Newark Ironbound residents cringe at plans for huge residential building

A short walk from the rear entrance of Newark Penn Station, residential lofts, condominiums and apartment buildings rise to four stories above an Ironbound neighborhood prime for continuing development.

While the city's master plan permits buildings up to eight stories tall, special permission (a variance) from the zoning board of adjustment is needed to exceed the height limit.

McWhorter LLC, which is owned by Jose Lopez Jr., needs a slew of variances to build its proposed 12-story, 384-unit building that includes ground-floor townhouses and commercial space. It is these ambitious plans that worry the nearby residents in PLANewark, a community group with architects and planners.

Bordered by McWhorter, Hamilton and Union streets, the project is so big it overwhelms the neighborhood, they argue.

"It's sort of like creating a wall, not to mention that the building will be towering over all of the adjoining structures and will ruin the feel of the Ironbound,'' said Lisa Sanders, who lives a block from the proposed site.

Residents and community organizations argue the project increases density, meaning too many people would live in the neighborhood. That notion is supported in a report by a planner the city hires to review proposals for the zoning board. Gerard Haizel, of the Nishuane Group, said the proposed 384 units are more than double what city zoning laws permit.

Lopez, in a statement, said he wants to build on the diversity of the area to offer an exciting living option.

"We are here for the long-run, and want to see this vibrant community build on its past and thrive in the future,'' he said.

Lopez has the support of the Ironbound Business Improvement District, which believes the residential building is good for the neighborhood. Executive Director Seth Grossman admits that the proposal needs to be tweaked, but he believes both sides can come to an understanding for the benefit of a neighborhood in transition.  People are relocating to Newark, he said, and want to live downtown.

"We can work this out,'' Grossman said.

Residents who live near the proposed building want development, too. They just want it done responsibly and in line with the master plan. Residents fear an approval of this project could open the door to other developers who will want buildings similar to, or even larger than, McWhorter's proposal.

"This is a test case,'' said Michael Panzer, who lives across the street from the site of the proposed builing. "It's worrisome. Given what the zoning allows, it (the building) is above and beyond what's suitable for the neighborhood.''

Residents say McWhorter is seeking too many accommodations. Among them, McWhorter LLC wants the project to cover 100 percent of the land, while city zoning laws limit coverage to 60 percent of the property.

Setbacks, the distance between the building and the street line, poses another dilemma for the developer. Newark's guidelines require a 10-foot setback, but McWhorter LLC wants zero setback, meaning the building would sit along the sidewalk, leaving no room for landscaping on Hamilton and Union streets.

If the name McWhorter LLC sounds familiar, you're right. This is the same company that has been operating a controversial surface parking lot, J&L Parking, on the same land since 2013.

Residents have been fighting McWhorter LLC on the parking lot for years, saying it should not be operating.

At last week's zoning board meeting, residents were prepared again to oppose McWhorter LLC on the parking lot and its argument that the property is part of Mulberry Commons.

Instead, residents found themselves cringing over McWhorter LLC's massive residential proposal, which calls for the first two floors of the 12-story building to be used for 198 parking spaces. As part of the application, McWhorter also requested a temporary variance to continue operating the existing parking lot until it submits a construction plan on the residential development.

Lisa Scorsolini, an attorney with New Jersey Appleseed, a nonprofit legal advocacy center representing PLANewark residents, said McWhorter LLC shouldn't receive an interim variance because of an appellate division ruling on the parking lot that supports the residents.

"I look at it as a runaround to keep their parking,'' Scorsolini said.

She'll make that point and chronicle flaws in McWhorter's latest proposal when the zoning board meets Aug. 10.

Both sides should have presented their case last Thursday, but the city of Newark didn't submit an engineering report, and McWhorter LLC turned in a traffic study late.  McWhorter LLC, however, was willing to proceed with the hearing but zoning board members said they did not want to discuss the application until they had time to review all the required information.

The 67 people who raised their hand last week to oppose the developer will have to return in force this summer. The project is two big for them to ignore.


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