Blog for Highland Park

Welcome to the Blog for Highland Park, a weblog chronicling events in Highland Park, NJ from an alternative perspective to the often one-sided slant of the official borough newsletter.

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Location: Highland Park, New Jersey, United States

I am a freelance writer and community activist who has worked on many progressive and Democratic political campaigns over the last 25 plus years and a lifelong resident of Highland Park, NJ. I have a BA in Journalism from Rutgers University, an MA in Middle East Studies from Harvard University, and an MEd in English Education from Rutgers Graduate School of Education. An enthusiastic amateur astronomer, I have just completed Swinburne University Astronomy Online's Graduate Certificate of Science in astronomy and am pursuing a Masters of Science in astronomy at Swinburne. I am also an actress with experience in theatre and film and have written a full length play. I am currently working full time on a book "The Little Planet That Would Not Die: Pluto's Story."

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Avalon Bay Application: More Questions than Answers

After five months of hearings on the Avalon Bay application to build 119 townhouses on the former Illuminating Experiences factory site on Cleveland Avenue, the Zoning Board is now uncertain as to whether it has jurisdiction over the application, which was first filed last September.

This means Cleveland Avenue and nearby residents who have faithfully attended Zoning Board meetings on this application for nearly half a year may have taken time out of their schedules to do so for nothing.

The proposed Cleveland Avenue development has been frought with more questions than answers that date back to 2004.

That year, several sections of Cleveland Avenue were listed in a study for consideration as "areas in need of redevelopment." But the study was never approved by the Borough Council. After many contentious meetings over the Raritan Avenue redevelopment study, the Cleveland proposal was essentially abandoned.

That Cleveland Avenue study specifically excluded the seven-acre Illuminating Experiences property, which at the time was owned by one of the mayor's strongest financial backers.

About a year to a year and a half later, with no additional studies done and very little publicity, the Borough Council designated the Illuminating Experiences site as an area in need of redevelopment.

The site is adjacent to a property formerly owned by Grimes Aerospace, which was contaminated and in the process of being cleaned up for many years. Last spring, Honeywell, which purchased the company that previously owned the property, completed a full cleanup of that site.

Here is where things start getting fuzzy. Not only did Honeywell clean up the site they now owned--they also cleaned up the Illuminating Experiences site, which they did not own. Why would they spend money cleaning up a site they did not own?

Interestingly, the cleanup enabled the previous owner--that's the mayor's big time financial supporter--to sell the Illuminating Experiences property to Avalon Bay for a much higher price than he would have had the land not been cleaned up for him as a free gift by Honeywell.

Ties between the mayor and Honeywell go even deeper. She is involved with a lobby group that has pledged to raise $1 million for Hillary Clinton's campaign. The head of that lobby group, Michael Kempner, has done major lobbying work for Honeywell. He also donated the maximum $2,300 permitted by law to the mayor's re-election campaign last year. This information is available in her Election Law Enforcement Commission campaign finance reports.

Several months ago, the mayor said publicly that she was not sure the Zoning Board had jurisdiction over the Avalon Bay application. If she knew that, why did she allow the Zoning Board to waste its time hearing the application and residents to spend months attending the meetings and and providing input when none of the proceedings would be valid anyway?

Cleveland Avenue residents are justifiably concerned about increased traffic with the new development. What is less well known is that Cleveland Avenue residents have been concerned about trucks speeding down the street for years now and have repeatedly requested a four-way stop sign, yet their pleas were consistently dismissed or ignored by the mayor and council.

Public concern over the density of the original Avalon Bay proposal led the company to scale back its application from 178 to 119 units. However, let's not forget that Mayor Frank has consistently been an ardent supporter of increased density in town. Her mantra, repeated incessantly, is that "higher density is a principle of smart growth." Make no mistake; developments like this one are what she wants for Highland Park.

"Smart growth" and "sustainability" have unfortunately become rhetoric for one particular movement known as "new urbanism." Proponents of this movement argue that concentrating populations in more dense areas will discourage automobile use and benefit the environment by encouraging walking, biking, and use of public transportation.

But a one-size-fits-all solution is never the answer because it does not take into account the individual needs and concerns of specific municipalities. Highland Park is not Brooklyn, and most residents don't want it to be Brooklyn. With 14,000 residents living in 1.9 square miles, our density is as high as it should be.

The argument that higher density will bring in more tax dollars is debatable because additional developments like the one proposed for Avalon Bay will require additional municipal services, including more firefighters and equipement, more police officers, more infrastructure and public works employees, and, of course, additional school costs for children of the families who will move into the two and three bedroom townhomes.

If the Zoning Board doesn't have jurisdiction over this application, who does? Why was the board allowed to meet for five months when the mayor knew in advance it likely did not have jurisdiction in this matter? Was the goal to wear people out by having them come to meeting after meeting only to find out it was all for nothing? Why did Honeywell clean up a site they did not own in the first place? Why was the Illuminating Experiences property first excluded from the Cleveland Avenue redevelopment area only to be later added quietly while the other properties were dropped?

Am I the only one who sees something fishy here? Somehow, I think not.