Redevelopment study OK’d after change

City Council approved a preliminary, non-condemnation redevelopment study of six areas of town after residents packed the Council Chambers Monday night with most speakers voicing opposition to the study.

First Presbyterian.GrandandChurch.jpgThe amended resolution (AR-219-16) passed by a 6-3 vote, with the same three members who last week tried and failed to remove the resolution from the agenda altogether. The measure authorizes the Planning Board to “undertake preliminary investigations of certain properties to determine if they qualify as a non-condemnation redevelopment area.” The study will encompass six areas, including West Grand Avenue from St. Georges Avenue to Irving Street, which seemed to draw the most interest from residents. Prior to the meeting, First Presbyterian Church (561 W. Grand Ave., Block 215/Lot 8) was removed from the West Grand Avenue redevelopment study area. According to property records, it’s assessed for almost $1.5 million but as a church is exempt.

A complete list of the properties included in the resolution can be found here (though I haven’t yet updated it to exclude First Presbyterian nor is the resolution linked above the updated version). Here’s a link to the amended resolution, AR-219-16, that was passed.

About an hour into the meeting, Mayor Samson Steinman strode into Council Chambers to propose amending the resolution so it would authorize a “non-condemnation” redevelopment study. Up to that point, about a dozen speakers had either voiced opposition to the resolution or requested that the “condemnation redevelopment” aspect of the study be changed.

“A lot of misinformation has gone out,” the mayor said, and so he suggested going ahead and taking the condemnation aspect out of the resolution if council members agreed. The amendment was greeted with applause and cheers and after the council changed the resolution, another dozen speakers continued to address the governing body for about another 45 minutes but the mayor did not return. Frank Regan, special counsel to the Redevelopment Agency and City Council, suggested adding to the resolution, in the second whereas, “shall authorize the municipality to use all those powers in the redevelopment law, except for condemnation.”

Monday night’s vote came after about 2 1/2 hours of questions and comments from the public and governing body, as well as a presentation of sorts from Regan, who served as planning director in Rahway for 10 years before 14 years as Redevelopment Agency attorney. He spent about 30 minutes explaining the redevelopment process and answering questions from the governing body.

The process is no different whether done as non-condemnation redevelopment or condemnation redevelopment, Regan said. Several council members suggested if they proceeded with non-condemnation but wanted to include potential condemnation on certain properties in the future. Regan said the governing body could do that but depending on that timeline — if a year or more — it could require an entirely new study.

It’s a similar process to what was followed in the late 1990s when the city studied the Central Business Redevelopment Plan (encompassing downtown) and Essex Street Redevelopment Plan (which led to the 86 Riverwalk townhouses, built about 10 years ago, and adjacent park, which opened in 2009). A  change in the state redevelopment law in 2013, however, required municipalities to authorize either a condemnation or non-condemnation redevelopment study, Regan said.

The study is the first step in the process and it’s the Planning Board that will make any recommendation to City Council as to the need for redevelopment area. A planner would conduct a study for each area and present it to the Planning Board for consideration. After public comment and testimony, the Planning Board ultimately would make a recommendation to City Council if any area, or a portion of an area, qualified for redevelopment. The resolution itself does not authorize condemnation, he said.

If City Council were to pursue a redevelopment area, notices would be sent to each property owner informing those that were deemed in the redevelopment area, at which point there would be an opportunity to challenge being included in the area. Even if the governing body authorized a study, Regan said the action might not result in authorizing to condemn any properties. Eventually, a redevelopment plan would be developed subsequent to identifying a redevelopment area and whether properties would be acquired or not. Condemnation is a last resort, Regan said, and the redevelopment process is entirely controlled by state statutes and regulations.

Second Ward Councilman Michael Cox said there doesn’t seem any reason rush the study, as if the city is losing out on something on the timing. He ultimately voted against the resolution.

Major corridors leading into Rahway were chosen to be studied and potential areas have only been identified so far, according to City Administrator Cherron Rountree. She “fully anticipates” that most properties on West Grand will not be included in the redevelopment area, as they must meet certain criteria. The process could take a year or longer and there will be opportunities for the public to offer input and speak, she added.

Fifth Ward Councilwoman Jennifer Wenson Maier said the resolution “was a big surprise to me” when presented in November. Most West Grand Avenue properties fall within her ward. She said some three-quarters of the properties from St. Georges Avenue to Church Street are owner-occupied. Wenson Maier voted no not because she doesn’t support redevelopment, she said, but would feel comfortable moving forward with more information about vacancies, code enforcement issues and the cost of redevelopment studies. She suggested presenting reasons why these properties were selected to be studied. Until then, she would vote not.

Most early speakers on Monday night were property owners on West Grand Avenue or affiliated with First Presbyterian Church. Janice Karpinski of Briarcliff Drive said people feel threatened by the aspect of condemnation and suggested removing that would be a good first step.

Several clergy spoke in support of First Presbyterian whiled other residents criticized the lack of notice on the resolution, which was introduced during last week’s pre-conference meeting. John Hamburg of Edison is involved with Rahway Food For Friends‘ soup kitchen at First Presbyterian. “This is a very simple process that needs to be dealt with. What’s been presented here there is not a single, solitary reason to go forward with condemnation,” he said, and instead put forward a resolution of non-condemnation.

Others were less convinced of the council’s motives. “When you say this study is just the beginning, I have to be a little dubious,” Bryant Street resident Patrick Weaver said. He said it’s hard to believe what he hears considering recent history, whether it was that the incinerator was mandated to be built, Rahway River Park will be improved with an athletic field, or that a downtown hotel would be “marvelous.”

Investigating new redevelopment areas first was mentioned recently during an August Redevelopment Agency meeting. The agency in October then formally asked City Council to authorize the Planning Board to undertake a preliminary study. The idea also came up as far back as 2008 but never got to this point.

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