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The Star Ledger 2005

Date: 2005/03/11 Friday Page: 023 Section: EDITORIAL Edition: FINAL Size: 858 words

Series: EMBEDDED AT CITY HALL | AN OCCASIONAL SERIES

Checkered flag for development

UNDER THE BIG TOP | THE REPORT FROM CITY HALL
In
Newark, building plans roar past any roadblocks and race toward approval

By JOAN WHITLOW
STAR-LEDGER STAFF

It is 1 p.m. on a Wednesday. The 12:30 Newark Municipal Council meeting is about to start. Cue Whitney. Cue the air vent.

As Newark council meetings go, this is an on-time performance. The business session begins, as usual, with Whitney Houston's now-classic recording of "The Star-Spangled Banner." An American flag hangs in front of an air vent where someone turns on a fan. Now the banner is gallantly streaming in the faux breeze. Somebody here pays attention to detail.

Within minutes, the municipal clerk's assistants are rolling through the agenda in a rapid-fire reading of resolutions and roll call votes. It is almost impossible to keep up, particularly if you did not start the day before.

That's when the pre-council meeting occurs. It is open to the public, but few civilians ever show up. At the Tuesday pre-council session, the sonorous voice of council president Donald Bradley came over the intercom at 12:15 p.m. to announce that the 11 a.m. meeting would begin immediately. By 12:22, Bradley was at the head of the table.

Ali Darweesh, owner of King's Restaurant on Lyons Avenue, had been waiting since 11 a.m. He wants to buy some city land to relocate his restaurant and add on-site parking. The letter summoning him was sent to the wrong address, so he only received it this day and was not prepared to make a presentation. He was anxious. He shouldn't have been.

Johnny Jones was there to shepherd him through the presentation. Jones is president of the Essex County Board of Freeholders and assistant director of economic development for the city. If Newark politicians stuck to one job, there would be no unemployment in the city.

The council seemed sympathetic. King's, currently located in a supermarket mall, "has the best potato salad in town," council members agreed. It is a sit-down restaurant that employs local people and has partnered with a nearby school to provide work experience for disabled kids. A lot of politicians stop at King's to campaign.

The council asked Darweesh to provide more details - drawings or plans - for the next meeting. Jones mentioned that the new King's hopes to be open by September. Time is of the essence.

Another proposal. Marvin Ginsberg builds carwashes and wants to put another on South Orange Avenue. He, too, was shepherded by someone the council knows well, Alfred Faiella, former deputy mayor and for three decades the point man on projects to bring businesses and development to the city. He was also the head of the Newark Economic Development Corp., a nonprofit agency. It folded its tent, but Faiella took the name with him. I'm still looking for someone to explain to me how this all happened.

Ginsberg wants to buy a city lot to complete a parcel he needs for his upscale carwash: "A really nice package. It really lights up a neighborhood," Ginsberg promised. There's a carwash a short walk from Ginsberg's site, across from West Side High School. Even if it is a good project, it sounded like a horrible place to put it.

The council promised to ask the school principal what he thinks. I'm thinking that good planning calls for a lot more than that. How does this carwash fit with the other residential and commercial plans for the area? Is there a plan?

Yes. Ginsberg plans to build some houses too: seven or eight three-family homes on the same site. And since city land is involved, there may be a request for a tax abatement, Faiella added.

Handing out tax breaks to attract new businesses and homeowners is the double-edged sword of urban development in Newark. Two-thirds of Newark property is tax-exempt, occupied by government facilities, schools and universities, hospitals, churches and charities. The tax burden sits heavily on the other third, good reason to think carefully about generous tax breaks for anyone.

This is a city in the midst of a land grab and building boom. Quarter-acre lots sprout $300,000 multi- family houses that are sold before they are built. One of the reasons is that the city is selling vacant land at the bargain price of $4 a square foot to developers. But at $300,000 a house, it isn't clear if these homes are a bargain for those who buy them.

The boom is apparent to anyone who drives around. But at the beginning of the week I asked how many new houses have gone up in the past five years. I'm still waiting for an answer. It is not a trick question. Without the information, how is the city planning to deliver services or deciding where to put schools?

Now at the Wednesday council meeting, shortly after Old Glory stops flapping in the faux breeze, Ginsberg and Darweesh have gotten their approvals. It's been less than 24 hours since the council said it needed more details.

I was right. Darweesh had nothing to worry about.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________ Joan Whitlow wants to hear from you. She may be reached at jwhitlow@starledger.com or (973) 392-4239, or look for her at City Hall.

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