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Judge halts Hartz's demolition of Secaucus shopping mall

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Extending a court battle between a landlord and its locked-out mall tenant, a judge today extended a temporary stay on Hartz Mountain Industries' destruction of Vitamin World's store in the Harmon Cove Outlet Center, in Secacus, giving an attorney for the retailer until close of business Wednesday to file an appeal and advance the case.

Though a Hartz Mountain spokesman declined to comment on the suit until it reaches an appellate court judge, he said the transcript of the Oct. 25 proceedings before Hudson County Superior Court Judge Hector R. Velazquez provides insight on the property owners' "big gun" in the case.

"What you have before you is a mall which the (municipal) construction official has said is uninhabitable, a third-party engineer said is uninhabitable," so it's not appropriate to order Vitamin World be allowed back in to operate, said Phillip R. Patton, an attorney representing Hartz Mountain in the case, said during the Oct. 25 proceedings.

"This is a damage case," said Patton, of Secaucus-based Horowitz, Rubino & Patton. "This is the woman that is in the middle of the big piece of property condemned not wanting to give up her house, wanting to get more money. That is what it is about."

At those same proceedings, Velazquez raised concerns for the safety of shoppers walking through debris in an otherwise vacant mall to get to Vitamin World if its property was restored. But during an inspection by a Secaucus construction official on Oct. 22, Riggiola said she walked through the entire mall "in high heels, and it was as if I was walking through an empty building that happened to have some ceiling tiles stacked on the floor."

"If there was a real-life safety issue, why would they allow everyone to go into the building to get their things?" Riggiola said, referencing a letter Vitamin World received from Hartz Mountain on Oct. 9 stating access to remove personal property and inventory would be provided until 6 p.m. on Oct. 19.

But on Nov. 1, when Hartz Mountain resumed demolition of the interior of the now-former Vitamin World property after a stay on a temporary restraining order to block further destruction expired, walls, lighting, life safety systems and heat and water connections were removed throughout the building, leaving the property "no longer safe for anyone other than appropriate construction personnel," according to a certification submitted to the court on Nov. 7 by Robert A. Mertrud, assistant vice president of construction for Hartz Mountain.

Still, Hudson County Superior Court Judge Peter F. Bariso Jr. today extended a stay on Hartz Mountain's destruction activity at Vitamin World's property through Nov. 14. Riggiola plans to file an application in the Appellate Division today in an attempt to get a ruling to restore the property to its original condition.

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