Monday’s vote to authorize the study of six potential redevelopment areas drew the biggest crowd to a City Council meeting in recent memory as well as the biggest split among the governing body and administration in several years.
The Planning Board will now study six redevelopment areas but it was West Grand Avenue that drew the most attention from about two dozen speakers as it includes a majority of the properties identified. About 93 of the 119 properties identified are in and around the West Grand Avenue corridor from St. Georges Avenue to Irving Street.
“Had the room not been filled, this outcome would have been completely different,” 5th Ward Councilwoman Jennifer Wenson-Maier said in her closing remarks Monday night. She was among three council members to vote against the resolution, along with 2nd Ward Councilman Michael Cox and 3rd Ward Councilman Bob Bresenhan. Those three also voted last week to try to remove the resolution from the meeting’s agenda.
Elm Avenue resident Al Shipley told the council on Monday night that he can’t understand the idea of condemnation along West Grand Avenue. Other areas identified include large tracts of land, such as Elizabeth Avenue or New Brunswick Avenue. “Taking West Grand Avenue piecemeal just makes no sense. I’d love to hear what’s to be proposed for West Grand.”
Wenson-Maier also took aim at Mayor Samson Steinman in her closing remarks. “He’ll deny it,” she said but claimed that when she asked him his plans for the area, the mayor said he wants to move Veterans Park across the street to a larger location and combine the lot with the adjacent former Dembling’s and Rocky’s Bar & Grill for a grocery store. Wenson-Maier did not respond to an email seeking additional comment or clarification.
Steinman made a brief appearance on Monday night to suggest changing the wording in the resolution to a “non-condemnation” redevelopment study. He did not respond an email seeking comment on Wenson-Maier’s allegations but City Administrator Cherron Rountree did.
“I cannot stress enough that in no way are there any specific plans for that area or any of the areas to be studied. I think what was again misinterpreted were some thoughts and ideas of possibilities, including expanding Veterans Park, that various individuals have suggested. These are merely suggestions from various residents and can in no way be construed as plans,” Rountree said.
Rountree described the study as the next step in a process to improve property maintenance — a process that started over a year ago. “We have been making serious efforts to register vacant and foreclosed properties and to notify and sometimes summon property owners who do not maintain their properties in accordance with city ordinances,” she said. “Naturally, a next step would be to study whether or not the redevelopment area should be expanded,” she said, and the study has only very recently been discussed. During Monday’s meeting she said in response to some comments from residents: “There is no secret agenda, the city is only identifying areas to study.”
Council members generally explained why they voted for or against the resolution during the 2 1/2-hour meeting. Fourth Ward Councilman David Brown said there were only about three properties to be studied within his ward but none residential, which is why he was in favor. The main properties in the 4th Ward are Block 281, Lot 1, part of Swim n’ Play; the former Pathmark property that straddles the Woodbridge border, and the adjacent Dri-Print Foils site on New Brunswick Avenue.
If one residential property is potentially under threat of condemnation and eminent domain, Bresenhan later countered, “it’s one too many.”
Council President James Baker, who holds one of three at-large seats, said there is “no intent at this point in time to acquire properties.” During council comments near the end of the meeting, he added: “This is a serious issue and we’re not insensitive to residents but are charged with overseeing the greater good,” pointing to “significant progress” on redevelopment over the years.
Some property owners complained that they only recently found out and suggested they should have been informed or even received certified letters. Brown said at this particular point in the process, it was only being discussed and the city didn’t need to tell property owners. Certified letters to property owner are required later in the process, after redevelopment areas are identified, at which time owners can challenge being included in the areas.
Ronald McCray of East Hazelwood Avenue urged council members to go to the same people that elected them. The governing body has “a duty and responsibility across the board to make sure” they’re clear in their decision and people understand.
How the city and community benefits or doesn’t community benefit are all valid and important questions, City Attorney Brian Hak said, but only can be answered after the areas are studied. “The public won’t be disenfranchised by the process, valuable input will be given.”
Wenson-Maier said no one seems to have discussed the study with residents. She said she walked West Grand and Elizabeth avenues to distribute fliers and got a lot of phone calls back from businesses. She thought city officials had conversations with property owners looking to sell or interest from developers. Her concern is West Grand Avenue, particularly Veterans Park and First Presbyterian Church, which was removed from the study ahead of Monday’s meeting.
Ben Valentin, pastor of Family Center Christian Church, said his church is in contract to acquire the Korean Union United Methodist Church at 466 W. Grand Ave. (Block 165, Lot 2) and expected to close next week. He requested the property be removed from the study as they have plans improve the property, which last year suffered a roof collapse.
The Rev. Erin Hayes-Cook, pastor of First Presbyterian Church, questioned what guarantee that the property — or any surrounding property — would not be included in a redevelopment plan in the future.
Several residents suggested rehabilitation of properties rather than condemnation. “Lots of the buildings aren’t vacant so there doesn’t need to be any condemnation,” West Grand Avenue resident Robyn Koenig said. “There are different ways to modernize.”
Ebenezer A.M.E. Church on Central Avenue isn’t part of the redevelopment area but The Rev. Erika Crawford has been outspoken about developments, particularly those that impact Central Avenue. She said she met with mayor on Friday and is very concerned about what direction Rahway is going. There seems to be an effort to displace “black, brown and low-income people,” she said. “Redevelopment is not always good for everyone. Not one church has seen an increase in membership since downtown redevelopment. What are you working toward?”
Gretchen Kellaway serves as cubmaster of Pack 47 at First Presbyterian Church. She asked what residents can to do make West Grand better, and make Irving and Main streets alive again. “We have residents but we need things that we need, like a grocery store.”
After the vote was taken, most City Council members in their comments thanked people for attending the meeting. “This is democracy,” Councilwoman At-large Joanna Miles said, adding that she voted with the people in mind and did not take it lightly.
“Wow, this was some meeting,” quipped 6th Ward Councilman Ray Giacobbe, Jr. “We may not agree but talk it out like adults. I’m voting yes for information, information that will be provided by this study.”
Monday night’s meeting was the first in recent memory that Council Chambers was just about full. Two years ago, almost as many speakers spoke on the expansion of the Special Improvement District but it wasn’t a full house. Someone suggested it was the biggest crowd at City Hall in 20 years.
The governing body votes on as many as 250 resolutions and a few dozen ordinances, most all of which have been adopted unanimously. Whether a resolution or an ordinance, most usually sail through with unanimous votes but this is the first time in recent memory that there was as profound a split in the council’s vote on legislation.
In the vote on SID expansion, struck down by a judge in a decision being appealed, City Council was nearly unanimous in its approval. More recently, the governing body also was all but unanimous in approving a mayoral salary increase about 18 months ago. It remains to be seen whether any split or dissension will still be visible when the next mayoral primary rolls around in another 18 months.
Steinman, who also serves as Democratic municipal chairman, will be up for re-election along with the three at-large seats — all are Democrats. Republicans did not field candidates for ward elections this year, which saw Wenson-Maier and Bresenhan, both of whom voted against AR-219-16, among the six re-elected.
You have to go back a few years to see a split among the council and/or mayor, to the previous administration under Mayor Rick Proctor, who could not get council support for several measures or appointments and also saw his salary reduced, unanimously.