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A hot spot of history: Edgewater fire site has been home to cemetery, thriving industry, 2 infernos
January 24, 2015, 10:48 PM Last updated: Sunday, January 25, 2015, 12:10 PM
By STEPHANIE AKIN
EDGEWATER — It defied logic. Fourteen years later and so much had changed in this sliver of a town along the Hudson River.
But here was the same acrid smell, the same orange glow on the horizon and virtually the same news coming from the property known — most recently — as Avalon at Edgewater.
The inferno that blazed through the 408-unit apartment complex last week was the second to strike the property in less than two decades. Despite an official determination that the cause was accidental, this latest misfortune has left those who know the history of the place wondering about the oddity of fate.
"I started to think that maybe there was a curse or something on this property," said Mary Hogan, a lifelong Edgewater resident. "It's so weird that a thing like this could happen twice."
The structure that was destroyed last week, with its banks of bay windows and red bricks, was as nondescript as any of the dozens of higher-rent dwellings that have sprung up along the river since a building boom in the mid-1990s transformed this once industrial stretch.
"It was sort of like the flagship of what was to come," said Valory Bardinas, president of Independent Coalition for a Better Edgewater, a local watchdog group. "It's great all the old factories are gone, but we don't have the infrastructure to support that. We have one road … and the littlest thing that happens impacts us greatly."
River Road runs from the northern border with Fort Lee to the southern border with Weehawken. The road is home to large apartment complexes and several bustling shopping centers. The main thoroughfare, it is often congested and bridges the gap between the newer waterfront development and the older, single-family homes along the cliff face.
The Russell Avenue location of the Avalon, 3 miles south of the George Washington Bridge, holds a particular symbolic weight. So much of the town's history seems to have been connected to the property.
It was once the site of the massive riverside plant of the Aluminum Company of America, known as Alcoa, one of Edgewater's most prominent industrial landmarks.
The factory, like the apartment complex that would replace it, was constructed on land home to a centuries-old burial ground, the Edgewater Cemetery, where tombstones mark the graves of Civil War veterans, Dutch settlers and even a Mohawk princess.
"When Alcoa bought the property, they moved the cemetery and whatever bodies they needed to move," said Hogan, a former councilwoman. "It was such an old cemetery."
For half a century, many of the borough's residents worked at the plant, turning out aluminum products from rolled foil to aircraft parts on the bustling waterfront.
"When Alcoa was running, how the factory ran," Hogan recalled. "They would bring the heavy metals to the top floor and would work them as they went down. The upper floors had to be well-situated because they were carrying the weight. They had what they called mushroom columns [to support the upper floors]."
But the heyday of the Northeast's heavy manufacturing was ending and Alcoa went dormant in the mid-1960s. What followed was a succession of developers who proposed extravagant plans to lift Edgewater from its blue-collar past. Their proposals would eventually transform the borough, which is four miles long and in many places, only two blocks wide.
The transformation took decades.
Oskar Brecher, president of Amland Properties Inc. of New York, won approval in 1984 to build 709 luxury apartments in a $100 million development called Renaissance Square. But the proposal was short-lived, succumbing to environmental concerns about polychlorinated biphenyls found on the property. The chemicals, known as PCBs, were used as fire retardants but have been shown to cause cancer.
Alcoa took responsibility for the cleanup in 1991 — following a five-year court case — and took back the property, reimbursing Brecher for the millions he had already spent on the cleanup.
For years afterward, the hulking, abandoned building sat unused, even as more than a dozen large residential and retail projects were built along the Hudson, transforming Edgewater's riv*er*bank into a magnet for young urbanites.
Series of problems
Demolition of the building began in 1997, paid for by Alcoa and monitored by environmental officials who were concerned that contaminated dust from the site might migrate to nearby properties.
But even that was fraught with problems.
A worker broke a leg when a piece of concrete fell on him. Another avoided injury when a skid-steer loader toppled from the 10th to the ninth floor. High winds toppled a scaffold onto power lines and caused 2,000 residents to lose power.
After the building eventually came down, the 9-acre property was sold to developer Fred Daibes, who proposed building three apartment buildings with 460 units.
AvalonBay Communities Inc. paid $13.5 million for the site in 1999 and planned a $75 million apartment complex there, called Avalon River Mews, when the first fire broke out, on the evening of Aug. 30, 2000. The building was under construction at the time.
