'Done deal' Pocket Park splits town
Already purchased land on Bogert Road sparks argument at Council meeting
While the small parcel of land on Bogert Road was purchased in 2008 for a pocket park, the debate on the usefulness of the area has become a campaign issue. The park area, was purchased with a Bergen County Open Space grant and additional funding is expected from the DEP-based Green Acres.
The debate began in early October when Mayor Margaret Watkins approached the council with news that she had been approached by a developer who was interested in building upon the land. Later that month, she supplied a copy of the developer's proposal, following a request by council members.
"This report is due to a developer inquired about doing something at this property a few weeks ago," Watkins said. "They sent a copy of their plan and I gave the information to James Anzevino (borough tax assessor) and asked him to do an appraisal on the property and determine if there was a cost benefit. This is given to us by a developer for your consideration and can be discussed when you want to."
Initially, the borough has been planning to create an .89-acre passive park for residents, in between Cherry Hill Elementary and the Christian Community Church. Currently the majority of parks in the borough are in the northern end of town, the pocket park would be a local choice for residents in the southern end of town. Among the plans for the land are a playground, benches, pathway, and a community garden. Construction would be done in phases, following the determination of a potential underground oil tanker, asbestos abatement of a building on site and demolition of the building. Infrastructure, drainage and utilities would come next and the final stage is landscaping.
And while the Council approved the funding for the park at a prior meeting, the Pocket Park has become a hot-button issue during a campaign year. Incumbent Democrat Council members Tom Smith and Wendy Walker are both in favor of the park, while Republican newcomers Alphonse Bartelloni and Edward Mignone have voiced concerns about how the funding will fall on the taxpayers.
"We have a plan here from a developer to create housing on property that is being funded as a park," Walker said. "I'm not sure why this is appropriate. We have pre-approved plans in the downtown with residential and commercial components. We have a lot of residential already out there."
According to Watkins, the borough could look into having the developer come speak at a future meeting, incase the funding from Green Acres does not come through. So far, the borough has received funding from the County, and a letter from Green Acres stating that the grant was approved, but there is not date set for when the funding may be received.
"This person is willing to come and speak to you," Watkins said. " This could be a possibility for a combination. I'm not saying do one or the other. I don't know if this will happen. But if a developer comes in and says they have something of worth to the borough, I need to bring it to you. Whether it's appropriate or not, it's my duty to bring it to you."
"Every year this happens around August through September, that any issues out there become a campaign issue," Smith said. "We made a commitment to purchase this and we've done so. We've contracted with people to check to see that the asbestos is only on the outside of the building and to determine that if there is a tank in the ground that it's not leaking. I really wish we could get past this season and move forward and in time, whether all like it not, say that it's a positive for the community. We are committed to Green Acres and the County to move forward with the park and if we just can get past battling with it and focus on doing the best we can."
Once the meeting was opened to the public, both Bartelloni and Mignone had a chance to explain their positions.
"Ed and I have made it very clear on our website that we believe the borough should never have purchased the property," Bartelloni said. "At the time when the borough is struggling to meet our current expectations, it's unjustified to spend money on something non-essential. What I would like to point out is that the park does not serve all residents of River Edge. It doesn't help our police, DPW, librarians or municipal workers who are furloughed or taking pay cuts. It does not help citizens who see their taxes increase by 15 percent or attract young families or create retail in town."
"The park is a done deal and you spent the better part of a hour to discuss a potential proposal while the Transit project with six proposals was glanced over," Mignone said, referring to the Transit Village project. "No one seems to be concerned of the impact on services or schools with those. The fact of the matter is that the transit plan has nothing in common with the plan we paid (Anton) Nelessen for. All of those plans are residentially dominated. The park is a done deal, but we're talking up to 500 more units downtown that should be addressed."
The downtown redevelopment plans call for mixed-use buildings as part of the NJT Transit Village, and plans created by Paul Imbarrato and Calisto Bertin. Currently, it has yet to be determined if the Council will meet with the interested developer. Until then, the borough is expected to continue moving forward with the park.