The owner of a recently-shuttered parking lot in the city’s Ironbound neighborhood is firing back at a local advocacy group who he says has forced their agenda onto area residents.

President of J & L Parking Jose Lopez said that since the city-ordered shutdown of the lot following complaints from members of planning advocacy coalition PlaNewark, parking has become even more of a nightmare in one of Newark’s busiest neighborhoods and that residents and businesses want the lot reopened.

“We respect the local decision, but believe a very vocal but small special interest group, PlaNewark—many of whom are recent transplants and some not Newark residents at all—has usurped the voice of the neighborhood," Lopez said.

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"People are forced to take matters into their own hands and are parking in illegally operated lots, taking valuable on-street parking meant for residents, blocking traffic by double or triple parking, illegally using resident parking tags or avoiding the area altogether," he said.

The lot, located at 28 McWhorter Street on the corner of McWhorter and Hamilton streets, was permanently closed on November 24, according to Director of Engineering at City of Newark Phillip Scott.

In May, Lopez filed an application for a permit to construct a 12-story residential building on the site of the parking lot and said the shuttering of the lot does not change plans or the timeline for redevelopment. 

"Although operating a commercial parking lot was always intended as an interim use for the space, we believe it provided an important benefit to the community," Lopez said.

The 1.25-acre property is located eight blocks from the Prudential Center and a half mile from Penn Station and is surrounded by residential, commercial and industrial properties.

Lopez, who had 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.

The lot, which began operations in 2012, was at the center of a lawsuit first filed by residents in 2013.

Lopez said residents, businesses and visitors to the neighborhood have been negatively impacted.

“The lack of adequate parking space hurts the Ironbound, particularly businesses along the Ferry Street commercial corridor, and lowers the overall quality of life in the community,” Lopez said, noting that the lot served a cross-section of patrons, including professionals, schools, community establishments, visitors and businesses.

"This is not just a 'park and ride' for New York commuters," Lopez said. "Existing parking lots will no doubt raise their prices in response to this because parking demand significantly exceeds existing supply. There are serious unintended consequences from shutting down a safe, well-run parking lot that was operating at 100 percent capacity without providing any viable alternatives.”

Scott said he was unaware of any plans to address the issue of parking in the Ironbound.

Lopez maintains that the vast majority of residents and businesses in the neighborhood supported the lot, noting the $700,000 in renovations. He also said the lot provided local charities and organizations with free parking and event space, as well as employing locals from the community.

But while PlaNewark members are pleased that the lot at 28 McWhorter has been closed, they now allege that Lopez is illegally operating an empty lot at 20-26 Bruen Street, located directly adjacent to his parking lot at 15-21 McWhorter Street and across the street from his recently-shuttered lot.

Lisa Scorsolini, a volunteer attorney with NJ Appleseed and an area resident and member of PlaNewark, alleges that Lopez is using the lot as an extension of his legal lot, located on the corner of Edison and Bruen streets.

“It was never approved for surface parking,” she said. “When Lopez bought it, he leveled it and put down gravel. Just because he leveled it doesn’t give him permission to use it.”

Neighborhood resident Michael Panzer said he passes by 20-26 Bruen twice a day and claims there are cars, trucks and coach buses parked in there regularly.

“He thinks he can extend his legal lot into his illegal lot," Panzer said. "He is clearly not complying. I don’t think the city cares or thinks this is an issue. Whenever the zoning board had an application before them, local businesses always claim that people need the parking. The city basically would say now and then that they’d look into it and then nothing happens.”

But Lopez maintains the lot is used for his employees only and says that PlaNewark members are flinging false allegations.

Lopez also questions why the state Appellate Division, who ruled last year that Newark's Zoning Board of Adjustment should not have approved a variance to build the lot, would rule on a local issue that he says they know little about.

“The community is left wondering why a state judge intervened to overturn a local Newark zoning board decision, ultimately deciding what's best for the neighborhood rather than local officials,” he said.

“Local zoning boards are typically given wide discretion because they have deep knowledge of local conditions and their decisions are granted deference, so it’s rare to have the state intervene to undermine a local land use decision,” Lopez said.

The saga dates back to January 2006, when the Newark Central Planning Board granted Lopez's company, 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.

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.

In September 2012—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, however, 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.

In 2016, the state Appellate Division vacated the Board’s resolution granting the variances, calling the variances arbitrary and capricious and deeming the approval null and void.

Lopez said the consequences of the zoning board’s intervention are significant.

“The neighborhood is left with an empty, unattended lot generating zero tax revenue for the city, while residents and businesses are desperate for parking and heavily inconvenienced,” he said.

Jack Costa, president of the Portuguese Sport Club—a cultural organization located on Prospect St. near the shuttered lot—said the closure of 28 McWhorter has exacerbated existing parking problems in the neighborhood.

Costa said the club--which serves as a venue for a variety of events and activities--often used the lot for overflow parking at no cost.

“If I don’t have a parking lot, it’s a lot more challenging to rent the venue for events,” Costa said. “Without that lot, we’re in a tough spot when it comes to parking the cars. We’re in the middle of all these lots that are closing down. We depend on these lots. J & L was donating these spots.”

Lopez said he believes the lack of parking is hurting the city. 

“We are driving people away from Newark rather than making it easy for them to live, work, buy and visit here,” he said.

“It hurts local businesses trying to attract customers and negatively impacts the quality of life for residents, who have to deal with increased traffic jams from people circling to find spaces," Lopez said. "Operating a well-run and safe parking lot that meets the neighborhood’s needs, employs locals, contributes to the commercial viability of the community, and generates tax revenue is, for all parties, preferable to having an empty lot."