Mount Holly Gardens saga nears an end - and a beginning

Mayor Rich DiFolco (left) and township counsel George Saporano. New development "is going to redefine Mount Holly," DiFolco said.
Mayor Rich DiFolco (left) and township counsel George Saporano. New development "is going to redefine Mount Holly," DiFolco said. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 18, 2014

Many of the brick rowhouses that stand like defeated soldiers in the desolate Mount Holly Gardens will soon be knocked down, as dictated by a settlement negotiated several months ago in a nationally watched housing bias case.

The agreement, reached in November, paves the way for Keating Urban Partners, the Philadelphia master redeveloper, to move forward with plans to build about 300 market-rate townhouses and a small strip shopping center on the site and on an adjacent parcel where small woods and an elementary school once stood.

A decade has passed since the township declared the mostly African American and Hispanic neighborhood of 329 units blighted and then launched a push to get residents to move out. As a bitter wind blew through the neighborhood last week, schoolchildren hurried along a cracked road whose sidewalk was torn up years ago by town bulldozers.

Most of the remaining 60 units are still occupied, but plans are being made for the residents to relocate.

Weeks before the case was to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, seven homeowners agreed to accept buyouts totaling $691,000, and 20 consented to move into replacement units in a market-rate housing development planned for the 30-acre site. Several will be moved to temporary quarters on the fringe of the Gardens, a few blocks from the Burlington County courthouse, so their rowhouses can be razed and townhouses built.

The first four replacement units are expected to be finished by "late summer, maybe early fall," said George Saporano, the town's lawyer, who oversaw months of negotiations. The rest are scheduled to go up within four years.

The November settlement did not include the five landlords who were renting out 28 of the rowhouses.

Last week, the town settled with that group for $1.9 million and began helping tenants find new homes, Saporano said. "We have deals" with all of the landlords, he said, except for the owner of a vacant unit who owes about $150,000 to a bank. "That one will go to eminent domain."

Among the landlords is a Burlington County woman who owned a dozen units she bought in the 1980s as an investment. A retired Moorestown police lieutenant had four units. Several of the landlords were from out of state, including an investor in Florida and one in Arizona, Saporano said.

The town's redevelopment plans stalled when the homeowners who refused to move out filed lawsuits in state and federal court. They said the plans were discriminatory because they could not afford to stay when the new homes were built. The town had argued that its goal was to eliminate rampant crime and deteriorating conditions, not minorities.

When the town began acquiring properties more than 10 years ago, many of the absentee landlords who had contributed to the problems sold their units, and many of the problems dissipated, town officials have said. Those who remained were for the most part law-abiding, longtime residents of the Gardens, officials said.

Angel Vera, a Gardens resident for decades, said he was comfortable staying in his rowhouse, which he had upgraded. He is among the homeowners who will get a replacement home. He said he had not heard when he will need to leave his house so the land can be cleared. "Because of the rough winter and all the snow, that slowed everything down," he said.

Meanwhile, three-story apartment buildings containing a total of 228 units have been built next to the Gardens, according to Lew Kurlind, the lawyer for Fernmoor Properties, another Keating subcontractor. He said the first tenants should be able to move into the Mi-Place at West Rancocas luxury apartments, the first phase of the redevelopment, late next month.

Last week, workers were clearing a nearby parcel, less than a block from the Gardens, in anticipation of townhouses that are expected to start taking shape over the next two months. The three-bedroom units, which are being are being marketed in the low $200,000 range, are being built by Ryan Homes. A representative of that company said 19 market-rate townhouses had been pre-sold in an area that will be known as the Villages at Parkers Mill, off the Route 541 Bypass.

"This is going to redefine Mount Holly," Mayor Rich DiFolco said as he marveled at the renderings on display at Ryan Homes' sales trailer. The renderings show a bustling community of 50 townhouses that will be built during Phase I. A further 250 townhouses are planned for the Gardens site when that area is cleared.

Saporano said the settlement was critical to launching the redevelopment and tackling the $18 million debt the township incurred in acquisition, relocation, and demolition costs. Two million dollars went to legal fees to special counsel while the township was embroiled in contentious litigation.

Plans call for Keating to pay the township about $9 million for the land in installments as it is acquired, Saporano said. Without the settlement, he said, the town would still be struggling financially, and the development would not be this far along.

"I looked at it as if we get the case settled, we can tear down the front part of the Gardens and start building by 2014 to 2015 and not have to wait years," he said.

Saporano pointed to Saul Place, a cul de sac in the Gardens with a few abandoned units. It is where the first replacement houses are to be built, he hopes in the next few months, he said. As he spoke, a strong wind whipped up, tipping over an empty trash can outside one of the boarded-up rowhouses.


 


jhefler@phillynews.coml

856-779-3224 @JanHefler

www.inquirer.com/burlcobuzz

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