After almost a decade standing derelict on a hilltop, a few shovelfuls of turned earth marked a new beginning for the former Irvington General Hospital.
A high-powered lineup of Essex County legislators, county and municipal officials, plus congressional staffers, joined Mayor Tony Vauss and a team of developers to trumpet what they see as an important step for the property and the community.
The 6-acre site at an apex on Chancellor Avenue will be transformed into a planned 700 units of mixed-income residential units, plus 15,000 square feet of commercial space. The significance goes beyond removing an eyesore from an otherwise tidy neighborhood, according to participants.
The 2006 closure of the hospital, a major local employer, “dealt a tremendous blow to our community economically,” Vauss said. “This project will not only provide needed housing for working families, but it will also bring quality employment opportunities.”
Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo said the vacant hospital complex has been a long-term blight on the township and the county. The roughly $200 million redevelopment provides evidence of a comeback, he said, adding, “Irvington is on a roll.”
Local residents echoed that hope. In addition to invited dignitaries, the groundbreaking drew about 60 people from the community on a gloomy Monday. Some, like Annette Bellamy, were curious.
“I’ve seen groundbreakings on TV, but I’ve never been an eyewitness,” she said, adding that when the project is completed, “I think it’s going to be beautiful.”
“I want to see Irvington on its way up,” agreed resident Flora Saldanha.
Nobody had a bad word to say about the plan for residential towers of five to 18 stories with views of the Manhattan skyline, plus stores and offices intended to boost the avenue’s business district.
But some were skeptical about the tax abatements for the project, among the provisions touted by the political speakers.
“The project looks good, but with a 30-year tax break, I’d like to know what benefits the township is going to get from this,” said Cathy Southerland, a Vauss critic.
Former mayor Wayne Smith, who brought in the redevelopment deal, had planned to set up a meeting with local residents and Adenah Bayoh, one of the developers and a well-known local entrepreneur, said resident Elousie McDaniel.
But Smith, who served three terms as mayor, ruffled feathers in the Democratic organization by making a quixotic run in the 2012 congressional primary won by U.S. Rep. Donald Payne Jr. (D-10th Dist.), and then lost the mayoralty to Vauss last year. The promised meeting between the developer and residents never happened.
Vauss said he is aware of questions about the redevelopment agreement, which includes an estimated $9 million in payments in lieu of taxes from developers HillTop Partners over the 30 years. But Vauss pointed out that he did not negotiate the terms.
“It would have been good if those with questions had directed them to the former mayor at the time he negotiated the deal,” Vauss said.
Bayoh credited Vauss for sticking by the redevelopment agreement after the election.
“He called me and said, ‘All politics aside, Adenah, the township needs this project and it is going to happen,’” she said.
The community should hold the developers to their promises, said Bayoh, a Liberian immigrant who runs a popular IHOP restaurant on Springfield Avenue in the center of town. She brought the audience to its feet by mentioning her background as an immigrant teen, attending Newark public schools and living in public housing.
“Do hold us to higher standards, because it’s only when you expect more that you get more,” Bayoh said.
Vauss said he was convinced that the defunct hospital was a weight on the township’s commerce and morale.
Removing it is one step in a string of major improvements, from another Bayoh development down the block, to the demolition of vacant homes, to pending redevelopment around the civic center, Vauss said.
“We’re a visual people,” he said. “When people see something happening, they have more faith that the progress is real.”
Putting and keeping the project together has been a “heavy lift,” and the actual construction is still ahead, acknowledged Matthew Gross of Urban Builders Collaborative of New York, which partnered with Bayoh’s Kapwood LLC. But he said his firm, the development arm of Lettire Construction, remained enthusiastic about the prospects because of the continuing support of local officials.
Gross learned about the site in a conversation with Patrick Terborg, Bayoh’s Kapwood partner. The location is the kind his company is looking for, beyond New York City but with ready infrastructure, he said.
Despite its prime location, few places in New Jersey have seen more economic dislocation in recent years than Irvington. Lenders foreclosed on about 9 percent of local homes from 2008-2012, and up to 40 percent of homeowners are stuck with “underwater” mortgages, with loan balances greater than the current property value.
The combination of that economic distress and the optimistic groundbreaking was enough to attract former resident Andrea Hylton, who sees opportunity.
“My mother still lives here, and when we’ve come to visit, my husband and I have driven around and seen all the vacant houses,” Hylton said. “I’m a loan specialist and he’s a developer, so we’re moving back with the idea of acquiring some of those places.”
Foreclosure in New Jersey requires not just a court order -- enough to encourage many borrowers to give up the fight and leave -- but a sale of the property.
With the housing market continuing to drag, many lenders have stopped short of that last step, and even when banks or investors do take possession they often are not maintaining properties.
“We’d like to fix up some of those homes and get them back on the market as rentals before they slip into blight,” Hylton said.