somewhere else, leaving Belleville to its own devices.

I was a community journalist who covered news in small towns like Belleville. I’ve been to enough public meetings (council, zoning, planning) to see the pageantry (not too strong a word) that developers engage in to convince whatever public body they appear before that their proposal is the greatest thing ever for the community. The well-spoken developers cast the best possible light on their project; their attorneys crisply quote land-use laws chapter and verse to protect their clients; well-compensated (and I would venture to guess well-choreographed) experts testify to emphasize the project’s benefits. Residents who have pointed questions are tersely answered and objections are often dismissed or ruled irrelevant. Ultimately, the public board often votes to approve the project.

Is what I wrote above a caricature? Perhaps, and I can’t say this is how things happen in every city or town in New Jersey, but in my experience, this is pretty much how it goes, especially in Belleville. Up until recently, Belleville’s planning board (the “yes” board, if you will) and its zoning board (the “no” board, or at least the “conditional ‘yes’ “ board) had equal power; in the past few years, the zoning board has been emasculated due to changes in the town’s master plan.  I also understand that the state’s laws concerning land use and development leave much open-ended and provide few avenues of relief or challenge to those who lack money, influence or legal counsel; this is the unfortunate side effect of allowing interested parties to help write legislation, or at least water it down to satisfy those who fill campaign coffers.

Having been editor for Belleville Watch for going on four years has been an education in the realities of real estate development in New Jersey: how simple it is to set up a Limited Liability Corporation, and hide its owners/principals by shielding them behind an “authorized representative.” I see that sometimes that authorized representative may be a resident of the town or city in which one wants to develop.

Senior Citizens Help Make Belleville A Great Town And Deserve Respect

More shameful were your dismissive comments about Belleville’s senior citizens, whom you accuse of not spending money and not maintaining their properties. There was a time when generations of families lived in Belleville, where a person could afford to live their entire life and raise children here, and either see their children buy their own home in Belleville or purchase the family home.

Belleville senior citizens have found it harder to stay in Belleville in recent decades; many moved away because living here became too costly, between rising expenses and property taxes. At one point, so many senior citizens were moving out due to unaffordability that in the late 2000s the Town Council set out to develop affordable senior housing for Belleville residents. You can see that housing at the corner of Franklin Avenue and Mill Street; because Superstorm Sandy money was used to help build it, the housing is not exclusively for Belleville seniors, which was the original intent.

Belleville seniors deserve respect. They worked hard, paid their taxes, and now (hopefully) enjoy retirement. They contribute to the greatness of Belleville and deserve honor and respect. To me, your remarks appeared callous at best, and elitist at worst.

Belleville’s Current Administration Turned Belleville Into A Development Feeding Frenzy

As I said before, you and your associates seem to be doing well in Belleville. And why wouldn’t you be? In 2018, a one-time councilman named Michael Melham — who seemed to disappear from local politics for nearly 20 years — huckstered his way into office in a three-way race. Melham’s most infamous “claim to fame” was helping to spearhead a project that would have redeveloped Belleville’s entire Valley section — including residential homes that were occupied at the time. Thankfully citizen protest and lack of political will from his fellow councilmembers doomed that project.

Before running for mayor Melham, in a newspaper interview, criticized over-development and large-scale residential development; once elected, he pursued development and gentrification with the fervor of a religious convert. Within a year, the town’s master plan and zoning were almost completely rewritten to give developers more latitude. In 2019, he sent out a letter to local real estate interests, proclaiming he is “first and foremost a Realtor” and hinting at having an exclusive, private meeting with interested developers.  

Melham has done everything except light a neon sign on Town Hall that says “Develop In Belleville – Great Terms!” It’s why I say (only half-jokingly) he’s doing all he can to make Belleville “Hoboken On The Passaic.”

In Melham’s first term as mayor, no less than three developers were given generous, decades-long financial agreements that required them only to pay a fraction of property taxes on land improvements. It bears mention that a developer benefitting from one of those agreements threw a pricey $1,000 per seat fundraiser for the mayor and his two running mates during their re-election campaign in 2022.  

Besides all this, other things are whispered about related to this administration and developers; as a writer and civic activist I’ve heard more than a few. Some of the more interesting ones are that a township employee was directed by an elected official to violate township laws for a politically-connected developer, and that certain town officials were pushing developers to use construction materials supplied by a company owned by yet another politically-favored developer. I’ve even heard of developers who would normally compete against each other suddenly working together! It sounds all so very sordid! Again, I’ve no hard evidence, but this being Belleville, I wouldn’t be surprised if this sort of thing was or is going on.

A 2022 invitation to a $1,000 per ticket fundraiser for Mayor Michael Melham and his running mates. The mailing address on the invitation is also that of Premier Developers, responsible for the soon-to-be completed “Essex” development at William and Washington streets, and will soon begin building residential units on the Academy Street side of the old School 1 property.

Respect Belleville — Its People, Its History And Its Character

This blog’s mission is to promote good government, an informed and civically active community, and responsible development that reflects Belleville’s history and character.  The foundation for all of this, of course, is respect – for the community, for the town, for all its people. These values cannot be supported without a deep sense of respect.

Belleville residents like me carry the torch for Belleville and demand respect for the town. We can’t expect our elected officials to do it, because their campaign coffers are often filled by those who might not have Belleville’s best interests at heart. Sometimes it feels like Belleville’s been sold out, all because some in elected office want to wield more political and personal power. I’ve always believed a government belongs to and serves the people, and if I were mayor, I’d handle the issue of tax abatements and development approvals differently; at the very least, building proposals would face deep scrutiny from planning, zoning and historical preservation boards, peopled with members seeking to ensure development conforms to Belleville’s character and history.

I’m not saying developers aren’t welcome in Belleville, but this community has to uphold its values and standards. In a town of maybe 2 miles of livable space and roughly 37,000 residents (we’re one of the most highly dense towns in the county,) the last thing we need is more traffic, more stress on our infrastructure and services and potentially more school children. 20 years ago, I could drive from my former residence in Belleville’s Silver Lake section down to Washington Avenue in about five minutes; in 2018 — just before my wife and I moved across town — it took about 15 minutes, especially during rush hour or on weekends.

If you’re going to build and develop here, put some skin in the game – have something besides money to gain or lose in our town. Grow some roots here. Drive around Belleville and learn about its history and see for yourself its unique character and why it must be preserved.

If you can’t or won’t do that, at least show Belleville and its people the respect they deserve. Maybe other communities will tolerate disrespect from developers; I wish they wouldn’t, but I’m concerned only with Belleville. Just like Tevye in Fiddler On The Roof loves Anatevka, or Wendell Berry’s character Jayber Crow loves his town of Port William, I love this town. Like any other town or city Belleville is imperfect, but I think improvements can be made within the scope of its history and without distorting its character. I will never agree that any shortcomings Belleville has require making it something other than the small, diverse, working-to-middle-class town it is.

If you are interested in either clarifying your original remarks or would like to otherwise respond to this letter, I welcome your comments.