I read with great interest the article published in the August 26 edition of the North Jersey Record, entitled “Garfield Merchants and Residents Brace for Eminent Domain Fight.” It described proposals for the revitalization of the area surrounding the New Jersey Transit stop on Passaic Street in the city of Garfield, and it highlighted the concerns of certain merchants and residents of the area with respect to the future of their properties. While these concerns should be considered with the utmost seriousness, it is equally important to look at the broader context in which these proposals have been put forth.
Six years ago the city asked the organization which I lead, Greater Bergen Community Action, to conduct a study of Garfield’s First Ward, which comprises the Passaic Street area in question. It did so because of our history investing in projects designed to improve the plight of the city’s lower income residents. Prior to this study, Greater Bergen had completed the re-purposing of a distressed city industrial park into a new health center, an early childhood school and an adult training center, creating dozens of new jobs and providing services for thousands of Garfield residents annually. Our study recommended a host of activities designed to improve the economic development prospects along the Passaic Street corridor, as well as to maximize the potential of the NJ Transit train asset in the business district. These were among seven priorities identified for the area, which emerged from eleven focus groups designed to elicit impact from all sectors of the community.
Following the publication of that study, the city determined that the time was ripe to jumpstart its economic development efforts, and it named Greater Bergen Community Action as its Master Developer for a designated Area in Need of Rehabilitation along Passaic Street. As far as we know, we are the only not-for-profit that has been asked to perform such a role.
This is significant, as it demonstrates the commitment by the city to an inclusive development approach, one not driven by the profit motives of private developers, but rather one that seeks a balanced approach, while attempting to lift all boats on the rising tide of economic growth.
Consider these facts which the Mayor and Council understood when they commenced this planning process:
- The area is economically distressed, with 17% of its residents living below the poverty level (vs. less than 6% for the county as a whole). In the last census, the unemployment rate was 22% (vs. 4% for the county).
- A critical measure of economic well-being is the ability of a family to afford housing at a cost less than 30% of their monthly income. In Garfield’s First Ward, 36% of the households pay more than 35% of their monthly income for housing.
- One sign of economic stability is the home-ownership rate in the area. In the First Ward, over 70% of the residential units are owned by absentee landlords.
Taken together, these and other facts led us to the conclusion that a plan for economic revitalization around the NJ Transit train stop offers the best chance to stimulate a depressed economy that the current economic indicators suggest will not happen without new residential, retail, commercial and commuter opportunities.
This, then, brings us back to the question of how we might view the challenges posed by the repurposing of a number of specific properties, in pursuit of a larger economic growth strategy that holds the potential to benefit a major sector of the city. Ours is a utilitarian approach, in which we advocate policies which advance the greatest good for the greatest number. We believe that is what the city is attempting to do, and why we were asked to partner with the city in the first place.
The job and income growth prospects for the lowest income residents can only be advanced by new investment in the area. And as new residential and retail development takes place, fueled by an increase in train ridership, the economic interests of many homeowners in the 1st Ward will be positively impacted.
Experience around transit developments in other communities, particularly those with rapid access to New York City, suggest that the value of surrounding homes will increase. There are roughly 280 owner-occupied homes in Garfield’s 1st Ward. These homes are the most significant asset that many of these families have. Contrast this broad-based economic growth potential with no more than 4 owner occupied units around the train stop which may be subject to relocation. Noting as we do that any displaced homeowner or landlord will receive at least a fair market return for their property, we believe that the balance weighs heavily in favor of advancing the redevelopment proposals currently being considered by the Planning Board.
Consider as well that the NJ Transit asset on Passaic Street may well disappear unless ridership is increased. This would be a tragic loss to the city’s future prospects. Such an increase in ridership can only happen with an influx of new residents who will live around the train stop, along with creation of new parking structures which will facilitate commuter parking. We also note that the existing transit stop requires numerous safety improvements, which are not likely to be funded by NJ Transit, but which can be paid for by private developers.
GBCA’s mission is to build more sustainable families, community institutions and neighborhoods. Our long time investments in Garfield have been congruent with that mission, and our objective in the 1st Ward remains the same. One important example is our leadership role in the city’s “Aging in Place” initiative, in which our objective is to create opportunities in the redevelopment zone for Garfield’s seniors to remain in town, in housing both affordable and designed to suit their needs as they age.
It is our determination to link an array of government and foundation investments with the plans of private developers, to both attract new investment, and address the ongoing needs of those who currently live in the area. We will partner with our community development lenders to provide access to capital for both new and existing businesses. We will also work to stimulate new home-ownership opportunities over time, in order to decrease the rate of absentee landlords, as we also work with existing landlords to upgrade their properties.
Most importantly, we want the public to know that the home for veterans located on Somerset Street which may need to be purchased because of its central location along the railroad tracks, will not be touched without a new facility created to replace it, outside of the redevelopment zone. Planning for this replacement is underway, one that will house an even larger group of veterans.
When the city chose a not-for-profit community-based organization to help lead this process, it did so with the clear intention that the greatest good for the greatest number would be our goal, while keeping the lowest income residents firmly in our sights. GBCA is committed to making this happen, and we look forward to engaging with all who have an interest in a stronger, more vital future for Garfield’s 1st Ward.