Teaneck Council Members Spar on Residential Versus Commercial Development
Creating an environment ripe and inviting for developers is the key to relieving Teaneck of its crushing tax burden, said five sitting members of the Teaneck Town Council. While they perhaps disagreed on what kinds of development Teaneck needs most, the councilmembers identified as priorities affordable housing, higher-end apartments for those who wish to age in place in the community in which they’ve lived for decades, or commercial development. However, they all agreed that easing the burden on Teaneck’s single-family residential taxpayers is the first priority as they court potential developers.
A recent memorandum from Teaneck tax assessor James Tighe to William Broughton, the town’s manager, projected the tax impact of the various development projects currently in the works in Teaneck. While Tighe noted that while the projections were speculative since many of the projects have not yet broken ground, the numbers provide ballpark estimates of tax impacts. The picture that emerges shows a town with quite a lot to look forward to, and a lot to be proud of, said several members of the council who were interviewed. A total of $6 million is identified in projected new revenue.
“This ‘sudden rush’ to development, as it has been called, was actually detailed and recommended by our planners in 2007 and then added to our master plan. Virtually every town in New Jersey has begun to reinvent themselves in this way and I’m glad Teaneck is finally joining that long list of communities,” said Councilman Mark Schwartz, who is also The Jewish Link’s co-publisher.
Teaneck Councilman Dr. Henry Pruitt told the Jewish Link that the alternatives to readying Teaneck’s derelict buildings for development is seeing them in even worse shape later on. “I understand that you don’t like the idea of a five-story building right next to where you live,” Pruitt said, referring to relatively current complaints related to the proposed apartment building at 1500 Teaneck Rd., also known as the Verizon building. “The main thing is there is a dilapidated, falling-down telephone building that needs to be moved. We have someone willing to fix it, right now. The alternative is to denigrate the atmosphere in Teaneck for the next 20 years, waiting for someone else who will remove this derelict building,” he said. “No one is looking at the positive here, only the negative,” he said.
Pruitt added that the 10 percent set aside for affordable housing at that property could certainly have been larger, and he wished it had been, but that 10 percent is still better than a dilapidated, abandoned building.
Councilman Alan Sohn said he opposed the Verizon building proposal. “We could have and should have pushed for commercial development there,” Sohn told the Jewish Link. Sohn argued that the entire strip in and around State Street near the corner of Teaneck Road is ripe for commercial development, and that jumping at the first developer who made a proposal might not have been the best idea. He likened the situation to the famous Stanford Marshmallow Experiment from 1960 that studied delayed gratification in children. “They were presented with one marshmallow and told if you wait five minutes to eat it, they will get two marshmallows instead of one. We might have gotten two marshmallows worth of development in Teaneck,” he explained.
Sohn added that while he favors a number of the town’s current development projects, he believes the best way to chase after ratables is to encourage commercial real estate. “It is unbelievably difficult to achieve ratables from residential housing. It’s a difficult, if not impossible, challenge,” he said.
Sohn explained that Teaneck is just short of 90 percent residential, while Paramus, a town with a very low tax rate, is 50-50. “Paramus spends more on police officers for Garden State Plaza, but Garden State Plaza sends very few kids to school,” he joked.
The approach of only supporting commercial development against residential is “a further delay tactic to keep Teaneck in the 1970s,” argued Schwartz. “Heck, the people opposed to development were opposed to a single billboard along Route 4. And they want to use Paramus as an example of what WE should be? Look at Walgreens on Cedar Lane, a new commercial development. They fought that tooth and nail as well,” he said.
“I do believe, however, that commercial will come. It will follow the residential development as we build up these districts with heavy foot traffic. Commercial doesn’t come before residential in the land of the malls known as Bergen County. Once the critical mass is there, retailers will want to be there,” Schwartz said.
However, Sohn said, Teaneck is unique within Bergen County. “We are surrounded by municipalities with either high commercial ratables or very high-value real estate. Teaneck has neither,” said Sohn.
Pruitt, however, explained that he, as well as Schwartz, Councilman Mohammed Hameeduddin and Deputy Mayor Elie Y. Katz, all are aligned in the understanding that the council’s current push in favor of creating a community welcoming to all developers, including residential developers, is their best hope right now for the future, and the potential tax benefits for that development will leave a lasting, positive impact on the town.
“Commercial doesn’t work in Teaneck anymore, at least not yet. Almost every one of these sites we are discussing were commercial for years, and sat vacant as a result of their lack of investment appeal. World of Wings was a former office building with no buyer, 1500 Teaneck Rd. was a Verizon office building also vacant for years with no buyer, Queen Ann Towers was a vacant land rezoned for commercial that never took off, Alfred Avenue is an infamously vacant industrial and commercial zone for decades, and Glenpointe was approved for a commercial tower that saw no interest from office tenants. This list can go on and on,” said Schwartz.
