Demolition plan OK’d Construction in Lafayette to start next year

F or more than 40 years, the seven-acre Whitlock Cordage industrial complex has lain discarded in the heart of Jersey City’s Lafayette area, a struggling area northwest of Liberty State Park that some consider one of the oldest black neighborhoods in the country.

Ravaged by years of neglect, its eight buildings betray none of the site’s previous glory as the place where the world’s strongest rope was made.

But a new lease on life is about to be given to the site. The Planning Board approved plans last week to demolish two non-salvageable structures on the site, effectively granting its new owners permission to proceed with plans to develop the old factory into a complex of 330 mixed-income townhouses.

Sixty percent of the units will be affordable housing. In order to be eligible for the affordable housing, residents must make 50 to 60 percent of Jersey City’s median income.

Representatives from the Maryland-based residential development firm Housing Trust of America came before the board last week with Boonton-based architect John Saracco to detail the demolition plan, which involves taking down buildings that have been made unsafe by fire damage.

In the architect’s presentation, Saracco said only two buildings will be demolished – the three-story Building D and a one-story accessory structure built at a later date in an 18-foot alleyway between Buildings D and E. The space made available by the removal of the buildings will be kept as open space, he added.

Although local preservationists worked aggressively in the past few months to ensure the City Council designated the complex as a historical site, some said they agreed with Saracco’s demolition plan because of the buildings’ compromised integrity.

"We think it’s fair to allow [HTA] to demolish Building D and other ancillary buildings," said John Gomez, speaking on behalf of the Jersey City Landmarks Conservancy. "We think it’s an incredible plan that will rival Dixon Mills [a complex at a former pencil factory] or maybe even surpass it."

Overcame obstacles

Whitlock Cordage, however, came perilously close to being obliterated entirely.

Its previous owner, a company named Lafayette Manning, Inc. headed by New York-based developer Harvey Shapiro, had racked up over $2 million in fire code violations and past-due property taxes, and a bankruptcy judge sitting in Newark authorized the demolition of the buildings and sale of the land to pay off its debts.

HTA then put in an offer to buy the site, and in April the court authorized its sale for $4.2 million.

But in the HTA’s attempts to get historic designation for the site – which will allow them to secure state and federal financing for the project – some city council members expressed reservations because they weren’t sure how the historic designation will affect the city’s ability to collect what Shapiro owes the city.

Corporation Counsel Alex Booth told the Jersey City Reporter in May that the city could put a lien on any money Shapiro made as a result of the project, and he said this week that the most likely time the city will collect is when the development is finished in 2005.

Meg Manley, senior vice president of development for HTA, said her company will indeed be paying Shapiro a finder’s fee once the development is completed. She said construction, which is expected to last 18 months, is slated to begin in the spring of 2004 after the company closes on the property in August.

The property’s bankruptcy trustee, Hackensack-based Robert Pimienta, is in charge of the demolition. It will begin once permits are pulled from the city’s building department, Manley said.

In addition, HTA has secured historic preservationist Bill Macrostie of the Washington, D.C.-based Heritage Consulting Group to oversee the demolition.

Manley said her company is trying to secure approximately $40 million dollars in state financing, $35 million of which will be in a construction loan from the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Financing Agency. Approximately $4.5 million to $6 million is expected from the state Department of Community Affairs.