PATERSON, NJ - When Alexander Hamilton founded Paterson in 1791, he realized energy could be harnessed from the Great Falls to transform it into the country’s first planned industrial city, a hub for manufacturing silk, textile and steel.
Following World War II, most of the mills and factories shut their doors and Paterson, like many other urban areas, fell into a steep decline, struggling with crime, unemployment and drugs.
Over the past several decades, former factory towns like Hoboken, Jersey City and Edgewater have reinvented themselves, welcoming high-end housing, retail, dining and recreation. Paterson, however, fell behind.
Now, many are looking to once again use the power of the Great Falls to help Paterson reclaim its glory.
The national park – home to the second biggest waterfall east of the Mississippi River after Niagara Falls - is the centerpiece of a larger revitalization effort planned in the city, one that Mayor Andre Sayegh will turn Paterson into “a desirable destination for years to come.”
Enhancing the surrounding area, Sayegh believes, will have “a ripple effect,” that’ll “create interest around the city,” which will spur further economic development and bring jobs.
“The Great Falls played a role in this city being born and it will help it be reborn,” Sayegh said.
A $48 million proposal, spearheaded by New Brunswick-based Devco, calls for the construction of a 13,000-square-foot visitor center to replace a much smaller one on McBride Avenue, a 270-car parking garage with ground floor commercial space and a 24,000-square-foot community/performing arts center at the corner of Main and Ward streets.
The project is being supported through a combination of $27 million in tax credits issued by the state and fundraising. The New Jersey Community Development Corporation has committed $3 million towards the development of the community center, while the Hamilton Partnership has raised close to $9 million for the visitor’s center.
“I think that this set of projects has the potential to draw thousands and thousands of people to Paterson, to visit the national park and the new visitor’s center, and in doing so spark much-needed economic development,” said Robert Guarasci, founder and chief executive officer of the New Jersey Community Development Corporation.
“Projects like this will help to turn around the stigma that Paterson often faces by outsiders,” he said. “As we rebuild the historic district and draw thousands of people to Paterson, there’s no doubt that the image of Paterson will be enhanced.”
“Every element of the project is about promoting Paterson’s historic past,” Guarasci added.
On Tuesday, the city council will consider adopting an ordinance that calls for Paterson to guarantee up to $38 million worth of debt issued by the Passaic County Improvement Authority.
If Paterson took on the role of co-signer on the developer’s debt, the financial risk to local taxpayers would be less than $5 million, according to officials and professionals involved in the project.
During the ordinance’s first reading on June 23, it passed in a 5-2 vote. In order for it to be adopted Tuesday, six “yes” votes are needed.
Sayegh said, “There’s a lot riding on it. I don’t know why anyone would vote against it. It’s such a catalytic project. It could transform Paterson into a tourist destination.”
And while some in the city may be wary of development, Sayegh said he thinks it’s crucial to “position Paterson for progress.”
Since taking office in 2018, Sayegh has made it his mission to revitalize New Jersey’s third largest city, making it a place to live, work and play and has said he believes the city is poised to make a comeback for many reasons, including its diverse population and rich history.
“The concerns will always be ones about taxes, but you have to look at what you can do to help lessen the burden,” he said. “To do that, we have to increase our ratable base.”
“It’s about generating jobs, revenue and excitement. We have to improve our image and make it a desirable destination,” Sayegh said. “People may have a negative view of Paterson by reading the news or watching the news. But we have to rewrite our narrative – we can write a success story.”
Preserving A Piece Of History
Another big project, the restoration of Hinchliffe Stadium, one of the last remaining Negro League ballparks in the country, is also in the works.
Built during the Great Depression, Hinchcliffe was home to the New York Black Yankees for 12 seasons and is also where Paterson Eastside High School athlete Larry Doby was discovered by the Newark Eagles. Besides professional ball games, the stadium hosted high school sports events, concerts and auto racing.
Following its closure in 1996, the property fell into disrepair, but last October the city council approved an agreement with RPM Development and developer Baye-Adofo Wilson to renovate the property. On June 22, the Paterson Planning Board signed off on the $70 million project and it will now head to the Zoning Board of Adjustment for a review.