The fire spread quickly and engulfed homes across the street on Undercliff Avenue. Nine homes were destroyed and several others were damaged, along with more than a dozen cars. Thirty-nine families were displaced.
Hogan remembers it well.
"I happened to be at the movie theater, now Trader Joe's, and they stopped the movie and said we have to get out, there's a fire in Edgewater," she said. "You could see the glow. I turned the corner and it was just blazing like last [Wednesday]. Unbelievable."
A cause was never pinpointed. But six residents won a $1 million jury award against the developer and five settled for undisclosed sums before the trial began. Michael Epstein, a Rochelle Park attorney who represented the plaintiffs, said none of his clients stayed in town. AvalonBay rebuilt the complex the next year.
"A tightknit community was forever altered, and people who had a long history in the town were forced out," Epstein said. "People didn't want to rebuild."
Costlier fire this time
Today, the town is largely transformed. The population had swelled to 8,800 in 2010 from 6,000 in the year of the first Avalon fire. The majority of these new residents live in rental buildings wedged between the cliffs of the Palisades and the Hudson River, with the long-term residents living in pockets of single-family houses along the windy cliffside roads.
The Avalon at Edgewater complex had been there long enough that people in town who had opposed it at first — saying it was too dense, too big and too close to the road — were getting used to it, said Bardinas. And this time even more residents were displaced, 500 whose apartments were destroyed and an additional 520 temporarily displaced from surrounding buildings.
"To have to go through this again with the same building, under the same circumstance, I don't even know how to explain it," Bardinas said. "I think it's shocking that this can happen again."
Staff Writer Peter Sampson contributed to this article. Email: email@example.com
© 2015 North Jersey Media Group
True then, true now
FDR had first-hand experience with Fascism, having watched it rise in Europe before World War II. He would have recognized Edgewater's government, completely owned by a few individuals, for what it is.
Mud waves, and mobsters, and contamination! Oh, my!
We continue to marvel, sadly, at how the leadership of the grifters who run Edgewater comes back to haunt all of us decades later. The following quote is from a November 1986 article about a project started in 1981, but could have been written yesterday.
Weissman was given oral approval to transfer the material to Veterans Field by the Democratic mayor and the Democratic-controlled council in return for grading and seeding the area and putting in a jogging track, said Councilman Harold Henwood. The park is the only public place in town with access to the water-front.
"That area has been laying dormant for years and years. Finally we're upgrading and making it look better and we're getting criticized for it," Henwood said.
DeRito claims the Democrats gave the developer "carte blanche" in an agreement made behind his back. "There was no formal vote or action taken at any meeting," he said.
The Democrats, however, say Weissman is saving the borough thousands of dollars by improving the park, and they say that soil tests show the fill is safe.
We attended a February 21, 2012 town meeting at the Community Center, which we only learned about on 07020.com, to see how much we saved. Since you're reading this, you've undoubtedly guessed the free fill was contaminated; the borough saved thousands at the time and taxpayers will now spend millions to remediate it. How did this happen? Read on.
Long-time Edgewater resident Donald Kopczynski collected newspaper articles throughout the 1980s and took hundreds of photographs. The articles and some photographs are reproduced below. They're damning.
In 1981, the developer of Shelter Bay was caught filling in the Hudson River in front of his project (as was Fred Daibes, 30 years later, but we digress) and ordered to stop. In 1986, our Democratic mayor and council, led by our good friend, Tom Tansey, graciously allowed the developer to excavate the fill and place it in Veterans Park.
Turns out, riparian soil is like a balloon; put a lot of weight on it and it will bulge out elsewhere. In this case, a huge mound of mud known as a mud wave was pushed up from the bottom of the Hudson River, taking the riverbank with it. Federal and state regulators then made the developer remove the polluted river mud, which he dutifully deposited next to the Ford plant.
Not long after that, the FBI arrested Tansey for taking $20,000 in bribes from mobsters to shepherd Shelter Bay through the borough approval process. A 1992 newspaper article reads like a sad epilogue.
Fast forward to the 2000s and the borough takes Green Acres money from the state, which mandated the Hudson Walkway be installed in the park. In 2011, environmental samples taken for the walkway determined that the soil was contaminated, leading the NJDEP to order the entire park tested. Testing disclosed pervasive soil contamination with coal tar, and some PCB hot spots. In response, the town closed the park indefinitely. Remediation and improvements are said to cost $8 to $10 million and will take a year, with the park reopening Spring 2013.
