A Wake-up Call: Paterson Slaying Spurs Move at Run-down Site

The Herald News
By:  Eileen Markey, Staff
August 16, 2002

PATERSON - The murder of a homeless woman in the Allied Textile Printing site last month sparked a flurry of activity around the long-neglected location in the Great Falls Historic District.

On July 24, Melissa Pettit, 21, was beaten to death, allegedly by her boyfriend, in a squatters camp beside the Passaic River.

Her death injected a new level of urgency into decades-old plans for the protection and re-use of the historic industrial site.

After Pettit's murder, Mayor Jose "Joey" Torres declared an emergency, which permits the city to clear the area of debris and weeds.

The city erected a fence and this week sent analysts from a firm that assesses historical significance into the sprawling industrial ruins to decide whether any buildings can be taken down.

Torres wants to discourage homeless people from living in the area and using vacant buildings as homes.

At the same time, ongoing plans for the area's future are coming to a head.

People are beginning to talk about a bike path, a study of how to use the waterfront and real plans for a useable park and historic exhibit.

"I think it's unfortunate that we had another murder, but in a way it's getting everyone focused on the site and the needs of the site," said Michael Wing, executive director of the city's Historic Preservation Commission.

After several years of negotiating, all the city, state and federal agencies with jurisdiction over the ATP site last week signed a programmatic agreement, which lays down ground rules for use of the area, said Lisa McCann, a project manager with the Urban History Initiative of the National Parks Service.

The site has national historic landmark status.

The area is important because it was at the Great Falls in 1789 that Alexander Hamilton conceived the idea of founding a city to serve as a an industrial center for the new United States.

The first mills in that endeavor were on the ATP site.

The Colt Gun Mill, once a major factory, stands amid weeds and garbage on the site, overlooking the river that once powered its turbines.

Eight of 15 other parties interested in the future of the ATP site, such as Friends of the Great Falls executive director David Soo, must sign off on the agreement or make suggestions on how to amend it in the next two weeks.

Once they approve the document, it will be sent to the President's Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. If that body approves it, historians and archeologists can begin to study the seven-acre site, McCann said.

"I think there's a new spirit. There's certainly a hustle in the process," said Flavia Alaya, a local preservationist who signed the agreement. "If the (request for the proposal) goes out, there's no reason we can't be talking about this in terms of months, not years," she said, referring to when the city would hire the cultural resources and archeological team.

Torres said he is anxious to secure the site and get plans for its future use moving.

"My main concern right now is to clear the site," he said Thursday. "There's a continuation between the emergency and moving on. Yes, there's an emergency, but all these other factors have to be done anyway."

The first step in turning ATP from a crime scene into a recreation destination may be a bike and pedestrian path along the Passaic River, near where Pettit died, Torres said.

Green Acres, a state open space preservation agency, has agreed to $36,700 in matching funds to make the pathway a reality.

And the City Council may commission a study on how best to use the waterfront as soon as next month. It could be the first step in building a park in which people could admire the river and learn about the city's industrial past.

The council's community development committee is reviewing a plan to hire the Waterfront Center, a Washington, D.C., firm, to do the study, Councilman Thomas Rooney said. A vote on whether to hire the firm could happen as soon as September, he said.

"The trick of anything is to get momentum going in the right direction, and that's what we have now," Rooney said.

"The important point is that we have a mayor who wants some action and that there's forward progress."