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."

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Rite Aid Is Perfect Example of Why We DON'T Need Redevelopment

While the recession continues along with job losses and foreclosures, the borough continues to spend taxpayer dollars on disseminating its propaganda and lining the pockets of Mayor Frank's good friend and political supporter Jonathan Jaffe. Too bad that for all this money, the Fall 2009 Quarterly gets it all wrong on Rite Aid and redevelopment.

A front-page article discussing Rite Aid's recent facade improvement is titled, "Rite Aid is Perfect Example of Effect of Redevelopment." That title is a perfect example of political spin. The reality is that Rite Aid's renovation was done in spite of, not because of, the borough's controversial redevelopment plan.

The Rite Aid property was placed in the 2004 redevelopment plan against the wishes of the property owners. Plans for the site included construction of two condominium buildings on South Fourth Avenue along what is part of the Rite Aid parking lot.

According to the Quarterly article, Rite Aid expressed the desire to renovate its building as far back as the early 1990s. This is interesting. The Redevelopment Agency was not founded until 2004. That means the owners sought to renovate under the existing system and not through a redevelopment agency or process. Also, Rite Aid was not in the building in the early 1990s. At that time, the pharmacy was still Drug Fair, owned by the property owner who later sold the business to the chain.

So how can Rite Aid's improvements be traced back to the Redevelopment Agency if those desires were sought and pursued long before the agency came into existence?

It turns out that the borough's adoption of the redevelopment plan actually delayed Rite Aid's renovation. The property was designated as being in need of redevelopment, in other words, as blighted, against the will of the property owner. As the Quarterly itself noted, the owners had already expressed their desire to renovate. Why then was there a need to blight their property and make it vulnerable to a taking by eminent domain?

The renovations, which are a tremendous improvement, were done as the result of a court settlement. The issue was in court because the property owners contested being placed in "an area in need of redevelopment." Such a designation was unneeded since they had already committed to renovating the property. Yet the property owner had to spend money on lawyers and legal fees to fight the town on this designation, delaying the improvements by several years.

In the end, the renovations were agreed to as part of a settlement that took the Rite Aid property out of the redevelopment zone. The borough also made the concession of taking out the condominium requirement. Therefore, former Councilman Steve Nolan's claim that the Rite Aid renovation is "a good example of how redevelopment can spur private landowners to be full partners in our downtown" is false and highly misleading. Rite Aid's owners did not want to be in a redevelopment zone. Nolan is also wrong in describing the renovation as "the Rite Aid redevelopment project," as it was never a redevelopment project at all.

The owners' desire and subsequent follow through in renovating their property is direct proof that redevelopment is not needed to spur landowners to improve their properties. Instead, redevelopment, specifically being placed in a redevelopment zone, can be considered a form of blackmail--the threat of eminent domain being placed on a business to motivate that business to take action out of fear of losing their property altogether.

Redevelopment agencies eat up taxpayers' money with paid consultants and the hiring of architectural, legal, and planning firms, none of which are needed. In the five years that Highland Park's Redevelopment Agency has existed, not a single redevelopment project has been done. Yet the agency takes credit for renovations funded and completed by private business owners through their own motivation and at their own expense.

Once again, we see the proof that sensitive revitalization, which involves no Redevelopment Agency and no threat of eminent domain, is the right way to go in improving our downtown. Those of us who campaigned on this premise back in 2005 and 2007 are once again vindicated by the reality on the ground.

That is a real victory for both the people and businesses of this town.