"We couldn't get any federal or state help in restoring the tower, because it was owned privately," Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner said. "All funding only applies to property owned by local government."
The tower had been owned by Lester Mentin Mall Associates, also known as the Tower Mall Associates, who also own and operate the Tower Mall Shopping Plaza adjacent to the tower.
As part of their initial agreement, the Tower Mall was required by law to only do general maintenance on the tower, which has been vacant for more than 25 years. Although the tower had historical preservation status, the shopping center owners were not required to restore it.
Township officials have worked diligently over the last two years to come up with a viable solution to restore the tower and gear it for possible commercial use.
Last week their efforts paid off when they and representatives from Tower Mall Associates reached an agreement to turn the ownership of the tower over to the town, and to map out a concrete plan to beautify the plaza and the surrounding area on Park Avenue.
Mark Lenner, the managing partner for Tower Mall, presented Turner with a key as a symbol of the town's newly acquired ownership, In addition, Lenner agreed to pay the town $35,000 annually in maintenance costs.
The owners of the mall have also agreed to add landscaping along Park Avenue, and around the tower they will donate a 10-by-100 foot patch of land to be included in a planned urban garden located along the avenue.
The brickwork on the avenue will be removed for the landscaping, but utilized in the urban garden, so none of the existing structures are wasted.
Most of the funding for the plaza improvements will come from federal Community Block Development Grants.
Part of the agreement also includes the use of 110 parking spaces in the shopping plaza's parking lot for residents to use during overnight hours.
"It is the biggest public/private partnership the township has ever had off the waterfront," Turner said. "The value of this agreement is over $3 million. It locks in what we've been trying to do for the last few years. A whole stretch of Park Avenue will be beautified, and the symbol of the town, seen everywhere you look, will be restored and put to practical use."
Got the money
The Weehawken Water Tower Preservation Committee, headed by former Councilwoman Alane Finnerty, had already secured a $900,000 low-interest loan to make restoration improvements from the Hudson County Improvement Authority. The agreement with Tower Mall Associates clears the way for the committee to receive an additional $750,000 in funding from a state historical preservation grant.
"The $35,000 that the mall owners give to the town will pay about 70 percent of the annual payments toward the loan from the HCIA," Turner said. "We're now going to be able to make the tower usable and put it to a modern use, both commercial and public, but that still has to be determined. We're also going to be able to restore the tower without using any taxpayer's dollars."
The tower may be rented out to businesses that want to reside there.
Both the township and the owners of the shopping plaza also agreed to have a joint security and cleanup crew to maintain the area.
Finnerty was elated by the agreement. "We're going to have a completely redesigned landscape for a four-block stretch of Park Avenue, and we're now able to move ahead with our plans to restore the tower," Finnerty said. "This is smart government and smart business. We hope that the tower will become revenue-producing. We don't want a dead monument there. We want a living building. There's nothing like history that lives."
Restoration work has already begun on the tower, with construction crews putting up scaffolding to secure both the interior and exterior. Nearly three tons of pigeon droppings were carefully removed from the interior earlier this year.
"The center of the town will have a different look," Turner said. "From this point on, we'll concentrate on the rest of Park Avenue."