MLUB Approves Area In Need Of Redevelopment On Westfield Avenue

After less than half hour of testimony, the Municipal Land Use Board (MLUB) voted to turn eight properties on West Westfield Avenue into an area in need of redevelopment. The lots on Westfield Avenue adjacent to the unused train tracks the length of Roosevelt Street to Hawthorne Street included Surgent’s Elite School of Gymnastics, apartment houses, a steel fabricator, DJ’s Limousine, the vacant Domani’s property, and Skinner & Cook. The area was Block 314, Lots 6 through 12 and Lot 14 – there is no Lot 13.

The applicant for the hearing was the municipality itself and the sole professional providing testimony was the borough’s engineer, Neglia Engineering, who was represented by Anthony Kurus, who also acts as the MLUB’s engineer in other hearings. Displaying three exhibits – an aerial map and two photo collages of certain properties that showed various states of dilapidation –  Mr. Kurus went over the engineering firm’s “Area In Need Of Redevelopment” Report.

The area was described as 2.17 acres of redevelopable land located in the borough’s B-3 business district. Mr. Kurus stated that the area satisfied several criteria under New Jersey law NJSA 40A:12A-5 to determine whether the properties were an area in need of redevelopment. The full statute section is available here:

40A:12A-5. Determination of need for redevelopment

A delineated area may be determined to be in need of redevelopment if, after investigation, notice and hearing as provided in section 6 of P.L. 1992, c.79 (C.40A:12A- 6), the governing body of the municipality by resolution concludes that within the delineated area any of the following conditions is found:

  1. The generality of buildings are substandard, unsafe, unsanitary, dilapidated, or obsolescent, or possess any of such characteristics, or are so lacking in light, air, or space, as to be conducive to unwholesome living or working conditions.
  2. The discontinuance of the use of buildings previously used for commercial, manufacturing, or industrial purposes; the abandonment of such buildings; or the same being allowed to fall into so great a state of disrepair as to be untenantable.
  3. Land that is owned by the municipality, the county, a local housing authority, redevelopment agency or redevelopment entity, or unimproved vacant land that has remained so for a period of ten years prior to adoption of the resolution, and that by reason of its location, remoteness, lack of means of access to developed sections or portions of the municipality, or topography, or nature of the soil, is not likely to be developed through the instrumentality of private capital.
  4. Areas with buildings or improvements which, by reason of dilapidation, obsolescence, overcrowding, faulty arrangement or design, lack of ventilation, light and sanitary facilities, excessive land coverage, deleterious land use or obsolete layout, or any combination of these or other factors, are detrimental to the safety, health, morals, or welfare of the community.
  5. A growing lack or total lack of proper utilization of areas caused by the condition of the title, diverse ownership of the real property therein or other conditions, resulting in a stagnant or not fully productive condition of land potentially useful and valuable for contributing to and serving the public health, safety and welfare.
  6. Areas, in excess of five contiguous acres, whereon buildings or improvements have been destroyed, consumed by fire, demolished or altered by the action of storm, fire, cyclone, tornado, earthquake or other casualty in such a way that the aggregate assessed value of the area has been materially depreciated.
  7. In any municipality in which an enterprise zone has been designated pursuant to the “New Jersey Urban Enterprise Zones Act,” P.L.1983, c.303 (C.52:27H-60 et seq.) the execution of the actions prescribed in that act for the adoption by the municipality and approval by the New Jersey Urban Enterprise Zone Authority of the zone development plan for the area of the enterprise zone shall be considered sufficient for the determination that the area is in need of redevelopment pursuant to sections 5 and 6 of P.L.1992, c.79 (C.40A:12A-5 and 40A:12A-6) for the purpose of granting tax exemptions within the enterprise zone district pursuant to the provisions of P.L.1991, c.431 (C.40A:20-1 et seq.) or the adoption of a tax abatement and exemption ordinance pursuant to the provisions of P.L.1991, c.441 (C.40A:21-1 et seq.). The municipality shall not utilize any other redevelopment powers within the urban enterprise zone unless the municipal governing body and planning board have also taken the actions and fulfilled the requirements prescribed in P.L.1992, c.79 (C.40A:12A-1 et al.) for determining that the area is in need of redevelopment or an area in need of rehabilitation and the municipal governing body has adopted a redevelopment plan ordinance including the area of the enterprise zone.
  8. The designation of the delineated area is consistent with smart growth planning principles adopted pursuant to law or regulation.

The engineering firm testified that criteria (b), (c), (d), (e), (f), and (h) were satisfied under their review. This even though the Domani’s property, under criterion (f), is less than five acres and, under criterion (c), has not been vacant for 10 years. Mr. Kurus further explained, “In addition, we had to review the Master Plan, the New Directions Plan, and the Master Plan Re-Examination Report to ensure that designating such an area would be consistent with these plans as well. So we took a look at each of the individual lots and . . . what existed on each of the properties in order to evaluate each of the parcels as an area in need of redevelopment. We did site visits, we reviewed aerial photography, we reviewed the zoning map, we reviewed tax maps. We also evaluated the tax record as well as the available mapping.”

