July 31, 2008

For 10 years Fran and Raymond Mack have been waiting for a decision on the Riverfront Redevelopment Project, and for a developer to buy their Chestnut Street home.

Now, after a decade on hold while the township focused on other priorities and then worked unsuccessfully with a series of developers, the Macks are still waiting. They have been told their property is not included in the project proposed by Garden Homes, the builder with whom local officials are currently negotiating.

Bordered by a Union County park and a municipal parking lot, the gray clapboard house at the cul-de-sac of Chestnut Street has been in Fran Mack's family almost since it was built a century ago. She was born in the house, and her husband moved in when they were married in 1943.

The Macks lived there together for decades. Then, in 1998, the township declared just over three acres of land along High Street, South Avenue and Chestnut Street, including the Mack home, as an area in need of redevelopment. That designation was designed to make it easier to bring in one developer to reconstruct the entire area, which consists mostly of run-down commercial properties. But it also made it impossible for any of the individual owners to sell -- and impractical to invest in their properties -- because of the expectation that everything standing in the area would be demolished.

"We've been held captive in this house," Fran Mack, 81, said in an interview at her home Monday morning. "It's a terrible way to live. You don't know if the bulldozers are coming today or not."

Over the past 10 years, she said, she has watched as structural problems at the 13-room house have worsened. Holes in the roof have been patched, and the wooden fencing that surrounds the second-story balcony was replaced last year when it became so rotten it was in danger of falling down. But with the prospect of redevelopment looming, major work has been put off for years. By Mack's account, the house needs a new roof, a new bathroom, new gutters, replacement of shingles, and new floors in the kitchen and entryway.

"I've wanted a white picket fence for over 10 years," she said.

All that time, her expectation was that once a deal was struck, the home would be purchased by a builder as part of the redevelopment project. But when Mack met two months ago with Tony DiGiovanni, director of development for Garden Commercial Properties, she learned that the developer's plan did not require her land. Garden's proposal calls for a mixed-use complex north of Chestnut Street and nothing but parking to the south. An aerial drawing of the project shows an L-shaped parking area jutting around the Mack residence.

"I was sort of surprised that after 10 years they don't need it," Mack said.

DiGiovanni said he initially met with Mack while Garden Homes was beginning negotiations with other property owners in the redevelopment area. When they did not reach an agreement on the property, DiGiovanni said his company "decided it was not economical to include (the property) in the project."

A developer is under no legal obligation to use all of a redevelopment area in a project, and some areas are designed with the expectation that more than one company will play a role. But given that the Mack residence is the only property in the area that is not included in Garden's plan, and considering its out-of-the-way location, it appears unlikely that another developer will be eager to purchase it.

Mack has retained the services of local attorney Frank Capece, who has also represented the Holt family, the majority property owner in the redevelopment area. (The Holts had previously complained about the slow pace of progress on the project, noting that they were unable to sell their properties until the township reached a deal with a developer. Their properties are currently under contract for sale to Garden.)

In a July 25 letter to the township, Capece claims that the Macks "were placed in government-enforced limbo." He says they are seeking to have their property removed from the redevelopment area, and to be compensated for the 10 years spent waiting.

"By all accounts, an unreasonable delay caused solely by the vacillations of numerous township governments is the cause of the damage," Capece writes. "The desire of [the] Macks to sell the property was precluded by the ever-present hammer of a taking by the township. The positive market conditions to sell their home over the past decade no longer exist."

Mayor Bob Puhak said he had read the letter and it will factor into the Township Committee's future discussion about the Riverfront project. However, he added, "it seems that this is an issue between the redeveloper and the property owner." Township attorney Carl Woodward declined comment, saying he had not seen the letter and would need to speak to committee members before discussing the issue publicly.

In an interview, Capece said his letter is not meant as a criticism of the township or Garden Homes, but is instead an attempt to make sure the Macks are treated fairly.

Fairness, Fran Mack said, is all she wants after 10 years of waiting for a decision.

"I had trust in the town, I lived here all my life. I thought they would be fair. Of course, they waited until now to tell me they don't need my property."

Leslie Murray is a staff writer for the Chronicle. She can be reached at (732) 396-4205 or