Sunday, August 05, 2007

Redevelopment - Ledger - Judge rules for Mulberry Street owners

Published in the Star-Ledger, Sunday, August 5, 2007

In Newark, a question of blight or wrong
Some see a section beyond help, while others like it

Star-Ledger Staff

For Michael Saltzman, the abandoned dirt lot across the street from his Scott Street home in Newark is an eyesore, a symbol of wasted opportunity in the downtown area.

The neighborhood, says Saltzman, who uprooted from Manhattan and moved to Newark five years ago, is definitely ripe for redevelopment.

Three blocks over on Elm Street, Augusto Mariano says the neighborhood is a thriving one that he and other Portuguese residents helped rebuild in the 1980s when no one else was willing to move into Newark. As far as he is concerned, the area is fine as it is.

The two divergent views strike at the heart of a protracted four-year legal scuffle involving the city, a redeveloper and the Mulberry Street Association, a group of 22 property owners who fought to protect their land against eminent domain. The case hinged on this question: Are the 14 acres of land, which are covered with houses, small businesses, parking lots and a handful of desolate tracts, considered blighted?

The developers and city said yes and declared the area in need of redevelopment in 2004, clearing the way for a 2,000-unit condominium complex just blocks from the new Prudential Center and City Hall.

The Mulberry Street Association disagreed and sued, challenging the designation in order to protect its land.

A week ago, Superior Court Judge Marie P. Simonelli in Essex County sided with the property owners.

"There is no substantial evidence that the Mulberry Street area has reached a state of deterioration or stagnation that negatively affects surrounding areas," Simonelli wrote in her decision.

Alluding to views laid out earlier this year in the precedent-setting state Supreme Court decision Gallenthin Realty Development Inc. vs. Borough of Paulsboro, Simonelli said the city cannot seize property just because it does not feel the land is "fully productive."

Both the city and developer, Newark Redevelopment Corporation, have not decided whether they will appeal the decision, but the City Council last week passed a resolution "strongly urging" the administration not to appeal.

The tract in question is squeezed between the federal courthouse and McCarter Highway, which carries rivers of traffic in and out of Newark. It also sits near the train tracks, where PATH trains lurch through every few minutes. Visitors to the new Prudential Center, scheduled to open in October, will pass the neighborhood on the way to Route 78, making the property one of the most attractive and valuable parcels in the city.

Too valuable, said the city and developers, to be used for parking lots and small businesses -- an argument they made in court. In addition to those businesses, there are churches and homes in the area.

"(The project) would provide a new mix of retail and entertainment services not currently available in the downtown," said Bruce Wishnia, a principal of Newark Redevelopment Corporation, the company behind the condominium project.

Saltzman, the owner of a real estate services company, said he was disappointed by the judge's ruling. Saltzman's house sits on the rim of the disputed area. He bought a house, banking on the promise of a bustling downtown in the future.

Over the years, he has stared out at an empty lot filled with stray cats, homeless people and prostitutes, waiting for the redevelopment wave to arrive in Newark.

"If an area is filled with vacant lots and vacant parking lots and barely any retail in the area, then to me that's not a thriving neighborhood," said Saltzman. "It's not maximizing the value of the area."

At the same time, Saltzman said he empathizes with the residents who have lived there for years. The problem in this case, he said, might have been the way the city and developer proceeded with their project.

Latasia Elliott, 16, a neighbor who has lived on Scott Street for a year, also said the area could use some sprucing up. Still, she said it is better than her former home on Seventh Avenue in Newark.

"Besides the hookers and transvestites, everything is all right," she said.

But longtime residents such as Mariano, 56, have a radically different opinion. Mariano bought a three-bedroom, pale yellow house on Elm Street in 1987 for $7,000. When he moved in, the neighborhood was unsafe to wander around at night.

Years later, he said, it is "awesome" compared to what it used to be. His block is lined with narrow homes, occupied by Portuguese, Brazilian and Spanish immigrants. At the end of his block, abutting Mulberry Street, is the club QXT, which he says does not cause any problems at night.

"It's clean, it's honest," he said.

Even so, if a developer gave him a fair offer for his house and to move, he would consider it. The judge's ruling, he said, pleased him, but it was far from vindication.

"There's still a lot of bad blood with us because of the way they treated us," said Mariano.

George Mytrowitz, the owner of Market Body Works and leader of the Mulberry Street Association, said he does not think his organization would have prevailed in court five years ago. The members of the association have spent $250,000 on legal bills and attended countless council meetings over the years.

Mytrowitz said the tide started turning in their favor at the federal level, with the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling against private property owners in Kelo vs. City of New London. In that case, the court ruled in favor of eminent domain for economic development -- a decision that did not sit well in the court of public opinion. Kelo, said Mytrowitz, opened people's eyes to what he calls eminent domain abuse.

Separately in New Jersey, the state's highest court offered a different opinion on the issue in the Gallenthin case in Gloucester County. In that case, the court ruled municipalities cannot declare "underused properties" as blighted ones for the sake of redevelopment.

Contrary to what the developers and city say, Mytrowitz said the Mulberry area is still a viable one.

"Surface parking plays its part here," he said. "Those lots are completely full. There's nothing wrong with the neighborhood. It's safe. We're not afraid to walk around here."

Mytrowitz said he does not think the city has much grounds for an appeal.

And if they do, he said they will continue to fight.

"This thing has consumed the last 4 1/2 years of my life that I can't get back," he said. "I've been put through the wringer."

Katie Wang covers Newark City Hall. She can be reached at or (973) 392-1504.

Online story here.

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Plainfield resident since 1983. Retired as the city's Public Information Officer in 2006; prior to that Community Programs Coordinator for the Plainfield Public Library. Founding member and past president of: Faith, Bricks & Mortar; Residents Supporting Victorian Plainfield; and PCO (the outreach nonprofit of Grace Episcopal Church). Supporter of the Library, Symphony and Historic Society as well as other community groups, and active in Democratic politics.