Petitioners Call for Halt to LumberYard, but Is It Too Late?
Mayor James Maley says the group is entitled to its views, but that legally they could never reach a ballot initiative.
At present, the LumberYard redevelopment is not exactly what it was supposed to have been: a tightly budgeted investment that would invigorate downtown Collingswood with luxury condominiums and an infusion of the tax revenues that such high-end projects deliver.
In its current incarnation, the last phase of the project is slated to be completed as a multi-unit, five-story apartment complex with some retail spaces on the bottom floors.
And for one group of Collingswood residents, that’s one change too many. They’re hoping that with enough signatures, the borough will change course on the project. They’re hoping that after five years, they can take their case public. They’ve only got a handful of days to go.
‘You’ve got to set good intentions aside’
Joseph Dinella is a sprinkler fitter by trade, but in the public forums and town hall meetings around Collingswood, his second occupation might as well be professional political opponent.
Dinella is known as the most consistent voice of opposition, not only to the LumberYard project in specific, but to the administration of Mayor James Maley in general. He speaks in loaded language about the project as “Maley’s folly,” and accuses the mayor of running Collingswood “like his own little fiefdom.”
Dinella is a Collingswood lifer. He owns the house he grew up in; he holds it as a point of pride that he has known the same neighbors all his life. He believes the borough “was a good place to live 20 years ago [when] it was more moderately priced,” and that people who remember it then “aren’t as happy as they used to be.”
Dinella disagrees with the PILOT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) programs that were granted to redevelopers of the Heights of Collingswood (or Parkview) apartments, Pewter Village (or Eldridge Gardens) apartments, and he disagrees with the tool being used to fund the completion of the LumberYard.
“Why are we going to build, in a down real estate market, something we didn’t want in the first place?” Dinella says. “In this climate we need the money.”
Together with a handful of other Collingswood residents—John Staley, Charles Ferrara, Nathalie Marquet, and Robert Gittler—Dinella is leading a citizen petition to repeal the borough ordinances approving the five-story apartment project that would occupy the LumberYard site and awarding a 25-year PILOT program for the Ingerman Group to complete the job.
“The first way to get out of trouble when you’re in a hole is to stop digging,” Dinella says. “Because you have a fiduciary obligation to 14,000 people, prudence demands that you step back and get other ideas. You’ve got to set good intentions aside and deal with the hand you’ve been dealt.
“I really believe the redevelopment thing has run its course,” he says. “They need to go back to the drawing board, and the only way to do that is make them repeal these ordinances.”
Independent market analysis
Gittler, a transplanted Philadelphian who came to Collingswood for the small-town/hometown feel, and who works in economic development, has a different skin in the game.
“I’m not a person who opposed the LumberYard in principle,” he says. “I don’t hate the mayor personally, I don’t think everything he tries to do is bad. But the second phase [of the project] started well after the real estate collapse was apparent. That’s where a lot of the problem started.”
Gittler, who says he’s worked in commercial real estate, called the length of the approved Ingerman PILOT “absurd.” He calculates that the total foregone revenue under the plan is $12 million, and frets openly about the market for the type of housing it will provide.
“I would say if 25 years is needed to make a project fly then there’s something economically infeasible about the whole thing,” Gittler says. “There’s no independent market analysis that shows what kind of demand there is for these units.”
Gittler says that the philosophical notion that the LumberYard can be a model in contemporary community design doesn’t account for the leeway that Maley is allowing if things go awry.
“I’ve always been a New Urbanist advocate, but citing New Urbanist latitudes does not come into this project,” he says. “He’s leaving the door open for too many things.”
‘The horse has left the barn’
Maley, for his part, is past the point of weariness almost at the mention of Dinella’s name. The repartee that the two share at nearly every borough commissioners meeting is almost as rote as the Pledge of Allegiance that opens it.
In the matter of the LumberYard, as in the matter of other projects over which the two have publicly sparred, Maley says, he is unsurprised by Dinella’s opposition.
“The fact that Joe Dinella is leading a petition drive, I don’t think I need to explain motives,” Maley says. “I don’t know them, but Joe’s been against everything we’ve ever done, ever.
“If he had his way, Peter Lumber would be empty,” Maley says. “The Zane School would still be boarded up. Bobby Chez would be a rundown gas station. I don’t know what would happen at the Parkview, the Heights.
"He’s been lobbing bombs for years and has yet to have any kind of constructive view of what should be done.”
Moreover, Maley doesn’t even believe the petition challenge has any legal standing. He says the Planning Board recommendations adopted by the borough commissioners for the Ingerman PILOT and the completion of the five-story, mixed-use apartment building are administrative processes that are not subject to appeal by referendum.
“People can circulate a petition to let us know their thoughts,” Maley says. “We’re happy to accept what anybody has to say and listen to it. But it’s not like it’s in consideration; it’s been approved. The horse has left the barn.”
The revenues generated by the PILOT project essentially cut out the county portion of the taxes on the building, Maley says, providing the financial incentive for what is essentially a $15 million investment.
Although the school district will not immediately see a return on that money—PILOT arrangements require a separate agreement to be carved out for that—he says, some of the revenue generated after the first four to six years of the project will be shared with the schools.
“Do I think it could be three to six years that we’re paying this down before we see a real economic benefit? Yeah, it could take that long,” Maley says. “But it won’t be hurting. Finishing the Ingerman phase of this does nothing but increase revenue to the borough. There’s no other expense. It increases our revenues.”
“It’s been very difficult getting through these last four years, but we’ve still been building, and we’re going to finish that project.”