The scope of work includes transforming the stadium into a 7,800-seat venue with a 315-car parking garage, restaurant and museum with exhibits dedicated to the Negro Baseball League. The plan also calls for an updated running track and playing surface, as well as a nearby 75-unit apartment building for senior citizens and childcare facility.
Once it’s finished, the stadium will be able to host sports events, concerts, conventions and other entertainment functions and the school district, which owns Hinchcliffe, would be able to reserve use of the space for school-related events.
Over the years, there has been talk of improving the stadium and surrounding area but efforts always petered out.
Sayegh believes the project involving the ballpark – which was designated as a national landmark in 2014 – is more relevant than ever, given the current social climate.
“Racial strife is on the national agenda and statues are being removed in many places,” he said. “But here’s a significant piece of American history and an example of something that can be restored instead of torn down.”
Tax Credits Are Key
The projects at Great Falls and Hinchcliffe would not have been possible without $130 million in tax credit funding the city received through the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, Sayegh believes.
Two other projects were also identified by the administration to receive tax credits.
The first proposal involves replacing the aging Ward Street parking garage by the train station with a state-of-the-art parking facility that includes retail space.
The second project, which recently received planning board approval, calls for redeveloping the “Blue Garage” on Van Houten Street into a newer facility and rehabilitating existing commercial space.
But, the city is on deadline to use the tax credits.
Due to the terms and conditions set by the state, Paterson only gets the money if the projects are completed within two years – by July 2022.
When asked about the possibility of requesting an extension for the tax credits, Sayegh said: “Let’s see how this week plays out first.”
Chris Florio, a prominent Paterson developer, said “This administration has nailed it with making sure the tax credits are for the Great Falls area. I’m the biggest fan of these projects – I want them to happen.”
“Projects like Great Falls and Hincheliffe are anchors to the city,” said Florio, adding that if the sites were improved, it could boost the number of people coming to visit, which would have a “trickle-down effect” the local economy.
“All of this stuff starts at the top. Now we have good leadership that wants to see the city developed,” he said. Other factors – such as lower interest rates and the designation of “opportunity zones” to help attract developers and investors through a federal incentive program – could help jumpstart development, he said.
Florio added that he doesn’t believe the city should let the state-issued tax credits go to waste, especially now as banks across the country have begun backing away from construction lending due to a rising number of delinquent loans since the outbreak began.
“Most developers – even with the free tax credits – need financing,” he said.
Post-pandemic, “the main challenge isn’t construction,” Florio said. “Social distancing, staggering shifts and timelines, that’s all stuff we can figure out and adapt to. The challenge is financing.”
Coronavirus ‘Set Us Back’
Though the coronavirus pandemic slowed the city’s efforts, officials and developers are hoping to get back on track.
The COVID-19 outbreak, which effectively shut down the state for more than three months, “did set us back,” Sayegh said. “Paterson was on pause and now we’re pushing the ‘play’ button.”
According to Mike Powell, the city’s economic development director, work on the Van Houten Street parking garage project is anticipated to begin next year, but the Ward Street garage redevelopment’s timeline has been delayed due to the pandemic.
Florio, who is in the midst of a $20 million project to rehabilitate the Paterson Armory, said, “If it wasn’t for COVID, we would have broken ground by now.”
Crews are removing “a few oil tanks” that are on the site and Florio hopes that’ll be completed within the next 30 days to allow for a groundbreaking by summer’s end.
The 100-year-old structure in the Fifth Ward once served as one of New Jersey’s major National Guard facilities, but became an eyesore after it closed in the 1980s. Florio’s project doesn’t have any tax credits associated with it.
After sitting vacant for many years, Florio purchased the property from the city for $3 million and proposed a mixed-used development that includes 138 residential units, 10,000-square-feet of retail space, a restaurant with room for outdoor dining areas and other features such as a pool and recreational amenities.
The project’s timeline is about 18 months – but that could be longer if the state faces another COVID-19 outbreak or if winter is particularly harsh, he said.
As for the Great Falls project, Guarasci said, “There’s no doubt” that the outbreak affected the effort’s timeline.
“We’re going to have to work harder to complete the project in time, especially without an extension of the tax credits.”