From the New York Times:
A New Jersey judge effectively killed an ambitious downtown redevelopment project in Newark yesterday, ruling that the city’s decision to condemn 14 acres of property on behalf of a private developer was ill-conceived and wrong. The project, the Mulberry Street Redevelopment Project, a proposed collection of 2,000 market-rate apartments and stores in the shadow of the city’s new hockey arena, would have been the largest development initiative here in decades.
In her decision, Judge Marie P. Simonelli of Superior Court said the administration of Mayor Sharpe James misused the state’s rules on condemnation when it declared 62 parcels “an area in need of redevelopment.” She said the row houses, mechanics’ shops and parking lots, while somewhat tattered, were not “blighted” and suggested that the decision to condemn the property was politically motivated.
In her decision, Judge Simonelli mentioned the close links between the developers and the James administration, adding that large contributions had been made to the former mayor and the Municipal Council, whose approval was needed for the area’s condemnation.
The decision comes after a landmark State Supreme Court ruling last month that restricted the ability of towns and cities to use eminent domain as a way to seize property they deem could be put to better use. “It clearly shows that the teaching of the Supreme Court is having an effect,” said Ronald Chen, the New Jersey public advocate. “If they want to declare land blighted, municipalities are just going to have to work a little bit harder to make their case.”
In her decision, Judge Simonelli cited documents from 2002 in which the developers essentially dictated the terms and scope of the project, including tax incentives. She observed that there was evidence that the project was “a done deal, a fait accompli, before the required statutory redevelopment process began.”
John H. Buonocore, a lawyer for the residents and business owners facing eviction, said he was pleased with the judge’s decision, which contradicted the city’s contention that the neighborhood was beyond repair. “The court, to the contrary, found that the Mulberry Street area is structurally sound, fully occupied, tax generating and well-maintained,” he said. “We’re delighted that the court saw through this prearranged land grab on behalf of politically favored developers.”