Paterson: Historic Parcel's Future Is Uncertain

The Record
By:  Robert Ratish, Staff
October 5, 2001

PATERSON -- An overgrown tract of land at Mill and Van Houten streets has inspired debate for years between those who hoped to develop it and those who would preserve it.

Now that the city stands ready to break its contract with the real estate developer who proposed building on the site, the future of the city-owned Allied Textile Printing tract is again uncertain.

At a meeting Sept. 27, the council voted, 8-1, to end its agreement with Regan Development Corp. of Yonkers, N.Y., and pay $550,000 to get out of its contract with the company.

The city entered into a contract with Regan years ago to build $23 million in housing and commercial real estate on the Passaic River site near the Great Falls. The company did not return calls seeking comment.

Council President Marilee Jackson said the decision was mutual. The city wanted to explore different uses for the land and the company ran into problems developing the site, she said.

Councilman Aslon Goow voted against the resolution, saying he believed the city may have been able to end the contract without making any payments to Regan.

When city officials decide how they plan to proceed, the site will have to be cleaned up.

"The site has a lot of environmental problems that need to be addressed," said Anna-Lisa Dopirak, the city's community development director, noting that underground storage tanks and asbestos must be removed.

Its historical value is also at issue. Dopirak said that an archaeological survey is necessary.

With its burned-out brick mill buildings, the seven acres are at the heart of the city's industrial past, where Samuel Colt set up shop in the early 19th century and began manufacturing his revolver.

But some say the real value of the land, listed in state and federal historic registries, is unknown.

"At the center of the site you have the ruins and archaeological remains of some of the earliest industrial mills in America," said Dan Saunders of the state Historic Preservation Office.

"Underneath some of it are going to be the remains of mills we don't know about. Getting the archaeology done and understanding what we have left of the site is really the first step," he said.

Much of the debate had centered around whether the city should restore the buildings or rehabilitate them for a new use. Stan Lacz of the Great Falls Preservation and Development Corp. advocates restoring them.

"I would like to see some of the buildings brought back to where they were. There are a lot of reasons why it should be preserved," he said.

Past proposals have focused on using the land for housing and retail space, or for historic theme parks designed to highlight the city's industrial past while attracting visitors.

But the future of the area may rest with whichever consultant the city chooses to study the site. Members of the council and the administration have said they want to commission studies to determine the best use.

Mayor Marty Barnes is seeking firms to study the Passaic River waterfront, according to his spokesman, Bob Grant. Grant declined to say whom Barnes has been speaking with or what type of development he has in mind.

"We want the best possible uses on that site. It's lain foul for years, and the time is long past to do something with it," he said.

Grant said the administration would have liked to see Regan build on the site, but political wrangling by the council led the developer to back out.

The mayor and the council have been arguing over efforts by the governing body to provide its input after Regan had already been hired.

"You've got an obstructionist attitude on the part of people who opposed it. After six years and $550,000 we're left with worse conditions than when we started," he said.

Fires have damaged what is left of the mills, which have become havens for the homeless and prostitutes, Grant said. He disputed the idea that the land holds any historical value.

"It's a blight. Historical value comes when you've got something left to save," he said.

The administration plans to search for a consultant who would assess the city's waterfront and recommend the best way to develop it. Grant said the administration hopes to have a contract by March.

Part of the money would come from a $280,000 federal grant to study the waterfront from the Economic Development Administration.

But Jackson, the council president, said she was hopeful that the mayor would sign a $30,000 contract with the Washington-based Waterfront Center. The council passed a resolution in 1998 seeking to hire the firm.

"I would think we waited long enough. It's not a difficult decision and the money is there," Jackson said. Money for the contract has been held over from previous years' budgets.

Jackson would not specify what kind of development she would like to see, saying she would wait to see the consultants' suggestions.

"The major part of the study will be to assess the riverfront and see what's there and what can go there," she said. "I would like to develop the entire riverfront, but a lot of environmental work would need to be done."

Councilman Thomas Rooney said that there is broad support for developing the waterfront. "People want this to happen. People want to see something really good happen in Paterson."

Rooney has supported the idea of turning it into a theme park that would focus on when the area was home to Leni-Lenape Indians.

A historical park along the riverfront would go a long way toward changing the city's image, Rooney said. "We need good publicity for Paterson and this would generate it."