The city council on Tuesday night voted down a measure that sought to acquire 11 properties on both sides of Ryle Avenue to create a new entrance to the Great Falls National Historical Park from West Broadway.
Mayor Jose “Joey” Torres’ administration secured $1 million from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Green Acres program to acquire and demolish the properties to create open space.
“The purchase of any property with Green Acres funds permanently restricts that property to perpetual use as open space,” said a retired municipal administrator Frank Blesso, who has been heavily involved in the Great Falls National Historical Park. “That would foreclose any private tax-paying development for restaurant, entertainment, housing or commercial or nonprofit support activity for this boundary area of the park.”
Blesso argued there is immense commercial potential on Ryle Avenue. He envisages an area packed with amenities for the increasing number of visitors to the Great Falls. The owners of two properties on Ryle Avenue also spoke against the acquisitions at the public hearing on Tuesday night.
“They have no vision,” said Abdelmoeen Dandis of Hawthorne. Torres’ administration has not presented a plan as to what will occur after the acquisitions are completed. He owns a renovated used car dealership at 70-78 Ryle Avenue. His neighbor across the street, Andres Rodriguez, owner of a used car lot on the corner of West Broadway and Ryle Avenue, vowed to fight the city’s use of eminent domain to acquire the sites.
Rodriguez also argued the city will be deprived of revenue from demolition of the taxpaying properties. “The city is going to lose a lot of money,” he said.
Torres has said the revenue being lost is minuscule. Economic development director Ruben Gomez told the council there’s $1.2 million in ratable among the 11 properties. He said the city collects $52,000 per year in taxes from the properties.
There’s a high delinquency rate. Some of the properties have not paid municipal taxes in years. The city is owed $61,000 in taxes from some the properties on the acquisition list, he told the council.
“The blight in that area is greater than the benefit we’re getting,” said Gomez. The city is paying the owners market rate for their properties. Most of the properties on the city’s list for acquisition are ramshackle and in bad need of repair. One property the city is not trying to acquire in that area is 103 West Broadway.
“Why would we leave that raggedy liquor store?” asked Michael Jackson, 1st Ward councilman. He represents the flood prone area where the acquisitions are taking place.
The liquor store in the corner is owned by 25 Lake Street LLP, a firm owned by John Fressie, a politically connected real estate developer in the city.
Fressie is an influential member of the Bunker Hill Business District. He defended the hiring of the mayor’s wife, Sonia, as executive director of the business group. When all the area properties are turned into open space, Fressie’s building, now an abandoned liquor store, looks to benefit.
There’s no plan on what will happen to the old liquor store, said Gomez. He said the Ryle Hotel by the West Broadway Bridge will be renovated with retail on bottom and apartments on top. The mill building that experienced a fire earlier in the year will be developed into 100-unit of market-rate housing.
Council members intently listened to Blesso’s arguments. William McKoy, 3rd Ward councilman, worried about giving up commercial development opportunities in the area.
McKoy asked why the city could not purchase the properties using some other source of funds.
“I don’t have that kind of money in my budget,” replied Gomez. Indeed, the city did not have the funds to acquire the properties and put in an application for $2 million to the state.
“Locking us into an open space, green acres, in perpetuity doesn’t seem to be a wise thing,” said McKoy.
The city cannot afford to lose tax revenue, argued Kenneth Morris, councilman at-large. He said the city has to make big retirement pay outs to its police and fire employees for which it is taking on debt.
Morris suggested the city work together with the property owners to revive that area. “I would much rather see a redevelopment plan strategy that included them [property owners] to allow them to develop their properties into profit making enterprises that would serve the need of those folks visiting what we hope to be a tourist destination,” said Morris.
The city has had a tough time working with property owners who are often unwilling to sign up for the government’s vision of an area.
The idea of the area becoming a hub for tourists is lost on Dandis and Rodriguez. Dandis sees no issues with running a used car dealership out of a space practically inside the national park. Rodriguez wants to be left alone to operate his unsightly used car lot.
Council members voted down the measure 5-2.
“This is one area where there’s a potential,” said Blesso. “We need to take a breath, take our time, and work on the development of those properties.”
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Correction (Sept. 20, 2017): A previous version of this report erroneously stated the vote was 5-3 when in fact it was 5-2.