Wednesday, October 05, 2005


Wednesday, October 5, 2005
Thoughtful redevelopment

Reprinted from the Courier-Post Newspaper.
Originally Published: Wednesday, October 5, 2005

By ERIK SCHWARTZ Courier-Post Staff

WINSLOW When the township committee convened a public meeting to ask residents of the deteriorating Lehigh Manor neighborhood if they wanted the government to bulldoze their homes and start again or leave them standing and renovate, the consensus was clear.
Nearly every hand in the room that August night, representing more than a third of Lehigh Manor's households, shot up in favor of renovation.
And with this simple effort to involve the public in the overhaul of a community, Winslow set out on a new path in the thorny field of redevelopment.
"I don't think I have read of one situation of residential redevelopment that hasn't been extremely painful for everyone involved," said Mayor Sue Ann Metzner. "We're trying to learn from that. That's why we held that hearing before any plan was conceptualized, to make sure that we were taking the desires of the community into consideration."
That's important to resident Craig Cream.
"I'm very cautious because anytime there is (redevelopment) in a low-income area or a minority area . . . we don't know exactly what the intents are," said Cream, 46, a truck driver and married father of two. "You know, they come, they say one thing, and they do something completely different."
About 77 percent of Lehigh Manor's residents are black, compared with 29 percent of Winslow overall, according to a Courier-Post analysis of the most recent census data.
Winslow's approach has impressed many in the Sicklerville subdivision, including Elizabeth F. Carruolo, president of the Lehigh Manor Homeowners' Association.
"They're interested in what the people feel," said Carruolo, 54. "I think it's very helpful."
Whether more public input will improve Lehigh Manor's future is unclear.
But township officials agree that using the 1992 state redevelopment law, which authorizes municipalities to seize private land with eminent domain and remake communities as they see fit, is the best hope for Lehigh Manor. Winslow declared it a redevelopment area in December 2003; the zone also includes 28 acres of adjacent vacant land.
The 248 homes of Lehigh Manor were built in the mid- to late-1970s and designed as owner-occupied housing, accompanied by a playground and a pool. The 25-acre development consists of 62 buildings known as "quads," containing four units each. The grounds and other amenities are maintained by the homeowners' association using monthly fees.
Lehigh Manor is among the the most affordable communities in the South Jersey suburbs. The median price for one of the 1,000-square-foot units last year was $53,000, according to a Courier-Post analysis of sales records.
Carruolo arrived on Lawrence Court in 1979 and, with her late husband, raised two daughters in Lehigh Manor.
"It was excellent. I wouldn't say that now," she said. "Everybody was very hands-on with their children . . . We used to have Easter egg hunts and pizza parties for the kids, and we used to have a pool and the kids swam."
But, Carruolo said, an influx of renters in the mid-1990s caused the community to decline, mainly because of absentee landlords who didn't maintain properties.
Homeowners' association revenues dropped, leading to the deferral of grounds maintenance and painting of the buildings, and to the pool's closure.
"We couldn't have it filled anymore because the kids had set a fire in the pool house and they started to throw stuff into the pool, and there were dead animals in it . . . Once we didn't have the funds to run it anymore, we had it filled in," Carruolo said.
The playground suffers, too. The association replaced its sliding board for $900 and within a year someone had punched a hole in it, rendering sliding impossible, Carruolo said.
Among the other conditions found in a redevelopment study completed last year, nearly half of the housing units are rentals "with little or no management oversight" and more than half of the units were delinquent in their fees.
The delinquencies have been reduced from about $336,000 in 2002 to $175,000, said Joyce DeValerio-Kraft, manager of the homeowners' association.
Cream, whose wife's family has owned their home on Lamont Court for nine years, sees things differently.
"For a senior citizen, they are adequate houses, but as a husband and wife with children, the houses are very small and need to be upgraded to four bedrooms or five bedrooms," he said. "We are truly grateful to have a house and shelter over our heads. However, if there is going to be some improvement to that community, I think they should take a serious look" at building anew.
Cream said he is organizing an effort among residents to present an alternative redevelopment concept. He thinks redevelopment should address social issues and include a community center that could provide after-school programs and counseling.
The mayor said she favored renovation but remained open to all ideas.
Redevelopment "is one of the most difficult, if not the most difficult decision because it actually affects very real people in the very homes they live in," Metzner said, "and that is really a serious responsibility that I don't think any of us takes lightly."
Reach Erik Schwartz at (856) 486-2904 or