CECOM considered prime for development

Assessment has dropped 62%, from $35M to $12M


Assessment has
dropped 62%, from $35M to $12M

Staff Writer

It was a first step for Tinton Falls officials toward transforming a blighted ogre of a building into a viable piece of property.

The Planning Board unanimously voted to recommend that the site of the blighted federal Communications Electronics Command (CECOM) building be declared a redevelopment area.

Board members and officials went to great lengths to make two salient points about setting a redevelopment process in motion: The vote they took is only a recommendation; and it is a tiny first step in a long, involved process.

At a special meeting last week, the board agreed that, based on a July analysis report prepared by borough Planner Arthur Bernard, the 39-acre CECOM parcel on Tinton Avenue meets several criteria necessary to deem it a redevelopment area.

According to the state’s redevelopment statute, only one of eight guidelines need be met for a town to make the designation.

The site of the CECOM building meets five, Bernard said.

The building is “substandard, unsafe, unsanitary, dilapidated or obsolescent.” There is a “discontinuance of the use” of the building “previously used for commercial, manufacturing or industrial purposes” and the structure is abandoned. The building has excessive land coverage, has an obsolete layout, and is “detrimental to the safety, health, morals or welfare of the community.”

The area is in excess of five acres where a building has fallen into disrepair and the value has significantly depreciated.

And the designation of the area for redevelopment would be consistent with the state’s Smart Growth Initiatives.

In deeming the area in need of redevelopment, it also puts it on a “fast track for state aid,” Bernard said, because it fits the state’s definition of Smart Growth.

To address any misunderstanding about motives for the town to set redevelopment in motion, Bernard explained the planning power it gives a municipality.

A redevelopment area declaration, he said, would give the borough the right to: condemn property on the area in question; prepare its own redevelopment plan; be its own designated redeveloper (rather than/or with a private developer); and plan, if necessary, financing to implement its redevelopment ideas.

Bernard explained, to a crowd of about 40, the checkered history of the building and its lack of viability since the government vacated it and sold it to the private sector.

“Matrix [a developer], received approvals to make the building competitive in the private office market,” Bernard said. “They had plans to convert it at a $45 [million] to $50 million price tag. Then the market got soft and office space all over went vacant.”

So, the developer backed out of the deal.

Since the building became vacant, serious blight set in, Bernard added.

It now has 80 broken windows, busted water mains, exposed elevator shafts and electrical wiring, and is infested with rodents.

In 1994, the CECOM building was assessed at $35 million. Last year, that assessment had dwindled down to $12 million, a drop of 62 percent in value.

“The [700,000-square-foot] building abuts residential areas,” Bernard said. “And police have said it is a danger to the public.”

Police Chief Gerald Turning sits on the board. He backed Bernard’s statement.

When the borough re-examined its master plan in 2003, while there was a recommendation that the site be redeveloped, it was not recommended that it be for commercial use because of traffic implications.

The idea, with the master plan, was to transform the area into some sort of active adult housing hub.

While a developer, the PRC Group, West Long Branch, has shown interest in the site and mulled over ideas and concepts for its redevelopment, Bernard and board members made it clear to residents that no plans have gone before the board.

“This [meeting] is just to decide if the area fits the definition of an area in need of redevelopment,” said board Chairman Dan McFayden. “The borough council directed us to do this. We are looking at it and going to make a recommendation on that issue only.”

Harris Newman, who said he represented nearby resident Nancy Newman, questioned whether or not the borough had explored all options from developers.

He was told by board members that he was way off base concerning the meeting’s purpose and thinking well into the future.

Nancy Newman wondered if the board would be acting prematurely on the redevelopment designation.

She said the owner, Abraham Leser, Brooklyn, N.Y., should have first been obligated to fix the building before it fell into disrepair and should have been cited for the blight.

She also questioned if the redevelopment plans would suit one prospective developer, PRC.

“Shouldn’t you know if a developer is presenting plans – even just conceptually?,” Nancy asked.

Board members said that no plans have been presented to the board at all. However, the planner (Bernard) had been approached by several developers, now and in the past, to discuss the site.

Bernard said Newman was also thinking way ahead and she should bring her concerns about plans and zoning to the Borough Council.

“The Planning Board just advises the council,” board Secretary Danielle Sheldon said. “These issues are well down the road. This [declaration] is the first step.”

With that, the board voted unanimously to recommend that the area is in need of redevelopment.

“As the mayor, speaking in the interest of this town,” Mayor Ann McNamara said, “I have to tell you, people in this town have approached us over and over again about the state of this property. Not one has said ‘It’s fine, leave it the way it is.’

Nancy countered that she feared in declaring the area in need of redevelopment it would open a condemnation can of worms.

“My fear is that in declaring this a redevelopment area, we are risking what has happened in Asbury Park and Long Branch [with people’s property being taken and a fight ensuing] — Long Branch has spent eight years in litigation and Asbury has spent 30.”

No one wants to take people’s property to benefit a private developer, McNamara said. She and other board members concluded that it won’t happen in Tinton Falls.