The agreement ends a lengthy and tedious process that began in April of 1999, when the township recognized the need to revitalize and redevelop Tonnelle Avenue from 70th Street to 79th Street and began to make inquiries with prospective developers to best utilize the site.
During that time, the former owners of the old Evan-Picone building sold its land to the nationwide home improvement chain, Lowe's Home Improvement Center, which is currently under construction at the site. The Lowe's Home Improvement Center store should open in North Bergen later this year.
Now, the conceptual site plan, introduced last August by Related Retail, a subsidiary of the Related Companies, features two retail facilities.
The first, a 120,000-square foot site, is where the now-vacant Crown Cork & Seal factory once stood. The other, a 135,000-square foot area, currently houses the shopping center where K-Mart, Marshall's, Pathmark, a liquor store, Dunkin' Donuts and Wendy's all operate. Those stores will be demolished.
There are also plans for several high-scale restaurants and parking for more than 1,000 cars.
The township's Planning Board previously approved the conceptual plan last summer. The redeveloper's agreement now gives Related Retail the approval to take the necessary steps to first acquire the property, then build on the site.
The redeveloper's agreement states that the developer first must purchase the property within the next two years, then will have another 15-18 months to construct the facilities, according to Township Administrator Joseph Auriemma.
"They have two years to acquire the property and do all of the necessary environmental tests," Auriemma said. "I know that they can't wait to get started. They're very anxious to move the project. I think we can live within those time frames. If they need more time, then we'll work within the framework. We're all working on good faith in all parts. We have the option of extending the time frame if necessary."
Related Retail Companies has been the development group behind the construction of the new Clifton Commons shopping center, located on Route 3 East in Clifton, and has built similar retail outlets in Queens and Brooklyn. In fact, according to Rob Ursini, the vice-president in charge development for Related Retail, the proposed plan for the revitalization of Tonnelle Avenue will be so similar to Clifton Commons that they are calling the new development "The Commons of North Bergen."
Will demolish stores
The plan calls for the demolition of all existing structures on the site, which includes the old Crown Cork and Seal factory, vacant for a decade, and the current retail stores located in the adjacent Shiva complex, which houses K-Mart and Marshall's.
"We're looking to dramatically upgrade the site," Ursini said. "And we want to connect the two areas, to make it look and feel like one continuous center."
Ursini said that his plan is consistent to what has been already planned for the Lowe's Improvement Center store. "We want to make the area look attractive with landscaping, to tree the site and put trees in the parking lot," Ursini said. "We want to break up the view of a parking lot, which looks like a sea of parked cars."
Added Ursini, "We want to create a sense of place, a certain look, with fine brick and masonry, with decorative lighting. So that you know where you're at, in the Commons of North Bergen."
The project will be very extensive. First, there is the demolition of the existing structures. Then, meticulous grading of the entire area will be needed in order to make the entire 260,000 square foot area on level ground. "It's going to take an effort to grade out the entire area," Ursini said.
Another precise portion of the development will be access roads. Ursini said that his plan calls for acceleration and deceleration lanes onto Tonnelle Avenue, which will help traffic flow and will enable the area to be safer with the heavy volume of trucks that frequently use Tonnelle Avenue.
The proposed widening of Tonnelle Avenue [also known as State Highway Routes 1&9] is something that Auriemma has been negotiating with the State Department of Transportation.
"We've already had a series of meetings and now we will include the developer and his plans to widen the roads," Auriemma said. "Hopefully, we can widen it even further now."
Pedestrian crosswalks will be made available as well. None currently exist at the site.
Ursini said that he hopes to enter negotiations with the current owners to purchase the property. If that fails, then he will ask the township to use its eminent domain powers. But that approach doesn't appear to be likely.
The developer's agreement says the land acquisition costs are estimated between $18-$20 million. North Bergen plans to make $2 million available to Related Retail in Urban Enterprise Zone funds. If the purchase price is higher than the anticipated cost, then North Bergen has agreed to split the cost equally with Related Retail. Auriemma is optimistic that the sale will come expediently.
"The current owners of the Crown Cork and Seal have received a permit for asbestos cleanup and removal," Auriemma said. "When a company goes to sell its property, it needs to do something about environmental cleanup first. Since the current owners have received the permit, we think that's a good sign that we're moving forward. They already seem to be on the way to proving that it's a clean site."
We want K-Mart back
Ursini said that he planned to "entice" the current tenants to remain, knowing that K-Mart and Marshall's are national chains.
"We're looking to attract the national retail chains," Ursini said. "Having a new store in a brand new location should be attractive to them."
After all approvals are met, the project could be completed in another 12-15 months, meaning the entire Commons of North Bergen would be open for operation sometime in 2003.
"We need time with the significant demolition," Ursini said.
Ursini said that when it is completed, the Commons of North Bergen will provide approximately 650 new jobs and will add $650,000 in real estate taxes per year to the township.
Township officials were excited about the proposed development plan.
"As we saw the project, we felt it was very important to have it as a unified site with the Lowe's store," Auriemma said. "Related was the only developer who cared enough to present a plan to do that. They also cared about the aesthetics. It was far and away the best plan. The acceleration lanes were important. The access to the businesses behind the project was a critical aspect. I'm very pleased that they chose North Bergen and we're happy that it's them."
Added Auriemma. "They're a very strong company with $6 billion in assets. They're willing to dedicate $50 million into this project. It doesn't get much better than that. They're a very conservative company and that's why it took so long to come up with the redeveloper's agreement."
Beginning of a boom
Auriemma believes that the Commons of North Bergen is just the beginning of what could become a boom on commercial development along Tonnelle Avenue, as well as the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Corporation's plans to develop West Side Avenue as a commercial district as well.
"I think with the HMDC already considering similar commercial options, the developer is very anxious to get this project on line," Auriemma said. "Some of the HMDC's projects already have prospective developers. That's why it's in the best interest to get this project done."
Added Auriemma, "Once this project is on line and moving forward, I think it will spur other potential businesses to consider Tonnelle Avenue, to come in and upgrade the area. The part of Tonnelle Avenue that is currently residential could become commercial. That would be a goal."
Auriemma cannot see anything standing in the way of "The Commons of North Bergen" becoming a reality in two years.
"Everything has been approved," Auriemma said. "If there is any digression, it will come from the property sale or the environmental tests. But this is the plan and the approach that we're going with."