NEWARK, NJ — An application for a proposed Wawa in Newark's Central Ward was postponed at Monday night's meeting of the Central Planning Board.
The proposed project, to be built on two lots located at 1300-1346 McCarter Highway on a 2.483-acre site, would see a 5,051 square-foot 24-hour Wawa convenience store with 58 parking spaces, along with a 16-pump gas station.
The application was postponed at the request of Michael Oliveira, attorney for Tonymar LLC, the applicant and owner of the property.
The vacant lots sit along a largely industrial and commercial stretch of Route 21 in the city’s Lower Broadway neighborhood, an area that some residents say has seen a mass exodus in recent years as homeowners have left and many homes have fallen into foreclosure.
Lisa Gray, who started the Broad Street Neighborhood Association — a group of residents living in the area — said residents and business owners have been dealing with myriad issues for years, including drugs and prostitution. The addition of a Wawa, Gray says, would exacerbate the problems.
“This neighborhood was supposed to be the up and coming area,” she said. “We were sold that dream. Now, most of those homeowners have abandoned that dream and moved to the suburbs.”
Some concerns surrounding the proposed project include increased drug dealing and prostitution, traffic and congestion and the demise of small area businesses that may be unable to compete with a huge corporate brand like Wawa.
“A Wawa would attract drug dealers and prostitution,” Gray said. “We have been fighting prostitution and drug dealers since I moved here 10 years ago. Prostitutes were turning tricks on my front lawn.”
But the sex trade has moved further north, said Gray, and residents of the area want to keep it that way.
According to Gray, a representative from a prostitution advocacy organization attended the planning board meeting.
“They have been working hard to get prostitutes off the street,” she said of the advocacy group. “Having a Wawa is yet another opportunity for these young women to be exploited. They are victims as well.”
A community meeting with Wawa representatives and community leaders was held last month to discuss the project — a meeting that Gray says was fruitless.
“At the so-called meeting that was really a pep rally, they told us that the road was a state road and was not their road,” Gray said.
Munirah Bomani, a resident and former business owner in the Lower Broadway area, claims that community input was not sought from leaders.
“Any type of redevelopment should have community input,” Bomani said. “A lot of the development that has taken place under this leadership hasn't had too much community input. Our voice has kind of been pushed to the side. It creates tension.”
But Khalil Nass, chief of staff for Central Ward Councilwoman Gayle Chaneyfield Jenkins, said that input was actively sought and that last month's community meeting was attended by approximately some 50 residents and business owners in support of the project.
“The meeting was well-attended by supporters,” said Nass, who added that four council members were there, along with representatives of other members of council. “The majority of the folks want the Wawa."
Bomani said that many are concerned that area mom and pop establishments will be put out of business.
“They already have several gas stations there,” she said. “I would be outraged as a business person. Wawa will affect these small businesses.”
Nass that while detractors of the project are certainly allowed to voice their opposition, they are not representative of the community.
"We are both development and community-friendly," he said. "We support the development of the Wawa, along with our council colleagues, and we also support what the community’s wishes are. This project has overwhelming support. We are governed by what the community says,” he said.
Gray said she believes that Wawa was in the dark until last night’s meeting.
“I got the impression that Wawa was not aware of these issues,” she said.
Gray lauded the outcome of the meeting in the group's Facebook post.
“After outstanding testimony from homeowners, small business and even a prostitutes’ rights organization, Wawa asked for a postponement of their application,” read the post. “Great job residents and small business against Wawa.”
Gray said she hopes Wawa will abandon ship.
"I'm hoping that Wawa walks away from the deal," she said. "Anyone over there who sells food or gas will be put out of business."
A message left for Oliveira was not returned. In addition, a request for comment from Wawa representatives was not immediately returned.
The proposed site in Newark is not the only location Wawa has faced opposition from residents as it seeks to expand into North Jersey from its South Jersey base.
In Scotch Plains, the Zoning Board of Appeals voted unanimously in March 2016 to deny Wawa the variance it sought to build a 5,000-square-foot gas station-convenience store combination on Route 22, also a state highway.
During seven often contentious meetings, the board heard testimony from traffic experts, engineers, urban planners, Wawa officials and vocal residents, who were represented by a attorney.