Friday, May 6, 2011

A Changed Mahwah

By Graig Mihok

On the evening of March 31st, 2011, the first steps were taken in the construction of a big shopping mall in Mahwah on the former Ford assembly plant site at the intersection of Routes 17 and 287. This occurred at the Township of Mahwah municipal building, where the Township Council voted on and passed three ordinances in front of an audience of over 400 concerned local residents. The first ordinance was for zoning purposes. The second pertained to the security that would be necessary for the site, while the third involved the formation of a fund that would eventuate from fees paid by the site's businesses.

The crowd concerned about the controversial ordinances filled the basement of the municipal building. When the floor was open to the public, everything from emotional rants to passionate, informative speeches were directed at council members and those who represented the developers. Residents voiced their concerns on issues like the creation of potential traffic for highway and town roads; environmental consequences related to the pollution of drinking water and flooding; the eventual change in the landscape of Mahwah and decrease in real estate value around the mall; and the eventual rise in crime in and around developed areas.

A motion was made for a non-binding referendum by the voters on the mall plan that was quickly denied when the council members split in a 3-3 vote. Council President John Roth turned it down saying the public did not know enough about it to vote. The council then allowed the developers to begin an informative presentation designed to gain credibility and win favor from attending residents.

Although they asked for only five to ten minutes, the developers put together a moderately long presentation covering many issues of concern to the residents in attendance. Attorney James Jaworski began the presentation by talking about the proposed 600,000 square feet of retail space, accompanied by another 150,000 square feet of space designated for a hotel, office, theater, and big box stores. This total of 750,000 square feet of space was reduced from an earlier plan where 900,000 square feet was the proposed total space.

The developers made it clear that they were unhappy with the comparisons their mall was getting, specifically in regards to the Paramus Park Mall. While Paramus is a popular shopping spot and social area, it is often associated with traffic congestion further south on Rt. 17 and therefore, some level of discomfort, and to many Mahwah residents serves as a place people would like to visit but not call home. The developers clearly were trying to distance themselves from any association with Paramus, and despite the fact that Paramus Park Mall is approximately 750,000 square feet of space, the same size as the developer's proposed mall plan, they went out of their way to make their message clear: that this was not going to be a recreation of the Paramus Park Mall in Mahwah.

Jaworski told the audience and council members that the developers would guarantee a little more than $4 million for road improvements for Mahwah Township to be made in the future due to the developer's obligation. He also mentioned that the developers had already spent $4 million to acquire forty acres along the Ramapo River so that they would be able to dedicate twenty acres to the municipality to leave it in its natural state.

Then they turned to one of issues that has received the most attention, traffic. A memorandum written by Mahwah Chief of Police James Batelli was read, indicating that he had approved of all of the developers traffic plans. Jaworski quoted Batelli, “With respect to traffic issues, the traffic pattern with the complex allows for an acceptable flow of traffic in and around the various parking lots.” He continued, “With respect to traffic on Route 17, I believe there is ample roadway to queue cars waiting to park.”

At the podium, Joseph Burgess addressed the developer's desire to preserve the environmentally sensitive features of the site as outlined in the town's master plan. Burgess claimed that this was done in terms of the preservation of the Ramapo River corridor behind the site.

The developer's presentation was being received fairly by most of the audience, when Jaworski hit a sour note by ridiculing a petition that local residents has made in protest of the proposed mall. He questioned the credibility and potency of the petition by claiming that it only made 483 signatures out of its goal of 5000, and that there were over a hundred names not displayed. He also caught the ire of Councilwoman Lisa DiGuilio by trying to discredit the petition by mentioning some of the locales of those who signed the petition, like Ohio, California, The Netherlands, Spain, and Croatia.

Floor opens to the public

Nearly an hour into the meeting the floor was opened up to the public where a line formed that extended almost to the far rear basement wall. The main points of interest that were discussed over the next three and a half hours were traffic and flooding; meanwhile, others chimed in about the likely possibility of the decrease in the value of homes and real estate, the noise that would be generated by big box stores, concern for success of local businesses, and the potential to increase danger on highways and town roads.

Jeff Genser, a Suffern native, pleaded to the council about flood issues. He stated, “You're proposing to eliminate 100 acres of flood plain, and turn it from a pervious area to an impervious. And that is unacceptable, in my opinion.” He went on to propose his own idea for what could be built on the flood plain next to the Ramapo River, a Vertical Farm. “A building could be constructed that could supply food to half of Bergen County...use all the water it comes into [from the river], over and over again, and have no pollution and environmental impact.” The idea seemed to stir no interest by the council.

Many individuals mentioned how the mall would impact the surrounding community. Some were frustrated over the idea of Stag Hill residents being stranded in an emergency situation, being that the only access road to their community would become a constant point of traffic and congestion. Retired resident Ron Whalberg asked the council, “At what point do we stop endangering future generations?”

The council votes pro-mall

Almost four hours into the meeting, the council motioned to vote on the proposed ordinances. The first vote passed 4 to 2, while hundreds of boos and emotional outcries of disgust were directed towards the ekected officials. Members of the crowd screamed lines like “you're ruining our lives” and “we don't count.” The meeting deteriorated into a hive noise that lasted around fifteen minutes despite council members trying to bring about order.

Eventually, motions were called and the vote on the remaining two ordinances passed as the room started to thin out and disgruntled residents made their way home. Many people were already talking about the mall as if it already had been built and there was nothing that could be done. All the implications of potential consequences raised by the concerned residents would fall on deaf ears that night. The future of Mahwah is still uncertain as the ordinances that were passed did not pertain to the construction of any building; the voting on the next phase of development has not been given any time table yet.

   Concept art for a Vertical Farm from:

About the Author

Graig Mihok is a Communication Arts major with a concentration in writing. He aspires to be a creative writer of short stories, poems, and songs. His academic experience includes journalism, film, fiction, and music.

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