To our regret, but not surprise, the town has no interest in pursuing the polluters. The TERMS environmental expert who led the meeting, despite having no environmental engineering credentials, said it is not possible to tell where the contamination originated. We're sure that it is.
Donald Kopczynski's photos
More on the tax fiasco
ICBE Meeting – Tuesday, January 24, 2012
7:00PM – Edgewater Community Center
Please come to our January 24th meeting, where we will discuss the report issued by the NJ State Comptrollers Office regarding the loss of Edgewater tax revenue, in the amount of hundreds of thousands of dollars, due to the manipulation of tax assessments on certain waterfront property by Edgewater's tax assessor. The loss of this tax revenue will be passed onto you and me as a property tax increase.
Additionally, there will be a discussion of the contamination of Veteran's Park.
ICBE annual dues will be collected in the amount of $25.00 per person. (pretty good deal when you consider the property tax increase. ) In order to continue as Edgewater's only Watch Dog, we need the financial resources which allow us to continue our efforts to fight for all of Edgewater's residents by holding our elected officials accountable. We can't do that without the financial help of our members.
Comptroller criticizes Edgewater tax assessor
Mary Hogan's tip leads to second stinging report this year
State Comptroller report finds corporation was awarded large property tax reductions that were denied to individual owners of identical condominium units
Comptroller calls for property tax assessments to be "based on numbers, not favoritism"
An Office of the State Comptroller (OSC) investigative report found the tax assessor for the Borough of Edgewater inappropriately reduced the assessed value of more than a hundred condominiums owned by the same wealthy developer, operating without documentation to grant reductions that more than tripled the tax reductions provided to owners of identical units in the same complex.
The assessed values of the developer-owned units later were raised back to market value after the developer sold the units, the report found.
In total, the Edgewater tax assessor granted assessment reductions that handed the developer an estimated $472,000 in disproportionate and inappropriate tax savings, the report found.
OSC's investigation raises broader concerns that municipal tax assessors are able to significantly and unfairly alter tax assessments without detection, State Comptroller Matthew Boxer said.
"If you've ever suspected that not all property tax payers are treated equally, here's your evidence," Boxer said. "The Edgewater tax assessor, operating contrary to standards set by state law, handed improper tax reductions to a wealthy developer thatwere denied to other residents. In the end, the taxpayers of Edgewater and Bergen County were left to pick up the tab."
Edgewater's tax assessor, Arthur Carlson, was responsible for determining the market value of property in the borough, which is used to calculate property tax payments. In interviews with OSC investigators, Carlson said he granted the assessment reductions that were denied to other owners because the real estate market had weakened and because he believed the developer faced bankruptcy. The developer that received the reduction is a wholly owned subsidiary of a multi-billion-dollar corporation headquartered in Bahrain.
"Even if the corporation was in danger of going bankrupt, which it was not, the financial well-being of a property owner is not a legal basis for a tax assessment reduction," OSC Investigations Division Director John Hoffman said. "If an ordinary property owner tried to get their assessment reduced because they lost their job, it wouldn't happen. This corporation should not have been shown special treatment."
The tax assessment reductions were granted on two separate occasions.
First, in 2008, the tax assessor reached an agreement with the developer's attorney to lower the assessed value of 50 developer-owned condominium units by 20 percent, without any documentation to justify or memorialize the agreement. A private condominium owner from the same complex appealed her property assessment to the county tax board that same year but received no reduction even though her unit originally had been assessed at the same amount as the developer-owned unit.
In 2009, the developer's attorney renegotiated with the assessor for an even more generous reduction, the OSC report found. The 49 unsold developer-owned units that had received a 20 percent reduction in 2008 received an additional 45 percent reduction, bringing the total reduction from their initial assessed value to 56 percent. An additional 79 developer-owned units received tax assessment reductions ranging from 45 to 48 percent.
According to the tax assessor, the 2009 reductions were negotiated in a single telephone call to him from the developer's attorney. The assessor said he performed calculations in his head during the phone call to come up with the reduction, which he said was based on a 25 percent drop in the real estate market and his continued fears that the developer might go bankrupt.
