ROXBURY, NJ – Did the construction of the new Shops at Ledgewood Commons in Roxbury really deserve a waiver from Gov. Phil Murphy’s COVID-19 clampdown on all but “essential” building projects?
That’s the question being asked by members of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transport (SMART) Workers union.
On Thursday morning, about a dozen SMART members came to the Ledgewood Commons site on Route 10 to protest. They said the project's developers are putting profit ahead of public safety by not temporarily halting work.
Dave Castner, a SMART organizer, insisted the protest – what he called a “bannering” – was not about whether March Associates, the general contractor, is using union workers or paying union wages. That was the subject of a protest, by other union organizers, in January.
“I don’t even know if union guys are on that job,” Castner asserted. However, he noted that many of his union colleagues across New Jersey are not working these days because of COVID-19 concerns.
“With the whole virus thing, social distancing has been proven to work and, basically, the governor said you can’t have any non-essential construction going on,” Castner said.
Murphy's order, which went into effect April 8, banned most building projects but allowed construction of "facilities at which any one or more of the following takes place: the manufacture, distribution, storage, or servicing of goods or products that are sold by online retail businesses or essential retail businesses, as defined by Executive Order No. 107 (2020) and subsequent Administrative Orders adopted pursuant to that Order."
To Roxbury Mayor Bob DeFillippo, that should mean Ledgewood Commons.
"You may have noticed work continuing at Ledgewood Commons and other sites around town," said the mayor during the April 28 meeting of the Roxbury Mayor and Council. "The governor's order does allow projects to continue of they will provide essential services. That includes stores like Walmart and the restaurants being constructed at Ledgewood Commons."
DeFillippo said township officials "are closely monitoring compliance and are reviewing projects on a case-by-case basis," but added that municipal leaders believe that the Ledgewood Commons will be "an economic engine for Roxbury that will ultimately benefit our local economy, including our small business community, something that will be important as we emerge from this crisis."
Asked for a comment, Dan Ivers, a spokesman for Ledgewood Commons developer Advance Realty, said company officials were "discussing internally" the union workers' assertions. He did not provide further comment on Friday.
Sitting at Home
Castner said many "responsible" general contractors throughout the state have shut-down jobs in an effort to protect their laborers and slow the spread of the coronavirus. “We (workers) are sitting home because the governor said that if a job is non-essential we’re not working it … 35 percent to 40 percent of us are out of work because of the governor’s order,.” he said.
Castner said he’s been driving around the area noticing continuation of construction at questionable projects.
Sparta has a Stop & Shop supermarket, but erection of a ShopRite there is continuing. “How is that essential work?" Castner asked, adding, “There’s a Wawa going in on Route 10 in Randolph and a storage place across the road. Is that really essential work?”
On Thursday, the union protestors gathered on the sidewalk near the new Walmart supercenter being built as the anchor of the Roxbury project. Castner said the protestors don’t think the raising of the new Walmart is essential enough to risk spreading COVID-19 since a Walmart exists nearby in Mount Olive.
'Only a Strip Mall'
But they don't see any of the other retail space being built there as essential either. Among the new stores slated for The Shops at Ledgewood Commons are clothing retailers, fast-food outlets and a fitness center.
“We feel the entire jobsite is non-essential since it is only a strip mall,” he said. He also questioned those who assert the Roxbury project falls under the exception to Murphy’s rule that allows construction of facilities that enable social distancing-friendly online retailing.
“If you want to claim the online retail exemption, I think the governor was talking about building things like Amazon distribution hubs,” Castner argued. “There are no online shopping stores going in (at Ledgewood Commons). If one was to utilize online shopping for one of the tenants, the order would be handled remotely through a website and shipped from a distribution hub, not a store in the mall.”
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