Business owners oppose plan for redevelopment in East Brunswick

EAST BRUNSWICK – Local business owners voiced their opposition to an approved resolution that would include their businesses in a redevelopment zone in the township.

The Township Council, in a 3-2 vote, passed a resolution authorizing the designation of various blocks and lots within the municipality as areas in need of redevelopment under the Local Redevelopment and Housing Law during a July 10 meeting.

Council Vice President and newly declared Democrat James Wendell voted “yes,” as did fellow Democrats Michael Spadafino and Sterley Stanley. Republicans Michael Hughes and Camile F. Clark voted “no.”

The Local Redevelopment and Housing Law empowers municipalities to exercise the state’s eminent domain power, and by a Township Council resolution directing the Planning Board to conduct this analysis, it states that condemnation powers may be used in connection with redevelopment, according to information provided by township officials.

The areas deemed in need of redevelopment are broken down into four ares that include: the properties between Eggers Street and Ruth Street; Loehmann’s Plaza; the abandoned mall area where the former GAP store, The Wiz and other stores used to be; and the area behind the East Brunswick Shopping Center where the former Wonder Bread factory used to be, according to a report provided by the township.

“In 2017, the township has massive areas of blight and neglect in parts of the redevelopment zones, specifically the area where Loehmann’s Plaza used to be, and is worse now than where it was in 2015. … Area three, which is where Karl’s Appliances and the GAP store used to be, and The Wiz, that mall is completely abandoned as we sit here right now. There is no merchant in any one of those stores and if you look in the buildings they are in terrible neglect,” Mayor Brad Cohen said.

Before the council voted to approve the resolution, local business owners whose businesses are located in the areas that are deemed in need of redevelopment voiced their opposition to the resolution.

George Christiana, owner of Sweeney Gulf Station, said that he received a certified letter in the mail from the township notifying him that he is one of five active businesses located in the redevelopment zones.

“I own a sixth of an acre. I own a service station and I have been there 29 years. I serve the community. I sponsor Little League. … But, for me to be included in this or any other business that wants to stay that has been a good part of East Brunswick, it just doesn’t seem American. I worked hard on my business for 29 years to build it and to have a town have the power to take that away, I don’t think you should ever have that,” he said.

Christiana said that it is crucial for his business to be where it is because a majority of his clientele all live within a three mile radius of his location.

“I just don’t think the town should have that power to take eminent domain on my property. I take care of my property. I maintain it. If there’s something that needs to be done I’ll take care of it, I’ll conform to whatever the redevelopment needs me to conform to … but to say that you want to take eminent domain or condemnation, it’s not American,” Christiana said.

Howard Malkin, the owner of Malkin’s Functional Footwear, said that his business, located at 1 Ruth St., has been open for more than 26 years.

Malkin said that the location of his business is very important since he brings in customers from all over the state.

On top of owning his own business, Malkin said that he also spent a lot of money adding onto a historic house that has been in the township since 1788.

“I don’t think it’s right to have me moved or to try and replace me. I don’t know where I can move to. The reason I moved to that location was because location, location, location [is] very important. People come here – they don’t want to have to travel any kind of distance on Route 18, especially the elderly. I serve a lot of the elderly people in and around New Jersey. Monroe is just down the street from here [so] if I have to be moved guess where I’m going? I won’t have another little business in East Brunswick,” Malkin said.

Lifelong resident and lawyer William Winters owns a law office on the corner of Route 18 and Eggers Street. During the meeting he asked the council how he is supposed to sell his property once the resolution passed. Winters explained that if he wanted to sell his property it would be next to impossible to sell his property under the umbrella of condemnation.

“By voting to condemn these properties you are enslaving us to hang on to these properties until all of the litigation is complete and only at that point will we be able to do anything with these properties …” Winters said. “It is damaging to us not down the road once eminent domain occurs – it is damaging to us tonight if you, the Town Council, votes for using condemnation as it as been described before as a tool in your toolbox.”

Co-owner of the East Brunswick Racquet Club, Catarina Lindqvist-Ryan, said that she and her husband recently invested $70,057 in solar panels for the facility at 11 Ruth St., which has been established in the township since the mid-1970s.

Since purchasing the club, she said they have invested about $1 million to improve the building and if they were to move it would probably cost them $10 million to build a new facility.

Cohen said that although there are still active businesses located in the redevelopment areas, the larger property owners have neglected their properties and a vast majority of the stores that used to be there are gone.

“[This is] the only way we can actually sit down at the table as a township and have the ability to negotiate from a position of strength and let the owners know that we seriously want to get these things changed dramatically. We are not any longer looking for a facelift,” Cohen said. “The best thing that can happen to most of those zones is for a bulldozer to come in and knock it down and rebuild that entire area … and the only way you are going to get [the big property owners] to do that is if they know that at the end of the day if they don’t want to do anything, that the township now has the ability through the laws of eminent domain to negotiate a fair price, take if off their hands, and give it to a developer that will do it.”

For more information about the township’s future redevelopment plans, visit www.eastbrunswick.org and click on East Brunswick Redevelopment Condemnation Report.

For more information about the township’s future redevelopment plans, visit the township’s Facebook page.

Contact Vashti Harris at vharris@newspapermediagroup.com.