Like the first round of reductions, the second round was granted by the assessor without documentation. According to the OSC report, the assessor simply lowered the assessment of the 128 properties and noted the new assessed value in the annual list of all municipal property values sent to the county tax board.
That same year, 31 private condominium owners at the same complex appealed their property assessment. Not one received an assessment reduction of even half the 45 percent reduction granted to the developer. One of the 31 owners owned a unit that had received a 20 percent reduction the year before when it was still developer-owned, yet his appeal yielded a reduction of only 15 percent.
In 2010, the assessed value of the 43 condominium units that had been sold by the developer was restored to market value through the use of "added assessments," which typically are used only following structural changes that add to a home's value. The 43 condominiums were the only properties sold in Edgewater that year to receive added assessments.
To illustrate the specific tax inequities at the condominium complex, the OSC report looked at three virtually identical units that all were valued at $426,600 in 2008 – one owned by the developer, one by a private owner who filed a tax appeal and one by a private owner who filed no appeal. By 2010, the assessed value of the developer-owned property was drastically reduced to $187,700 while the private owner who filed an appeal saw his property's assessed value reduced only to $362,600. The owner who did not file an appeal saw his assessed property value remain at $426,600. A year later, after a borough-wide property reassessment conducted with an outside vendor, all three properties again were valued the same, at $297,700.
The OSC report makes several recommendations for systemic changes to promote equity in property assessments. For example, it recommends tax assessors file an annual report listing all municipal tax assessments that have been adjusted by 20 percent or more in the past year along with a written justification for each adjustment. Another recommendation suggests the state Division of Taxation develop a methodology to identify properties owned by a single entity that appear under-assessed relative to other, similarly situated properties.
"Our property tax system should be based on numbers, not favoritism," Boxer said.
Boxer thanked the Division of Taxation for their assistance with the investigation.
(November 15, 2011 press release) State Comptroller report finds corporation was awarded large property tax reductions that were denied to individual owners of identical condominium units
Report - Inequitable Tax Assessments - Borough of Edgewater
Latest giveaways revealed
ICBE Meeting – Thursday, September 15, 2011
7:00PM – Edgewater Community Center
The Borough of Edgewater is deciding to lease public land for the exclusive use of members of Edgewater Colony, Inc. The taxpayers of the Borough have been paying the taxes on this land since before 1940. That's a lot of taxes. And now they want to let only residents of the Colony (and actually only certain residents of the Colony) be able to use it. There will be a public hearing (Scoping Hearing) on Tuesday, September 20, 2011 and we would like you know what is going on before that meeting so you can ask questions about it. There are 13 existing docks (13,007.3 sq. ft.) in question and they want to be able to build 12 more (12,516.6 sq. ft.). The map claims that 5 docks are "legal" which is impossible since all of the docks sit on land not owned by the Colony, Inc.
A second Comptroller's report is being issued that the Borough did not tax a developer at City Place (Edgewater Promenade 123) for over $22 million dollars in assessed valuation. That's a lot of tax money lost! We need to get those taxes back. No excuses.
Of course, there are the usual annoying issues (more raises, more equipment being purchased, etc.) but these are major ones we need to put pressure on YOUR ELECTED OFFICIALS to address.
Please come and find out the issues and see who is responsible.
We told you so!
We've complained about Phil Boggia's billing for years. Today the NJ State Comptroller announced he agrees with us.
State Comptroller finds series of contracting flaws in Borough of Edgewater lead to unnecessary expenses
Comptroller action also results in borough attorney's removal from state pension system
A report released today by the Office of the State Comptroller (OSC) reveals that poor contract management practices in the Borough of Edgewater led to a string of unnecessary expenses for taxpayers.
The review by OSC's Procurement Division found that on numerous occasions the Borough paid for legal services that were improperly billed. The Borough also approved a series of modifications to its contract with the Borough attorney that permitted the attorney to bill the Borough hourly for services that previously were included in his salary. The Borough's hourly expenses for legal services substantially increased following the modifications. In interviews with OSC, responsible Borough officials were unable to provide any justification for the series of changes.
Instances of mismanagement detailed in the OSC report extended to the Borough's procurement of other professional services as well. The report found the Borough did not use a proper "fair and open" process for contracts as required under the state's pay-to-play statute, did not consider cost as a factor in awarding professional service contracts, and failed to impose a cap to control the cost of vendor billings.
