A long delayed development project of a historic Bloomfield building may be resurrected in the coming months.
Developer Lance Robbins said on Monday he wants to immediately revive the apartment project at the now vacant South Junior High School. The plan for the building at 177 Franklin St. has sat on the shelf for about four years.
Robbins, the owner of Urban Smart Grown and the building, said the project came to a halt in 2008 when the stock market collapsed and he couldn’t secure financing.
“Everything went on hold” after 2008, said Robbins.
But the times are changing, he added.
“People want to build apartment buildings again, and so do we," he said. "We are trying to pull the numbers together and pull the team back together to pick this project up where we left it off when we hit the financial wall.”
Time and a lack of repairs have not been been kind to the former junior high school. The decaying three-story building has sat vacant for more than a decade. In that time, it has become a hot spot for the homeless, graffiti artists, and those looking to explore vacant buildings.
The former school, which has nearly every window boarded up, sits next to Essex County Bloomfield Technical School on Franklin Street, and suburban homes occupy the land behind it.
The original proposal will look to build about 114 studio apartments in the historic building. The studios will be between 800 to 1,000 square feet in size. In addition, about 17 penthouses will be added to the roof of the building which will have a view of the New York City skyline.
However, Robbins said starting construction will depend upon “help” from federal historic tax credits and the township in order to make it a “viable project again.”
“Saving this historic building will really make economic sense if we can get federal historic tax credits,” said Robbins.
To get those federal tax credits, Robbins told the council that the building will need to be redesigned in some areas to comply to federal standards. In addition, he hinted at getting approval from the township on other areas of the building, such as slight reduction in the parking requirements.
The request for changes and the renewed interest in the project after years of silence drew criticisms from some council members.
Councilman Bernard Hamilton questioned whether the project would be a priority for Robbins since it had been shelved for so long. He was also incredulous about Robbins’ request for more help from the township.
“There has been silence since you had come for approval,” said Hamilton. “We [Bloomfield] extended resources [years ago]. Now you are coming back; you are looking for adjustments; you are looking for help, and the township has been waiting."
Councilman Michael J. Venezia agreed with Hamilton.
The building, said Venezia, “has pretty much looked the same way for nine years now, and it’s just gotten worse. Not only do you [Robbins] owe back taxes, you haven’t done anything with the building. Now you are coming asking for help, but what makes us believe you now when you’ve come before us before?”
The property also has about $650,000 in back taxes, which Robbins said would be paid before construction begins.
Robbins said the banking collapse was the reason for the delay, and the project would not have been marketable to anyone four years ago. But the times have changed.
“We are here, we want to do it, we know that the time to do this project is really within the next 12 months,” said Robbins. “... All the stars are aligned at this moment.”
Councilman Carlos Bernard said while he was not immediately in favor of the the developer's suggested changes to the plan, he said something needed to be done to safeguard the building and property.
The developer has boarded up many of the doors and windows, but Bernard noted the building has been a perennial source of concern for the township. He said residents have complained about graffiti and junkies inhabiting the building.
“The concerns that I have is that the junkies go in there and kids,” said Bernard. “Eventually someone is going to get hurt.”
Bernard added that the Bloomfield Police have been instructed not to enter the building because it is “hazardous.”
"I'm not necessarily in favor of the development but I am in favor of having something done ASAP with the building to prevent illegal trespassing as this is a hazard to our community," wrote Bernard in an email.
Any redesigns will require the project plan to get approval from the Bloomfield Planning Board again. Robbins suggested that he hopes to go before the Planning Board in March.
The project has the potential to begin within six months, suggested Robbins. And if all goes according to plan, the rehabilitation of the building would take about 10 to 12 months.
Editor's note [Jan. 16]: The reporter misquoted Councilman Carlos Bernard in the original post, writing he was in favor of the developer's changes to the original site plan. At the council conference, Bernard said he was rather in favor of safeguarding the property.