Burlington City trying to revive downtown

Posted: March 02, 2014

BURLINGTON CITY City officials are rolling up their sleeves to pass measures that could spark a revival in the half-shuttered downtown and generate interest in the vacant buildings that dot the city.

Last month, the City Council proposed the creation of an arts district on East Union Street, where a vacant fire hall is expected to be turned into a restaurant within a year.

Jim Kennedy, a redevelopment consultant hired by the city last year, said the designation of the arts district is "the very first step." He said it would allow Smith, an investment group based in Asbury Park, to convert the Endeavor Fire Company station into a restaurant without obtaining a variance. The designation also will pave the way for artists to move into the city and set up galleries.

Smith, which owns and operates several restaurants in Asbury Park and Jersey City, is negotiating with the city to purchase the fire hall and hopes to reopen it as Porta, a pizzeria that will also serve gourmet food.

City Administrator David Ballard said the city agreed last year to sell the building to Smith for about $175,000, but settlement was delayed when an inspection revealed that underground fuel tanks may have to be removed. "They are in due diligence," he said. "This will get done."

Jim Watt, one of the principals of Smith, could not be reached for comment.

Ballard said there were a handful of store buildings on Union and some may be suitable for "artists living upstairs or to having an arts studio on the first-floor level." He said some city funds would be available for rehabilitating those properties.

"We are trying to bring the town back through the arts," he said.

Statewide, there are 23 arts districts, according to Kennedy. He said the arts are often used as a catalyst to bring in businesses.

The waterfront is another part of the city that the council would like to improve. The council recently heard a presentation from Olin Studios, an architectural firm that designs cityscapes, on how a grassy area and promenade along the Delaware River could be redesigned. Olin is expected to submit a proposal this month on a study to improve the waterfront so that it can better host concerts, festivals, and other events, Ballard said.

Ballard said the council is also moving forward with a developer's plans to convert a three-story former PSE&G "gashouse" into a 64-unit apartment complex for low- and moderate-income families. The council recently gave the green light to Ingerman Development Co. to launch the project and to satisfy the city's affordable-housing obligations.

Ballard said the city acquired the property, vacant for 40 years, and sold it to Ingerman to get rid of an eyesore and spur development.

Ingerman, which builds affordable housing in the Mid-Atlantic region and is based in Cherry Hill, is expected to begin work this spring.

jhefler@phillynews.com856-779-3224 @JanHefler www.inquirer.com/burlcobuzz

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