The entire site area was deemed to be located within a ‘smart growth planning area’, a term that was used throughout the testimony without any clear explanation of what that meant.

Mr. Kurus reviewed certain properties stating that both Skinner & Cook (Lot 14) and Sessco (Lot 12) were older, more outdated buildings with loading doors that open to the street and are desirable for the main corridor in town. Chas. Goeller was described as a building in poor condition and  DJ’s Limousine as well as the apartment next to it were older structures. The former Domani’s restaurant lot is vacant and Mr. Kurus stated, “Obviously, a vacant lot is in need of redevelopment.”

While omitting Surgent’s – which recently had improvements done to it second floor and parking lot – from his review, Mr. Kurus concluded his testimony regarding the properties, “The uses, they’re not homogeneous. It’s not a continuous use of the property and if we designate it a redevelopment area more could be done with this area . . . You can do more with the property. You can enhance the aesthetics along Route 28 and just come up with a more homogeneous type development as opposed to the way the frontage is now with different types of uses that don’t really blend or don’t really seem to be working together.”

With the meeting open to public comments on Mr. Kurus’ testimony, Jacob Magiera asked if the soil had been tested for contamination. The engineer stated that testing was not part of the firm’s redevelopment study. Mr. Magiera then asked what criterion did Surgent’s satisfy under NJSA 40A:12A-5. Mr. Kurus responded, “That property, like the rest of the area, it’s located in the state’s Smart Growth area. That is a big building. We took a look at it. It was our opinion that the building was being underutilized and that there was space that was rented to a dance studio that was kind of turned over here and there so that building, yes, it is in good shape; we didn’t say it wasn’t, it was just that it’s in a smart growth area. It’s in an area that the state designated as a Smart Growth Planning area.”

Although the room had about a dozen people in the audience – excluding elected officials – no one else approached the dais to comment. The floor was then opened to allow MLUB members to ask questions or comment. Al Nitche asked, “Why didn’t you go further up Westfield Avenue? Why did you stop at Skinners?”

Mr. Kurus answered that the firm did not set the boundaries of the study area and that they were asked to study a particular set of lots. Although it is presumed that the municipality set the boundaries, there was no further mention as to why, or at whose direction, the limits were chosen for the current application.

MLUB Jerry Vitale asked if there was a way to put criterion (h), the smart growth planning area, into laymen’s terms. Mr. Kurus replied, “All that’s saying is that the state has come up with a smart growth plan and a map of all the planning areas in the state of New Jersey. This entire site falls into that area so it’s already passed the state’s criteria as being located within a smart growth area.”

No map nor reference to such was presented to the public so it is not known if all of Westfield Avenue is designated to be in the smart growth planning area or just certain areas of the state highway or whether the term could be used as a catchall phrase that would make any property a smart growth planning area.

With all discussion concluded, MLUB president Loren Harms brought up the vote to recommend that the designated area be determined by the municipal governing body to be an area in need of redevelopment. Before the vote, Mr. Harms commented, “We have a committee that we put together for the Master Plan. We were going to start on the Master Plan when this all came about . . This would be a start for us and there are areas in the corridor that should be looked at and put into the Master Plan as areas of redevelopment so this is the start. What I have to do then is get the committee with our engineer to get together with our planner to get together and start working more towards this so we could have a new Master Plan.”

Roselle Park’s Master Plan was last reviewed in 2009. It is a document that describes current land use and lays out a blueprint for development goals for growth in the borough as well as identifying areas for commercial or housing development, open space, recreational areas, and transportation corridors. Even though the state changed its review period to every decade, the municipality still had on its books that a review must occur every six years – the state’s previous standard. Adhering to that ordinance, the MLUB earlier in the year voted to review the borough’s Master Plan.

Mr. Harms commended Mayor Carl Hokanson, who was in the audience, for bringing the development to the board, adding, “I think it’s a great thing for us. I think it’s a beginning. I think we can, with the committee on the Master Plan, I think we can further our beautification of the area . . . So we get a new master plan in place [and] with an area of redevelopment we can kind of . . . choose what we want to put in there basically.”

Mr. Kurus clarified the point by stating, “You have increased control over development patterns.”

The Board voted and unanimously approved to recommend that that area be determined an area of redevelopment.

In closing, Mr. Harms remarked, “I think it’s going to be something that we can work on and start our redevelopment or bring Roselle Park back to where it used to be.”

Being that this is an important first step in a series of subsequent hearing, there are questions and concerns that have yet to be addressed. They include whether eminent domain will be used or if the unknown developer(s) will reach or have reached agreements with the various landowners or whether the development will be either totally commercial or residential use or if it will be mixed use with commercial/retail space on the bottom and residential space on top. It is not even know how many stories any proposed development will be or if the lots will remain separate or be combined into on large 2.2 acre parcel. Those, among many other, questions will need to be asked later but finally, after years of a stagnant business-friendly environment, a decision was made and action was taken to have Roselle Park move forward with development. Keeping those important questions in focus to ‘have increased control over development patterns’ will guide the borough to positive growth while avoiding the issues that occurred the last time the municipality designated an area in need of redevelopment with the Romerovski property further down the road.