In a rare turn of events, a community came together to push back against an unwanted development – and won.
Early last week, residents in the West Side neighborhood near Lincoln Park learned, most for the first time, that a parcel of land at 71 Bentley Ave. was going to be sold to a developer who planned to build a four-story 37-unit senior residential building on the site.
A number of residents said they first learned of the planned development when the developer’s requested tax abatement appeared on the May 8 City Council agenda. The project is also listed on the May 16 Board of Adjustment meeting, which became public last week.
Other residents learned about the development when they received letters dated May 7 from Temple Beth-El, which owns the property and had plans to sell it to generate much-needed cash for roof repairs at the synagogue. Temple Beth-El sits on an adjacent parcel of land at 2419 Kennedy Blvd.
Early last week residents were initially angered to learn that they were just being notified of the project when it was already being considered for city approvals. At a meeting held at Temple Beth-El on Thursday, May 9, several residents expressed sympathy and support for the synagogue’s need for money, but also anger that the development project seemed to be moving quickly without community input.
But, in an unusual twist, the community, temple leaders, and public officials came together to back an alternative plan for the site that could help Temple Beth-El raise money for the roof repair and convert the next door parcel into a neighborhood park.
‘Congregation struggling to maintain historic building’
Like many old religious institutions, Temple Beth-El is located in a beautiful old historic building that is in dire need of significant repairs. According to the May 7 letter sent to the community from congregant and temple board president Kay Magilavy, the synagogue has for years tried to generate money to fix its roof and HVAC system and make other necessary repairs.
“The congregation has been struggling for a number of years to maintain our historic sanctuary building,” Magilavy wrote. “After much consideration we have decided to work toward the sale of part of our property…to help preserve the sanctuary building and fund long-overdue repairs to the roof and the exterior of the building.”
She added that Temple Beth-El planned to sell the 71 Bentley site to The Alpert Group. The developer, she said, planned to demolish the single-family living quarters on the site to build a four-story, 37-unit affordable housing development for seniors.
To develop this project, however, The Alpert Group would require a number of variances from the city and was requesting a 30-year tax abatement as well. Among the zoning variances the developer was requesting pertained to parking, property lines, and permitted use.
Assuming The Alpert Group received these city approvals, Temple Beth-El planned to sell the property to the developer for approximately $800,000, Magilavy told residents at the May 9 community meeting.
The estimated cost of the roof repair, and other related repairs to the temple building, is approximately $85,000 to $100,000, she said.
Early last week, residents in the West Side neighborhood near Lincoln Park learned that a parcel of land 71 Bentley Ave.
The project has been in the works since April and was put on the fast track because there is financing available now that might not be available in the future.
The state of New Jersey recently received from the federal government $1.8 billion in Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery Funds as a result of Hurricane Sandy. The state has pushed up the deadline to apply for money from this pool of funding.
“The bottom line for us is, if we don’t realize sufficient income off the sale of this property, for whatever use, we cannot remain in this building,” Magilavy said at the meeting. “If that roof continues to leak at the rate it’s leaking, we won’t have anything left in here to protect. This congregation has exhausted its endowment…and it’s living hand to mouth. Unless we do something with our only saleable asset that allows us to [fix] the infrastructure, it would be irrational to ask our congregation to take on the cost of keeping this building open.”
Temple Beth-El Rabbi Debra Hachen later noted that it would be worse for the community for the congregation to leave the neighborhood entirely, leaving the site vacant. Such properties become blights in the community.
‘These plans are egregious’
While sympathetic to the temple’s situation, residents said they were not impressed with the developer’s plans for the site, which were presented for the first time at the May 9 community meeting. Even members of the Temple Beth-El community saw the developer’s plans for the first time at this meeting,
In a presentation of the panned development, Joseph Alpert, a principal with The Alpert Group, showed the building’s design.
Architecturally, the building’s design was meant to mirror the red brick exterior of Temple Beth-El. Overall, the building would be 54 feet in height and have a total of 34,000 square feet. Each of the building’s 37 units would be between 570 and 610 square feet in size. The plans included no parking.
“These plans are egregious,” said Alfred Wyche at the community meeting, noting that people who live in this community move there specifically for the historic one and two family homes in the area. “You are losing the character of the neighborhood. My property value just went down.”
Many other residents at the meeting agreed.
“This is just a box,” said Bentley Avenue resident Carlos Fernandes, who said he bought his home just three months ago.
Fernandes and others were particularly angered that the project included no landscaping or greenery and included no parking.
“You say they are seniors, they don’t drive,” Fernandes said. “But there are seniors who still drive. And they are going to have visitors coming to see them.”
Throughout the meeting, some residents shouted, “We don’t want it,” or “Put that somewhere else.”
Along the way, someone yelled, “What about a park or open space,” and suddenly the logjam broke.
Community rallies behind green space
Addressing Magilavy, Bentley Avenue resident Esther Wintner said, “It sounds like you guys need about $80,000 to $100,000 for your roof. So, is there some way we can help you find the money for the roof repair without your having to sell to the developer for this project?”
Hudson County Freeholder William O’Dea, who also attended the meeting, offered a suggestion: He would recommend to the Board of Chosen Freeholders that the 71 Bentley site be purchased and converted into a park using dollars from the county’s Open Space Trust Fund.
He asked that the community – especially residents who had vehemently opposed the senior housing development – back him when he made this request to his colleagues.
The idea resonated and resident Art Zigman suggested that there be a committee of people from the neighborhood and the Temple Beth-El congregation to support and advance this suggestion.
“Well, this was actually a good dialog,” said Rabbi Hachen. “The community is now working together and there seems to be a common goal for all of us now.”
Still, residents will need to make their opinions known at two upcoming meetings, said City Council President Peter Brennan, who attended the meeting.
“People need to come to our next City Council meeting and let the council how they feel,” Brennan said. “On Wednesday, we introduced the ordinance for that 30-year tax abatement. So, if people want that voted down or withdrawn they need to go to that next meeting.”
The next City Council meeting is May 22 at City Hall, 280 Grove St. at 6 p.m.
Community members also encouraged their neighbors at attend the May 16 Board of Adjustment meeting. That meeting will also take place at 6 p.m. at City Hall.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.