FAIR LAWN, NJ – Seems that just about everywhere you look in Fair Lawn, there’s construction. With so many possibilities, what keeps the heart of Radburn looking like what some have described as “ratty”?
Most people know the highly visible spot--adjacent to the Radburn Train Station, across the street from the Dunkin’ Donuts/Exxon Gas Station and the remediated Topps property, across the street from the Radburn Building and catty corner to the expansive CVS-based strip mall with Panera anchoring the corner.
But what to call the building where the RailYard Tavern resides, other than the “Dollar Store Building?” Many just say it’s “ratty”.
The store owners are not the issue, as Bob Piccoli, owner of the RailYard, has expressed. Piccoli put $600,000 into his spot in the L-shaped complex before opening five years ago. At that time, the landlord promised Piccoli a renovated exterior and even showed him plans, but those plans never came to fruition.
“It was awful in here,” he said, displaying before and after photos of when he began his lease compared to when he reopened the popular spot.
Restaurant patrons complain of no parking, especially during the day when commuters use the crumbling lot, owned by the landlord, as ad hoc commuter lot. The unauthorized use costs the landlord’s tenants business and costs the borough revenue.
Attempts to reach the legal representative of the building owners, Robert Inglima, were unsuccessful.
Several years ago, there was the "Vision Study" which recommended several options, according to Fair Lawn Deputy Mayor of Consumer Affairs John Cosgrove. The study, which has a link on the borough’s website but no longer connects to it, had at least one interesting recommendation: a transit village.
Transit villages have become popular in the last 20 years as a way to brighten urban-type areas where commuter trains create a natural gathering area for people. With residential and retail stores combined, along with parking garages, the use seems like a reasonable fix for busy areas that have declined due to older, unkept properties.
Just look at Waldwick and its mixed-use development by the train station at Hewson Avenue and Prospect Street. It’s an example of an area that was dormant, except for the train station. Residential units and retail stores were approved and built a few years ago for individuals who can roll out of bed and grab the train to work.
Cosgrove said after the Vision Study, the Borough Council at that time voted to refer it to a planner to look into what kind of redevelopment would be most appropriate for the site.
The sticking point is what can the borough do, if anything. If it’s legally possible, theoretically the town could declare it in need of redevelopment, after which they have two options. The first is to suggestion to the owner redevelopment or sale. The other option is redevelopment through condemnation.
In that case, the town could buy the property and sell it to a developer who would go through all the zoning and planning steps necessary to create a new retail building that fits into the master plan. This could, theoretically, increase tax revenues for the town.
All those ideas were kicked around more than two years ago.
Enter the Economic Development Committee (EDC), recently reformed in Fair Lawn and led by former mayor of Fair Lawn, Steve Weinstein. Currently, the EDC is reviewing uses and actively pursuing ideas about redevelopment for the property, along with several other properties in the borough.
But, as Weinstein said, the EDC can only suggest.
“We do not have the power to mandate any action,” he said. “We can recommend, but we can’t tell private property owners what to do with their properties.”
Mayor Kurt Peluso agreed.
“There’s just so much the local government can do when it comes to private property,” Peluso said.
“There are long term leases there,” he said, referring to the Dollar Store property. “There’s no way for us to intervene on that.”
Peluso said even though he knows there is business interest in the location, the current owner is not looking to sell. “We’re limited in what we can do.”
“The one thing we can do,” he said, “is check if they’re up to code. And right now, they’re up to code.”
So, what is a town to do when there is substantial blight, seemingly inspite of the improvements happening all around it.
With the three owners out-of-state, its seems they are unaffected by how their building looks and how it affects those who live and work in Fair Lawn.
But there are some who are pushing forward, especially those who have their businesses in the building, like Piccoli.
“Even getting minor fixes for the building is almost impossible,” Piccoli said. “The awning came down on someone during a rainstorm, so they were forced to repair it. But they’re willing to wait till it crumbles to do anything about it.”
The property is considered a premiere location, possibly the most valuable in the state, according to the both local politicians and would-be developers. But no matter who comes in to develop, even if they can do so, they will face a daunting task.
Applications have lost steam in the past when presenting to the Zoning and Planning Boards, worn down by a contingency of residents who are anti-development. For them, there’s a good reason not to continue building: traffic and more students in the already crowded (and expanding) school system. The public recently approved a $25 million expansion referendum for the two middle schools in the eight-school district for its population of approximately 4,800 students.
The Zoning and Planning Boards are mandated to live by the rules they are given, whether or not they like a project. The Core Mark application before the Zoning Board of Adjustment is the most recent example of how the process works.
Meeting after meeting since last fall, residents opposed to the application have come out, most against having Core Mark lease to a brand such as QuickChek, which wants to install gas pumps and a large convenience store on the corner of River Road and Bergen Avenue. Currently, there’s a closed TD Bank at the location. QuickChek, at this moment, at least, has walked away.
That has not stopped Core Mark from continuing to try to put a similar retail operation at the location. On June 28, Core Mark scheduled July 12 as a special meeting before the Zoning Board. The company has been trying to convince the board that the area is zoned for a QuickChek-type operation, while the board points to language in its master plan that says otherwise.
No matter what developer comes into town, they most likely will face resistance. Those who reside here are left to choose between progress, which could mean a larger tax base--or status quo, which to residents means less traffic and keeping the school-age population close to where it is now.
But for others still, it’s a simple choice of “ratty”…or not.