Newark condo owners prevail - for now - against affordable housing development

By Barry Carter | The Star-Ledger
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on April 18, 2017

Newark condominium owners say a proposed affordable housing development across the street from them will decrease their property value if the building does not also include market rate apartments.

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Newark condominium owners who live in the Central Ward at Broad Street and Third Avenue believe their neighborhood is ripe for growth.

It's not far from the Broad Street NJ Transit train station. It's ethnically diverse.  A few blocks away, a residential development with space for retail shops on the ground floor has just been completed. Pricey one-bedroom apartments have been snatched up in another building nearby.

And most importantly, a huge lot across the street from their two condominium buildings was purchased five years ago by RPM Development Group of Montclair for another large-scale residential development.

Condo owners were seeing potential in the area -- until they met with RPM last week. During a community gathering, the developer told them that its newest rental project would be 100 percent affordable housing, based on moderate income.  And when they also heard that management would accept section 8 vouchers, that didn't sit well, either.

"I spent my hard-earned money to buy a condo and now I hear affordable housing is going up,'' said Ana Esquibel. "We need diversity.''

 Sure, the homeowners know that their complaint appears as if they're looking down on folks with a lower income. But that's not their intent. They simply prefer a mixed-income development next to their property - Harmony Square I & II - that is rented to families who can afford market rate and affordable housing prices.

"I don't want my property values to go down,'' Esquibel said.

Some of the homeowners said RPM is a reputable company that does good work with developments that are either all affordable or mixed income.

But they still weren't convinced after Joseph Portelli, RPM's vice president of development, explained the project and showed them a colorful rendering of the proposed five-story, 64-unit building with 69 parking spaces.

"I want to live among all different income classes,'' said Sean Gustafson. "Diversity is what makes a thriving, healthy city. We're homeowners. We're investing in the city, we made a long-term commitment.''

Three days after the community meeting, the city zoning board of adjustment voted 5-1 against the project, but not for the reason homeowners raised.

Zoning Board President Charles Auffant said the developer didn't convince the board why it should be granted a variance to allow a mid-rise, multi-family building in a neighborhood that is zoned R-3 residential.

Mid-rise buildings, which are more than three stories tall, are not permitted in a R-3 residential zone for dwellings that include single, two and three-family homes and townhouses. RPM's building is five stories and that's why it needed a variance from the board.

"You have to show that it's not going to have a negative impact on the master plan or the existing zoning,'' Auffant said. "They didn't show that it wouldn't have a negative effect on the master plan.'' 

Several board members said the project would increase automobile traffic on Broadway Avenue and Broad Street, and cause further problems with limited parking on the street.  Board members Terry Pringle-Khalif, Barry Dobson and Rosemarie Ruivo said the neighborhood is already congested with the two condo buildings.

RPM's building, they said, would make getting around more difficult.

Clearly disappointed with the board's decision, Portelli said the site is too important to walk away from.

"The neighborhood is changing for the better,'' he said. "We'll figure it out. We're just not sure what is next. We haven't figured out a strategy. But we will.''

RPM's attorney Michael Oliveira said the developer should be commended because the city wants affordable housing units built and that's what RPM is attempting to do.

"There's almost a troubling undercurrent that if it's affordable housing, that somehow some way these are lesser people. I think that we have to provide for everyone,'' said Oliveira.

Board member Terence Baine, who voted for RPM, said affordable housing is a sensitive issue, and he believes Newark has an obligation to develop housing stock for residents who can't' afford market-rate rent.

"To just make a blanket statement that affordable housing is bad, I think is morally wrong and reprehensible,'' he said.

The homeowners, however, said they are not against affordable housing, which Ruivo reiterated during her remarks at the meeting.

In unison, the 17 condo owners who attended the meeting, loudly said - "Thank you'' for getting their point across.

The neighborhood, residents said, is poised to improve. Behind one of the condo buildings, Newark chief of staff Amiri Baraka Jr.  said, an aging, troubled public housing development will be demolished in two years and residents will be given section 8 vouchers.

"We feel like there is a change happening,'' said Gale McCauley, a condo owner. "We just want it to continue.''

They understand affordable housing is needed, but they believe it's not a good idea for an entire building.

"We're saying give us some type of competition," said Donte Lewis, another homeowner. "If we don't have competition, there's no way for us to move forward. We won't be able to sell.''

RPM's lot has been vacant five years, and it'll remain that way until the company figures out what to do next.

Zoning board bylaws state that an applicant has to wait six months to make another submission, unless they receive a waiver from the board.

If the waiver is approved before the six-month period, RPM's new proposal has to be substantially different for consideration.

The homeowners anticipate RPM will return. When that happens, they'll be right there waiting to listen.

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