The area was once the home of the Sier-Bath gear factory, which served a vital role in the development of weapons in World War II (the only reason the variance was allowed to build it in a residential area).
In later years, it became an environmental and ecological nightmare, with its in-ground oil tanks and horrifically loud machinery working at all hours of the night.
When the factory finally closed up shop in the early 1980s, the site became a vacant eyesore, with the residents of the neighborhood vigorously debating what to put there.
There were soil studies and Department of Environmental Protection regulations placed on the area, long before anyone could ever dream about re-developing the site. Even after the old factory was eventually torn down four years ago, the vacant lot became a major concern for the local residents. So did the proposed and initially approved plans for development, some of which were shot down, others vehemently opposed in court.
Site was a battlefield
"This was a site that was a battlefield for many years," North Bergen Mayor Nicholas Sacco said. "It was a battle for about seven years, but it seemed even longer. The factory existed there for so many years, and when it left, it left the ground contaminated and it was going to be a major cleanup for any developer. Then, it became very hard to find a project that would conform with the existing neighborhood."
One project that called for 350 apartment units in a 12-story structure was opposed by the neighboring residents. A lawsuit was filed by residents who said that the variances needed to approve the project were against the law. A Hudson County Superior Court judge ruled in favor of the residents, and the developer eventually pulled out of that deal.
Another developer wanted to build a church and a school on the site, but that plan also met opposition.
"It was going back and forth for ages," Sacco said. "We knew changes had to be made. The first project was very big, and the people obviously didn't want it. The church and school wasn't a good use for the area, and didn't make sense in terms of traffic. We listened to plans for various usage of the area."
Enter Hoboken resident Jeffrey White and his Casa Blanca Development company, which had become a driving force in the re-development of townhouses and condos from nearby Hoboken (approximately 35 projects in the mile-square city) and Red Bank. White came up with a mixed use (residential and commercial) plan that called for nine two-family homes, one 50,000 square foot structure that consists of 60 one and two-bedroom condominiums, and a retail space of 11,500 feet.
His plan was widely accepted when it was introduced to the residents of the neighborhood, as well as the North Bergen Planning Board, last March. After a series of hearings and meetings, the project received approval in July.
Last Tuesday, a groundbreaking ceremony was held on the site to officially announce the project, Insignia Gardens, which will begin construction immediately and should be ready for occupancy by 2007.
It will be Casa Blanca Development's largest project to date.
"I think this is a development that was specifically designed to quell the animosity of the neighborhood," White said. "I began to make inroads by offering lesser units (78, as opposed to the initial 350) and offering commercial use. I offered a plan that satisfied the needs of the community. It's not often than you get a piece of land this size in an urban area. We're under the density level. At the Planning Board hearings, the neighbors were appreciative of it and there was no protesting of the plan. This is the right development at the right time at the right site."
The design, done by Architectura of Edgewater, keeps the community's aesthetics in mind.
"It points to the future, not only for Casa Blanca Development, but for all development in northern New Jersey," White said. "We're going to maximize the values of the property while maintaining the character of the neighborhood."
The proposed homes and housing units at Insignia Gardens will begin in price at $295,000, and sales are being handled by Keller Williams Realty, which is located in North Bergen. The two-family homes will be three stories high and will have three bedrooms, four-car parking, and open areas. The condos will have either one or two bedrooms and ample parking, with an 80-space lot part of the plans. The main commercial space is projected to be four stories high, a far cry from the initial 12-story project.
"I have to give credit to the developer, who took a look at the site and envisioned a plan that would meet the needs of the people and make it all feasible," Sacco said. "To see it all wrapped up now is a relief, because it's really been a headache for so many years."
According to North Bergen administrator Chris Pianese, the commercial space falls within the township's Urban Enterprise Zone, which would be a lure to prospective businesses. Because of that, Pianese said that the township would designate some of its UEZ funds toward the project, to possibly help with outdoor facades and landscaping.
Plus, because White's project came in under the residence density codes, there was no need for any variances, which facilitated the process of going through the Planning Board.
"North Bergen was able to deal with the issue, meet with the needs of the neighbors, and then preserve the character of the neighborhood," White said. "Our primary objective was to remain within the structure of the existing neighborhood, and we're going to make sure that it does."