As is now apparently unofficial tradition, last week’s City Council meeting featured memorable and occasionally heated exchanges between the Administration and opponents of the West End District Overlay (WEDO). As previously documented in this column, WEDO, ostensibly designed to mend zoning problems in Long Branch’s West End neighborhood, will allow the long abandoned movie theatre on Ocean Avenue to be replaced by a mixed use religious center, where services will be held on upper floors and commercial space leased on the bottom. The area is a C-3 commercial zone; religious institutions are not permitted.
Back in 2012, Chabad of the Shore, which has performed religious services out of a storefront on Ocean Avenue, a consistent violation of the zoning laws for several years now, sought approval for a use variance that would allow them to construct the religious center in place of the theatre. The zoning board denied the proposal. Chabad threatened to sue, and the Administration appears to have eventually caved, accommodating their demands by creating WEDO. Some locals (full disclosure, this blogger included) believe WEDO constitutes illegal spot zoning (attorney Scott Kelly has sued the City on these grounds) and have requested that the Administration condemn the abandoned theatre by eminent domain to expand West End Park.
Thus far, the Mayor and Council have been wholly opposed to these efforts. When activist Vincent Lepore asked each member of the City Council point blank whether they supported expanding the park, each responded in the negative (Councilwoman Joy Bastelli was absent from the meeting, so her own official position of the proposal has yet to be added to the record). But why this adamant opposition? West End Park, located literally parallel to the abandoned theatre, is one of the hidden gems of the city. The park’s only shortcoming is its small size and that it is potentially stifled by the traffic along Brighton Avenue on one side and the blighted theatre and retail complex on the other.
Expanding West End Park could only help the community, while the WEDO overlay, which will allow a non-permitted use, could potentially negatively impact the area economically. In a city where the number of tax-exempt properties has soared from $212,900,000 worth in 2000 to$736,493,500 in 2013, the tax burden is rising, bearing down even harder upon the middle-class residents and shows no sign of slowing down. With Broadway blighted and Pier Village Phase III in limbo, more businesses are needed in town. West End, the most organically thriving neighborhood in the City, could and has accommodated more businesses than it currently has operating. Indeed, three of the empty retail spaces next to the theatre (Lou’s Uniforms, West End Deli, and Tre Amici) were thriving and popular, their inability to survive allegedly the result of a rent spike by the landlords.
By tying the properties that burnt down in the 2012 Brighton Avenue fire to WEDO (as opposed to simply granting them a zoning variance so new shops could be built with residences on the top floor), the City is preventing these vacant lots from being developed while the lawsuit is pending. The same goes for the West End School Property, which the New Jersey Repertory Company hopes to turn into a live performance venue. There was no reason for WEDO to exist, and these properties certainly shouldn’t be included in it.
And what of that abandoned movie theatre? Our local eyesore is undoubtedly a hazard and likely structurally compromised. A walk by the property several days ago revealed broken liquor bottles throughout the alleyway, several points by which the blighted structure could easily be entered by transients or children, rampant graffiti, several holes in the roof, a plastic bag containing what appeared to be clothing (a sign someone was probably using the building as shelter), and rusted metal. There is likely mold, asbestos, and rats inside as well; a strange smell that occasionally leaks from the vents implies stagnant water. All this is easily accessible, next to a playground frequented by children. At the City Council meeting three weeks ago, activists highlighted these hazards (and I took several pictures of the existing conditions, which you can see here).
At the last meeting, activist Patty Verrochi asked if the building had ever been cited for these obvious code violations. The Mayor and Council President stated they were unsure of which specific properties within Long Branch were cited for code violations and the matter would need to be taken up with code enforcement. An OPRA request answered Verrochi’s question: the property was previously cited. In 2008, Ocean Avenue Partners, the owners of the building, was sent a Notice of Violation for the following: “1) all window and doors must be boarded up, 2) clean all trash and debris around the property, 3) paint over graffiti on outside of building.” The letter sent by the City also noted, “as of the previous inspection, the doors were open, and the interior of the building was easily accessible.” A lengthy notice was sent in 2013, noting that the apartments above the deli and uniform store were in terrible condition. In February 2014, they were sent another one, this time because the doors to the vacant apartments were left open.
Last Friday, a truck full of workers arrived at the theatre property. The rusted metal stairway was removed, several bushes were cut, and the openings were boarded up, likely in anticipation of last week’s car show. Though needed, these alterations represent the bare minimum a property-owner can invest. They simply aren’t enough. The fact of the matter remains: a structural hazard shouldn’t be next to a children’s playground. The West End theatre should have been condemned years ago and likely would have been if not for several conflicts-of-interest between City officials and the property’s owner(s). (Post-cleanup pictures are available here). Interestingly, it appears alterations were also made to West End Park to allow for easier access for special needs children—including the moving of a concrete benchand the sawing off of what was a wooden frame—which was another concern that was raised at the Council meeting.
Resident Alexandra Jacob, an advocate for special needs children, addressed the Council stating she was alerted to the situation in West End after reading a quote from Mayor Schneider, printed in the Link newspaper, that read: “I am more than happy to listen to you that we need more [accessible playground], I’m just telling you it’s not going to go in West End Park.”
“I am proposing that each park in this city have equipment for special needs children,” Jacob said. “If you deny such needs, you are violating the rights because of their disabilities. The last thing a special needs parent wants to hear is the word, ‘budget.’ It does not belong when it comes to our children. Cut back on other areas. Our children will grow up to be adults in this town. Lets stop catering to outsiders and start catering to locals!”
“First of all, what you claim to have read in the Link, I asked you what you read, you told me it was in there, I don’t think it was, because I never said it,” the Mayor responded. “Secondly, we never denied a swing-set for handicapped kids in West End Park. West End Park does not have a particularly big playground, it is handicapped accessible, it is ADA compliant, and if it’s not, what I told you and I told the woman who was here last week, we will be glad to upgrade it if there is a need for more equipment. We have about seven or eight parks, all of them ADA compliant, almost all of them if not all of them with handicapped accessible swings.”
“I need all of them…” Jacob interjected.
“Ma’am, now you’re interrupting me, which is exactly what you did on the phone,” the Mayor said.
“And you were nasty to me on the phone!”
“We’re done,” Mayor Schneider said, thus ending the discussion.
Earlier in the evening, when activist Vincent Lepore asked whether the Council supported expanding accessibility in the park, the tension reached a breaking point. Asked whether they agreed with the Link quote, Councilwoman Billings reiterated her position that the park is handicapped accessible already, Councilman Pallone noted he never heard the Mayor make such a statement, and the other Council-members refused to answer. Councilman Sirianni dismissed Lepore’s line of questioning as a whole, stating: “I am not playing your game.”
Actually, Councilman Sirianni is correct in one sense: a game is being played in Long Branch, and he should refuse to engage in such tomfoolery. But the self-proclaimed “West End Watch-dogs,” those who want to dissolve WEDO, expand handicapped accessibility in the parks, increase government transparency, and improve the quality of life for all residents, aren’t the ones responsible. Actually, the Watchdog’s message to City Hall could accurately be summarized as, “Game Over!”