A high point in terms of tax benefits for Teaneck is reflected in the Tighe memo, which enumerated the projected tax benefit of the Homewood Suites by Hilton and Hampton Inn and Suites property at Glenpointe, a deal brokered by Alfred Sanzari and Associates, which also manages the Marriott at Glenpointe, and broke ground late last year.
“The new dual-branded hotel at Glenpointe will have 350 units, and the approximate tax benefit is $1,067,500,” Pruitt said. The current taxes are around $304,000, according to the Tighe memo.
Sohn added that he also was “100 percent” supportive of the Glenpointe project, and thinks the town will benefit greatly from a hotel with a per-night occupancy tax without a lot of extra need for town services. “It could bring in close to a million dollars a year, and without a big impact on services or schools,” said Sohn.
But, Sohn asked, “Where will our next Glenpointe come from?”
Pruitt noted that The Queen Anne Towers, which has already broken ground at 1475 Palisade Ave., will provide five floors of apartment living with two floors of parking, with an estimated tax impact of $642,330, which is a significant rise from its previous incarnation as an oil storage site, which paid approximately $60,000 in annual taxes.
Adding that a new site at Alfred Avenue at the southernmost end of Teaneck is up for sale and pending a zoning change, Pruitt said the possibilities for such a property are endless. Currently there is an older building on the site that should be torn down.
These “smart development projects” that have been worked on over the last 10 years by the council, said Hameeduddin, are an attempt to offset natural increases in contractual obligations, related to municipal and school board costs. “I am proud to be bringing in more than $5 million in tax revenue for our town,” he said. Hameeduddin added that since he and Schwartz began serving on the planning board together in 2006, they have been planning and bringing to fruition these changes for close to a decade. “We learned you don’t have to change the suburban makeup of the town; you have to get the right mix of land use. Doing this we can mitigate the tax burden on residents, but it takes working with consensus,” said Hameeduddin.
However, there are still naysayers in the community who have found a way to oppose every project proposed. “They say everything can’t be done, for so many reasons,” said Hameeduddin.
“There are always about eight people at every council meeting who opposed whatever project is being considered,” added Pruitt.
Addressing the recent brouhaha in December related to the zoning change on the World of Wings site, Pruitt said: “I can’t say to the center of Teaneck, ‘Get out of town because there is going to be a railroad accident.’ Here I am, a sitting councilperson; what does it say to those six schools and those 5,000 people who live around the railroad tracks if I said it was too dangerous for people to move in?”
“I am doing what I can do to fight with the railroad. I care about rail safety, and I have advocated for it, but it’s certainly not as imminently dangerous as it was described,” said Pruitt.
Pruitt added that “I took umbrage with the union on this,” because the Service Employees International Union had a specific, personal problem with AvalonBay, so they used the fear factor of the Bakken crude oil rail line and the recent fire in Edgewater to rile up community residents against the proposal. “In New York, the SEIU union wanted to be elected the custodial union on a particular AvalonBay site, and in that particular site they voted it down. Ever since, they have been following AvalonBay around opposing their projects, all over, for all kinds of reasons,” said Pruitt.
The Windsor Road property, still currently occupied by World of Wings, which is planning to move its butterfly museum and kid-friendly event space to a smaller property, is now in the process of being sold to AvalonBay, and is projected to bring Teaneck close to $2 million in taxes.
Sohn, who was not present for the council’s rezoning vote of the Windsor Road property in December, which was approved 4-2 with votes in favor by Katz, Pruitt, Schwartz and Hameeduddin and opposed by Councilman Jason Castle and Mayor Lizette Parker, said that he couldn’t imagine there being anything other than a residential property there now, but he still had lingering concerns. “It’s a shame that we couldn’t keep [the previous company] that used it for commercial space. This was a historical issue when Givaudan had sought to build a taller building on the property from the town and was rejected,” Sohn said. “It’s a shame that Teaneck has not had the infrastructure to keep the commercial investment here.”
“After the bid from AvalonBay, the second, third and probably fourth bidders were non-profits that would have taken the property off the tax roles entirely,” said Sohn.
While Pruitt, Schwartz, Katz and Hameeduddin were positive about the various real estate development projects making a big impact, Sohn disagreed. “I don’t think the handful of residential developments are going to provide meaningful relief for taxpayers. One thing I heard from one of the planners who worked on this was that, at best, they would not be a net burden on the township, but the odds are that it won’t cost us more in services than we will make in revenue,” Sohn said.
As for projects that have yet to have a developer attached: “I am looking forward to working together with Mark and Henry to develop the Alfred Avenue site, and also the site in front of Stop & Shop,” Hameeduddin added.
“Our Teaneck residents can’t afford more taxes,” concluded Katz. “People like to come up with the reason why not, but when it came to more revenue for Teaneck, this council figured out how. The new projects will not only bring in new revenue, it will enhance the properties and the area,” he told The Jewish Link.
By Elizabeth Kratz