As development pushes forward on Sussex Avenue, some reflect

Developers shoveled dirt to kickoff a $30 million urban renewal project on eight acres along Sussex Avenue. It’s a blighted, brown fields site that’s been vacant for 15 years. But residents who used to live in the East Orange neighborhood called it “Lil’ City,” and they’re nostalgic, including Mayor Ted Green, who grew up there and wants to see it reborn.

“This place was so memorable. It was a place I spent all my childhood days. Each and every day, running from Arcadian Gardens, over to the Sussex Mall — pizza parlor, ice cream parlor, the arcade,” said Green. “Food Town was here in the city of East Orange where we went shopping for our parents.”

“The kids, when we were younger, we had somewhere to play. It was enclosed, it was safe, and we all called each other family. And it really means a lot, because family is the heart of America, right? And we need that back,” said former Arcadian Gardens resident Deric Britton.

The Sussex Avenue Urban Renewal plan includes a 60,000 square-foot distribution center, anchored by ABC Supply, plus a 30,000 square-foot commercial hub. Developers TD+Partners explain who will qualify for the 80 units of affordable workforce housing.

“For definition, that’s a single person making about $36,000 a year. And our hope is the housing will be occupied by recent college grads, it could be the art student who graduated from college, that isn’t making a fortune; police officers, firemen, teachers…” said real estate developer Patrick Terborg.

The area’s also a so-called food desert, so the project features a 2,500 square-foot urban farm with some vertical gardens like AeroFarms in Newark, that’ll grow 4,000 pounds of produce a year. But it will also feature fish to help feed the plants in raised beds.

“It’s going to be a large tank set up, where you’re going to have all your different fish and the waste from the fish actually feeds the vegetables and the fruit. And there’s no soil,” said Lyani Powers of H2Grow. “All of the nutrients the plant is going to sustain off is coming from the fish, so it’s a really nice environment. You’re able not only to harvest fish, you’re also able to grow vegetables.”

The deadline for the commercial portion is this December. The housing will be done by late 2019. Developer J.G Petrucci said it’s already working to clean up PCB contamination in old fill on the site.

“These are the projects we should be doing. Rather than redeveloping existing green fields, we’d much prefer to redevelop sites that are underperforming, underdeveloped and blighted, and this is what this opportunity represented,” said Greg Rogerson of Petrucci.

“And not only that. A young man is seeing something that we had, that we are developing again, where people can be proud of it again, in the city of East Orange,” said Green.

The farm will provide fresh produce to a nearby elementary school, and a cafe, where shoppers will be welcome to buy and help grow the community.