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Block by block: In Orange, redevelopment is a deliberate process

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Buildings along Central Place.
Buildings along Central Place. - (Photo / )
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Walter McNeil arrived in 2005 as the head of the Orange Housing Authority, and he can recall the “horror story” he saw unfolding at the Walter G. Alexander public housing complex.

The 140-unit, 1950s-era property was fraught with drug activity, prostitution and theft inside its twin seven-story brick towers. Each day, there were 20 to 40 calls for police, fire and other public safety services needed to deal with what he said was the most dangerous block in the city.

“It was horrible, and I think when I came here … I said immediately, ‘We’ve got to tear this building down, because there’s no way to control it,’ ” McNeil said, later adding: “And it just became a major source of ailment for the community, because even police officers didn’t want to come into the building when there were problems.”

The complex got the fresh start it needed: The structure was razed in late 2010 to give way to the walkable, picturesque town home-style neighborhood that exists there today. And with private entrances for each unit and minimal common areas, McNeil said the community is far more “defensible” than in its past incarnation.

“Today, you can walk around (and) there’s nobody trying to do bad things on our grounds,” said McNeil, the authority’s executive director. “Now … people have a lot of confidence in our ability to tame the neighborhood down a little bit.”

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The $31 million complex, a mix of 48 affordable housing units for seniors and 66 for families, is a product of the authority’s plan to revitalize Orange’s East Ward one block at a time. The 3-year-old development along Central Place marked the first two phases of what’s now known as the Dr. Walter G. Alexander Village — and the agency is setting its sights on the next steps toward helping this 2-square-mile city.

The authority’s development arm, the Orange Housing Development Corp., and the Fort Lee-based Alpert Group broke ground in May on the village’s third phase. The two-building, 42-unit component is slated for completion early next year, thanks largely to a $7.4 million tax credit from the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency and $3.5 million in federal funds tied to Hurricane Sandy.

“The unfortunate thing for the neighborhood is that when you clean up one spot, things move down a little bit more,” McNeil said. “But that’s the very reason why we decided to do Walter G. Alexander III.”

It comes amid a broader effort by city officials to shape the future of the East Ward, via its Central Orange Redevelopment Plan. The city has hosted community meetings since February to gather input on the 22-block area, with the aim of amending the plan later this year.

The area includes the Walter G. Alexander complex, and McNeil’s agency in the meantime is continuing with its strategy of acquiring vacant, abandoned and blighted properties around the neighborhood. That’s often done through eminent domain, which McNeil notes is a capability of his authority that other developers don’t have.

And, for better or worse, it’s a tool that the agency has had to use often in the East Ward in recent years. McNeil noted that many of the abandoned properties seemed to have been victims of the foreclosure crisis, but the authority has been able to have them reappraised and acquire them at fair prices to make way for new development sites.

He emphasized that any of the properties the authority has acquired through eminent domain were “vacant and abandoned and something that was so bad-looking and in such bad condition that it was the right thing for us to do.”

That includes sites just a few hundred feet from the main entrance of the Walter G. Alexander Village. But the authority is now in the process of acquiring properties for a fourth phase of the project, which McNeil said would create another 44 units for the community.

He also noted the Orange Housing Authority could be a useful partner to private-sector developers, which he hopes will come to the area as it continues its transformation.

“If they have a larger plan, they can come to us as the housing authority to do the eminent domain,” McNeil said. “We would do that to the benefit of the whole community, as long as they’re going to pay for the expenses related to the eminent domain. That’s where we come in to improve neighborhoods.”

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