Newark residents doing their homework to preserve neighborhood

By Barry Carter | The Star-Ledger
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on August 13, 2015

Lisa Gray, president of the Broad Street Block Association, stands in front of the area the association successfully kept a Family Dollar store from acquiring.

 

Residents of the Broad Street Block Association sat around Lisa Gray's dining room table putting the final touches on their strategy for the Newark Planning Board meeting.

Gray, president of the group, handed out the playbook they crafted that meticulously picked apart plans by a company that wanted to open a discount store in their neighborhood.

"We were not playing,'' Gray says. "This is how we roll.''

Equity Management LLC had no idea what it was up against with its Family Dollar project for Gouverneur Street.

The association has the fight of a junkyard dog in order to protect its community – and a history of it, too.

Homeowners chased away prostitutes several years ago. They got rid of sneakers slung over telephone lines, which is a calling card from drug dealers to their customers. Next, they fought five years for speed bumps to slow down motorists.

So the Family Dollar proposal didn't stand a chance.  The association handed out flyers, knocked on doors and built a social media campaign that called on residents to oppose the project and to see if the city's new master plan would be enforced.

"Let's test the master plan and let's test these new zoning laws, and see if they will be upheld,'' Gray says.

The crux of the issue was that the plans by Equity Management to renovate and expand an existing auto body shop go against the city's master plan for neighborhood development. Equity Management was going to purchase the auto body shop and lease the space to Family Dollar if it won approval from the planning board.

But the master plan, which was approved in March, does not allow stand-alone retail businesses in the Broad Street neighborhood, near Broadway and Bloomfield avenues. Development has to include retail businesses on the ground floor and housing above it, which is the current makeup of the community.

Equity Management didn't want to do that, so the company went to the planning board, seeking a variance for a retail business only.  With one strike already against them, the discount store also needed the planning board to approve eight additional variances that residents dissected in their arguments.

For instance, parking has to be in the rear or on the side of the business. Equity Management needed the spaces in front because there isn't room for 20 cars behind the business. In fact, there is no room. The rear of the building is up against an apartment building.

Retail businesses under the master plan have to be located at the sidewalk. The building that Equity Management wanted to use sits back several hundred feet.

The list goes on, with other requirements the new store would not meet, such as having 65 percent of the windows installed for aesthetics and transparency. Equity Management fell short by nearly 20 percent.

Those were just some of the issues residents pointed out at a July 27 planning board meeting. If they wanted to, residents also could have talked about how there are two Family Dollar stores close by – one about five blocks away. And they didn't even mention how they believe people loiter in front of those stores, an element that residents don't want in their neighborhood.

"We were focused on the facts that this was not being done correctly,'' says resident Donte Lewis. "We gave factual statements about why we didn't want the Family Dollar there.''

The bottom line is this proposal didn't fit and shouldn't have been given consideration. So, that begs the question: Why present a project that doesn't jive with the master plan? More important, why would the city recommend it to the planning board for review?

Michael Piromalli, of the law firm Gaccione and Pomaco of Belleville and the attorney representing Equity Management, couldn't be reached for comment. 

And the city hasn't responded, either.

The planning board provided the best solution when it unanimously rejected the proposal.

Wayne Richardson, the board's chairman, says it didn't make sense to circumvent the master plan.

"If we do it for one, then we have to do it for everybody,'' Richardson says. "How many Family Dollars do we need in one area.''

The victory is just the momentum the block association needs to build up its membership again. Gray says several homeowners moved away after their homes, including hers, were valued at less than what they paid in 2007. Some foreclosed, others did short sales and took a loss.

With new young professionals such as Lewis, 34, and his wife, Elise, 28, moving into nearby condominiums, the association has new life to transform the neighborhood. 

"We were on such a high coming from that meeting because it was so nice that they denied it,'' says Elise Lewis.

It was all in the preparation. Residents did their homework, covering all bases. Emily Manz, 26, says their presentation caught Equity Management off guard and most likely swayed the planning board.

"I think they were surprised that we came out like we did,'' she says.

The association is not sitting still. Right now, they're working with a developer to recruit quality businesses to the neighborhood.

"It's either fight or flight,'' Gray says.

Equity Management and Family Dollar know about the fight part. They took one on the chin.

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