The City of Newark has ordered the shutdown of a controversial parking lot in the Ironbound neighborhood.
The J & L lot—located at the corner of McWhorter and Hamilton streets in the East Ward’s Ironbound neighborhood and owned by 28 McWhorter Steel LLC principal Jose Lopez—has been ordered to permanently close by November 24, according to Director of Engineering at City of Newark Phillip Scott and city spokesman Frank Baraff.
The lot, which Lopez has been operating since 2012, has been a point of contention for the last several years and was at the center of a lawsuit first filed by residents in 2013. A group of residents say that the administration of Mayor Ras Baraka has allowed Lopez to operate the lot despite numerous complaints lodged at the city for more than a year.
Residents and members of PlaNewark--a coalition of planners and architects committed to sound development in the city--say they have called, emailed and visited Mayor Ras Baraka since September of last year regarding the lot to no avail.
Lopez, who has a license from the city to operate the lot, owns several surface parking lots in the area and is responsible for several of the city's development projects, including a 72-unit residential development on Bruen St. in the Ironbound and a five-story mixed-use building once home to a textile factory.
The state Appellate Division ruled in 2016 that Newark's Zoning Board of Adjustment should not have approved a variance to build the lot, vacating the Board’s resolution granting the variances. The court called the variances arbitrary and capricious and deemed the approval null and void.
The 1.25-acre property, bordered by McWhorter, Union, and Hamilton streets, is located eight blocks from the Prudential Center and is surrounded by residential, commercial and industrial properties. Formerly home to the Goldbar Electric building, the lot is located just a half mile from Penn Station.
Despite the ordered shutdown, residents remain skeptical and are wondering why the city waited more than a year to take action.
“From the top down, the city has ignored the court decision for more than 15 months, but now with elections just a few months away, has a sense of urgency awoken?” Madeline Ruiz, a PlanNewark member, said. “I hope all the residents that have been dismissed and ignored by their city leaders are registered and ready to vote.”
The saga dates back to January 2006, when the Newark Central Planning Board granted McWhorter LLC approval to demolish the existing single-story industrial building on the property and construct a mixed-use seven-story building, which was to include a two-deck parking garage with 266 spaces, commercial and retail space and residential units.
McWhorter LLC later withdrew the plan, citing the economic downturn as the reason for not going through with the project.
But in May, 2012—six years after receiving the board’s approval—McWhorter LLC again filed an application with the zoning board seeking to demolish the existing building, retain the existing 43 parking spaces and construct a new paid public parking lot with 158 parking spaces and a control booth.
The board granted Lopez the variance despite objections from Nancy Gould, Newark's acting principal planner, who submitted a memorandum to the board in which she declined to recommend the variance.
Gould had noted the Future Land Use Plan, which is intended to encourage the redevelopment and revitalization of areas within the city that are adjacent to the Central Business District.
Gould also stated the site did not appear to be an appropriate location for a surface parking lot and was inconsistent with the city's vision and goals for the redevelopment of the area.
The plot thickened in September 2012 when—following the zoning board's vote to grant the approval of McWhorter LLC's application but before adopting the final resolution—the Newark Central Planning Board adopted a 2012 Master Plan, which discouraged surface parking lots in the area.
Despite this, McWhorter LLC obtained a construction permit in early 2013 to demolish the building on the property and to construct the surface parking lot, with construction beginning in the summer of 2013.
Despite the Appellate Division’s reversal of the zoning board’s resolution 15 months ago, the lot has continued to operate.
In May, Lopez filed an application for a permit to construct a 12-story residential building on the site of the parking lot.
Lopez said it is unfortunate that the lot, which he says has received support from area residents and has been operating at 100 percent capacity, will be shutting down.
"Operating the property as a commercial parking lot has always been an intended interim use as this site has long been identified for redevelopment by J&L Companies, which has been part of the community for close to 50 years," Lopez said.
Lopez said there continues to be high demand for parking in the Ironbound, primarily serving employees, customers, patients, students, and members of local businesses, schools, and churches.
"The vast majority of the neighborhood, both residents and businesses, support our parking operations and appreciate how, under J&L, the lot has undergone renovations and improved from its former industrial use as a parking lot for trailers," Lopez said. "As long-term stakeholders in the community, our plans were to continue to operate the property as a 100 percent capacity parking lot that met the neighborhood’s needs while preparing for thoughtful redevelopment of the site."
But New Jersey Appleseed Public Interest Law Center Executive Director Renee Steinhagen, who represented the plaintiffs in the appellate division, said granting the variance was unjustified.
“There is rezoning with no justification,” she said. “There’s a way of operating historically in the city. When we spoke with Baye and the mayor about this several months ago, Baye said he would not enforce it since they were applying for a new permit," she said of former Deputy Mayor for Economic and Housing Development City of Newark Baye Adofo-Wilson.
Lisa Scorsolini, a volunteer attorney with NJ Appleseed and a resident and member of PlaNewark, said that she, along with several other residents, have reached out to Baraka on numerous occasions.
“We told the city that Lopez is operating this parking lot, yet the city has done nothing about it,” Scorsalini said. "They said, 'well, you know, he'll be doing something else there.' The city has done nothing about it."
An email correspondence between residents and members of PlaNewark and Mayor Ras Baraka dating to September 2016 confirms the city's laissez faire attitude.
“Basically, the message was, ‘he’s doing other things for us,’” she said. “In other words, they’re not touching this. As a municipality, they have the authority to fine him every day, but they do not. We’re committed to sound planning, we’re not against redevelopment. None of these projects are conforming to the city’s zoning ordinance. We don’t want parking lots or black asphalt, we want development that is compliant with the zoning ordinance.”
Ruiz said that 15 months of complaints to the mayor have fallen on deaf ears.
“We met with the mayor and the director of economic development,” Ruiz said. “I’m just so frustrated by their lack of action. We gave the mayor and city officials maps and they told me they’d assign someone to the case. Baye Wilson said he’d fine $1,000 per spot every day.”
But Ruiz said that no one from city ever followed up.
“The code enforcement officer was the only one interested,” she said. “The city could have taken control of this but they’ve done absolutely nothing and have allowed business to run as usual.”
Steinhagen said the city needs to follow its own zoning ordinances.
"We look forward to the day that City consistently enforces its zoning regulations and other ordinances, rather than turning an eye to blatant violations," she said. "If such a stop order had been issued years ago when appropriate, it is likely that Newark residents would already be enjoying the proper use of the lot in question."
As to the November 24 shutdown, Scorsalini was skeptical.
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” she said.
But Lopez said a well-maintained lot that offers parking for area residents, business owners and others is preferable to the alternative.
"Operating a well-run parking lot that meets the neighborhood’s needs and generates tax revenue is, for all parties, much more preferable than having an empty lot," he said.