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Saturday, July 21, 2007

Redevelopment: Newark's Mulberry Street lesson for Plainfield

Renovated Hetfield Building is an example of improvements
made by property owners in the North Avenue Historic District.

Plainfield property owners concerned about the city's redevelopment moves will find Newark's Mulberry Street case full of interesting details.

Friday's Ledger reported on Superior Court justice Marie P. Simonelli's ruling against the city's redeveloment plan for the area --
A Superior Court judge [said] the city failed to prove the area in question is deteriorating and in need of redevelopment.
In the Newark case, Judge Marie P. Simonelli said the city cannot designate the 14-acre Mulberry Street area "blighted" simply because the property could be used for better purposes. Property owners fought the designation, saying the area was still thriving and that they did not want their land to be seized through eminent domain.

"The court finds that the city declared the entire Mulberry Street area as an area in need of redevelopment solely because it is not properly utilized and fully productive," Simonelli said in her decision. "Under the Gallenthin [Paulsboro] holding, this declaration does not meet the constitutional requirement of blight and must be invalidated and set aside." [Emphasis added.]
The ruling is a setback in the plan to build 2,000 condos in downtown Newark.

The nub of Simonelli's ruling appears to be in the lack of negotiations with property owners --
Plans called for the Newark Redevelopment Corp. to negotiate with property owners for their land. If negotiations failed, the developers planned to ask the city to use its condemnation powers to seize those properties.

According to Simonelli's ruling, there is no evidence any negotiations took place.

Instead, she said, the city pursued an investigation into declaring the area in need of redevelopment, paving the way for condemnation.
In light of the Supreme Court's recent 'Paulsboro ruling' (more info here -- PDF file), those concerned with Plainfield's redevelopment plans -- the North Avenue Historic District, East 3rd /Richmond /Cottage Place, and the proposed Netherwood Area plan -- may find the City's case is shaky if it cannot prove in a court of law either that empirical evidence is cited or that good-faith negotiations were conducted with the property owners by a developer before a City declaration sets the eminent domain process in motion.

Judge Simonelli also noted the cozy relationship between the developers and elected officials --
In her decision, Simonelli leveled stinging criticism at the snug relationship between developers and officials in the city. Attorneys, relatives and consultants affiliated with Wishnia and Farina donated an additional $53,325 to some council members when they were making critical decisions about the project, according to the plaintiffs.

"There is evidence in the present case that the Mulberry Street Redevelopment project and NRC's role as its developer was "a done deal," a fait accompli, before the required statutory redevelopment process began," Simonelli said.
In Plainfield, the political relationships may not be so direct as in Newark. I don't suspect that contributions have been made directly to councilor campaign accounts. It is far more likely that prospective developers have donated to those to whom Assemblyman Green is beholden for the financial assistance he got in Mayor Robinson-Briggs' mayoral campaign -- the most expensive ever in the city's history.

In that case, contributions of developers would much more likely have been made to the Union County Dems (whose chair is, coincidentally, executive director of the Union County Improvement Authority, Plainfield's designated redevelopment agency) or to George Norcross proxies in South Jersey who 'wheeled' the money to Robinson-Briggs in the first place in 2005.

Ledger - 7/20/2007: "Judge rules city failed to prove that Mulberry Street site is 'blighted'" -- archived here.

-- Dan Damon

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