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.

My Photo
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."

Friday, May 30, 2008

Film Tomorrow Night Depicts Reality of Eminent Domain Abuse

Tomorrow night, Saturday, May 31, at 7 PM, the Rutgers International Film Festival will show "Greetings from Asbury Park," a 90-minute 2007 film directed by Christina Eliopolous, at Scott Hall, Room 123, College Avenue Campus, 43 College Avenue, New Brunswick. The film centers on the story of Angie, a 91-year-old woman who lived in Asbury Park over 30 years only to find her small home now threatened with eminent domain for a 56-acre redevelopment project. In the words of Eliopoulos:

"Angie, 91, lived through three decades of rust, riot and ruin in Asbury Park, the one-time postcard paradise of the Jersey Shore. Now the tiny bungalow that she has called home, for half her life, will be seized by eminent domain. Hundreds of homes, apartment buildings, local businesses, are boarded up, ready for the wrecking ball. In fact, 29 city blocks, 56 acres of waterfront property and historic boardwalk attractions now belong to a private developer and will be razed to make way for 3,100 luxury condominiums, an ersatz city within a city.But this is welcome progress, and terrific tax revenues, say city officials. The revitalized Asbury Park will be a thrilling combination of SoHo and South Beach. Meanwhile, the bulldozers are in Angie's backyard, and Angie's attorney breaks the news to her. A court case challenge is difficult and costly. This could be the last summer her beloved garden will be in bloom. 'I came to the United States a displaced person, and I will be again a displaced person,' she says sadly.'"

You can find more information about the film at

Also being shown at tomorrow night's film festival are "Too Lost to Find," a 12-minute 2008 documentary on a group of homeless people living on the streets of Hackensack, directed by Bonnie Blake, and "Woven Ways," a 49-minute 2007 film on environmental issues that threaten the health and well being of the Navaho people, directed by Linda Helm Krapf.

All three directors will be present at the showing.

Tickets are $10 for general admission; $9 for students and seniors; and $8 for Rutgers Film Co-op/NJMAC Friends.

If you want to get involved in fighting the injustice of eminent domain abuse, take advantage of a day of training provided by the Castle Coalition only one week later, on Saturday, June 7, from 9 AM-3 PM at Princeton University. The workshop is free and includes lunch. Registration deadline is June 4. To register, call (703) 682-9320 ext. 236 or email . Once you register, you will be given the details regarding the exact location of the event at Princeton.

Finally, I am thrilled to report some good news--an actual victory for the Halper family, who lost their family farm of 80 plus years to eminent domain abuse by Piscataway Township. A state appeals court has upheld a $17.9 million jury verdict awarded to the Halper family in the battle over the condemnation of their 75-acre farm on South Washington Avenue in the township. Piscataway had contended that the price of the farm should be based on a December 1999 appraisal of $4.3 million. The court rejected that claim, stating that market forces, not government action, caused an increase in land values between 1999 and 2004.

In a Home News Tribune article, Mark Halper rightly describes the ruling as a victory for the family. "I feel we've been vindicated,'' he said. "The township was trying to steal our land and they didn't get away with it.''

Whether or not Piscataway will appeal the ruling is unclear. What is definite is that so far, $10 million in Middlesex County taxpayers' money has been spent assisting Piscataway in its despicable attempt to seize the Halpers' property.

Mark Halper says he is still willing to negotiate to undo the condemnation and get back his family home.

But the larger point here is that after nearly a decade of battling corruption and injustice, the Halpers--and by extension all who are fighting eminent domain abuse in New Jersey and this country--have won a long, hard fought victory after a seemingly endless series of setbacks. That itself is encouraging, and it reinforces the conviction that in the long term, justice will prevail.

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.