It was less than two years ago that a 3-acre, triangular block in downtown Bloomfield was mired in litigation that threatened the township's visions of redevelopment.
And that was just one piece of the story.
"You name the obstacles associated with the redevelopment process, and they existed on that site," said Glenn Domenick, Bloomfield's director of community development, naming environmental woes, an eminent domain dispute and a revolving door of developers and consultants over more than a decade.
So it's no small feat that the block is now home to a completed 468-space parking deck, one designed to be the centerpiece of a plan to revive the township's tired business district after years of false starts. And it will soon be joined by new retail and residential buildings.
The site, which abuts the Lackawanna Plaza train station, is one of six "large-scale redevelopment projects" now under construction in Bloomfield, Domenick said, estimating the work totals at least $200 million in value. That includes an expansion by Bloomfield College that will add new dormitories and a Barnes & Noble, plus the rehabilitation of a former General Electric warehouse along the Garden State Parkway.
Like many other New Jersey towns, Bloomfield hopes to use its train stations and other key infrastructure to drive redevelopment. But those plans stalled for some two decades. Then about three years ago, Domenick said the township streamlined things from a planning and personnel standpoint.
"The process got easier with every project," he said. "Every step got easier. We built momentum. Once the first one got approved, people were just knocking on my door."
Another huge lift came last summer when a judge sided with Bloomfield in a long-running battle to control the site now housing the parking deck, known as Block 228, even though an appeal still wasn't resolved until this past August. That's allowed local developer Bill Colgan to forge ahead with plans for Glenwood Village, which will include 224 residential units and 60,000 square feet of ground-level retail steps away from the train station.
"We knew in the beginning it was not going to be easy," said Colgan, who moved his development firm, Metro Real Estate, to Bloomfield in 1998. Colgan also heads Bloomfield Center Urban Renewal LLC, the lead developer in the $85 million project.
"We really believed that the first domino needed to fall, and after that it would stimulate other development in the downtown," Colgan said. "And I think clearly it has."
Bloomfield's development pipeline is filled with other signs of promise. New federal funding and tax credits will allow Community Investment Strategies, a Lawrenceville-based developer, to build an 82-unit age-restricted complex at what is now a parking lot near the municipal building.
Domenick said the project will help Bloomfield keep its seniors from leaving the township and use those residents to help repopulate the business district. That goes for any of the projects that will add 400 residential units to the downtown within two to three years, including another 40-unit building under construction on Park Street.
"We believe the actual construction was an important step in the process," he said. "But the key to the success of the downtown is the critical mass of people — being able to bring in a population base that can spend money and support what we're trying to achieve."
Another means to that end is well under way at Franklin and Broad Streets, where Bloomfield College is building a long-awaited residence hall. The project will include more than 200 beds and a Barnes and Noble to anchor 10,000 square feet of retail, with completion slated for next September.
Anthony Rinaldi, a broker in Colliers International's Parsippany office, said projects such as the college expansion will help infuse the demographic that high-end retailers are looking for in urban settings. But the overall "tipping point" will be if Bloomfield's new residential space can draw young, affluent professionals to the downtown.
That will help Bloomfield follow in the footsteps of nearby towns such as Summit and Montclair. Those two municipalities are about a decade into efforts to revitalize their downtowns, but Bloomfield has similar physical assets that may benefit from the move toward urban living.
"Bloomfield is going to be able to capitalize on that down the road," Rinaldi said. "They are actually closer to Manhattan than Montclair, and they're closer than Summit, so the access is dynamite."
Still, township officials aren't getting complacent about their infrastructure. After another court battle, Bloomfield recently used eminent domain to acquire the crumbling Lackawanna station buildings from a private owner. Domenick said it now plans "a sizable historic renovation" to the station, which offers a half-hour direct ride to Manhattan and remains busy, despite its condition.
Meantime, town officials will continue pursuing grant funds for facade and street improvement, Domenick said. And he believes the ongoing development will spur existing property owners.
"I think they'll be more willing to invest once they see the investments there," he said.
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