"From start to finish, our review of contracts in Edgewater revealed shortcomings that cost taxpayer dollars," State Comptroller Matthew Boxer said. "Unfortunately, we've seen these issues all too frequently throughout the state. In issuing this report we're providing guidance to all public entities that need to improve their contracting and fiscal management practices."
As part of its review, the OSC also determined that the Borough attorney for Edgewater was improperly receiving pension credits for his legal work for the Borough of Emerson. Following intervention by the OSC, Emerson officials confirmed that they had been wrong to include the attorney in the pension system and that his pension credits would be removed.
In reviewing the Borough of Edgewater's legal services contract, OSC found a series of language changes over a four-year period beginning in 2007, the first year of the new Borough attorney's tenure. The changes permitted additional hourly billings by the attorney. For example, one change removed "preparation of ordinary contracts and bid documents" from the list of services covered by the attorney's salary, allowing the attorney to bill hourly for such work. In interviews with OSC, responsible Borough officials stated they were unaware of the changes. The then-Council President, for example, stated that he did not know of the changes and that to his knowledge they had not been presented to the Council for review, even though the Council had indeed voted to approve the contracts.
While changes in the contract language were not the only cause, hourly fees paid by the Borough to the Borough attorney increased from $78,540 in 2006 to $181,740 in 2007. In that same period, the Borough also increased the Borough attorney's additional salary from $72,837 to $75,022.
The Borough also failed to detect numerous instances in which it was billed hourly fees for legal work that should have been covered by the salary payments. The Borough attorney reimbursed the Borough for the improper billings after the OSC brought the issue to his attention. The Borough administrator stated to OSC that he had never disapproved or reduced a bill submitted for payment by the Borough's professional service providers.
The report also criticized the Borough's vendor selection process and its failure to apply selection criteria, as set forth by pay-to-play legislation. The Borough was unable to provide to OSC any documents indicating an actual evaluation of competing vendors. When asked about such evaluations, the Borough administrator noted that in his view "politics" played a role in the contract awards.
"While the Borough apparently considered politics in awarding the contracts, they didn't consider cost," Boxer said. "If the goal is to get the best deal for taxpayers, it's difficult to fathom why cost would not even be a factor to consider."
Included in the report are 13 recommendations to government agencies for improving contracting and fiscal management practices.
OSC began its review after receiving a complaint on its hotline regarding the Borough's professional service contracts and allegations of overbilling. OSC's toll-free hotline number is 866-547-1121.
(June 8, 2011 press release) State Comptroller finds series of contracting flaws in Borough of Edgewater lead to unnecessary expenses
Procurement Report - Borough of Edgewater - Professional Services Contracts
ICBE helps thwart council's latest giveaway
The NJDEP just denied the Edgewater council's attempt to take six acres of land away from the people and give it to the Colony. Read more in the attached. (Acrobat Reader required)
Our letter to the DEP
DEP's response to the borough
The Independent Coalition for a Better Edgewater
Edgewater's only Watchdog
Edgewater's Prime Community Service Organization
We are a large group of Edgewater residents -- Democrats, Republicans, Independents and undeclareds, who have come together because of our love of Edgewater.
As Edgewater's only watchdog organization, we work to ensure that Edgewater continues to remain a community of neighborhoods, where people can live and raise their families for generations to come. We care about open space and open government, traffic and transit, planning and preservation. It is our goal to end the cynical practice of "pay to play" politics in Edgewater, to make our municipal government easily accessible and open to public participation, and to oppose any development that has a detrimental effect on our quality of life. We are for dog runs and green spaces, back yards with trees in them, the cleaning up of polluted sites, more public access to the Hudson River, and environmental oversight for our town.
As Edgewater's prime community service organization, we hold monthly meetings with special guests and speakers, and we initiate and sponsor community-wide events.
Since 1999, we have been pleased to support four Independent members of the Edgewater Council, who have spoken out about governmental transparency and ethics, our local environmental issues, and community coherence. They have made a difference.
We are a grass roots organization and are not beholden to any political party. We do not accept contributions from developers or professionals who do business with the town. The ICBE meets the 4th Tuesday of every month at 7:30 in the Community Center. If you would be interested in joining us, come to a meeting or give us a call (201.313.9977).
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© 2015 Independent Coalition for a Better Edgewater