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Redevelopment plan worries Mount Holly Gardens residents

This street. This is where Nancy Lopez lives. From her yard facing South Martin Avenue, where she once watched children playing basketball and jumping rope, she sees rows of boarded-up homes in all directions.

Karen Cortez, 28, and her mother, Nancy Lopez, 53, sit on the front porch of their house in Mount Holly with their puppy, Scooby. (Neal Santos/Inquirer)
Karen Cortez, 28, and her mother, Nancy Lopez, 53, sit on the front porch of their house in Mount Holly with their puppy, Scooby. (Neal Santos/Inquirer)Read more

This street.

This is where Nancy Lopez lives.

From her yard facing South Martin Avenue, where she once watched children playing basketball and jumping rope, she sees rows of boarded-up homes in all directions.

The township of Mount Holly has acquired and shuttered two-thirds of Mount Holly Gardens neighborhood homes since 2001 as part of a sweeping redevelopment plan aimed at cleaning up what officials described as a hotbed of crime. Some homes have already been demolished.

It is a quiet neighborhood these days, as the crime fled with the people. Absentee landlords, not longtime homeowners like Lopez, were behind a number of the problems there. Many of the 100 or so families holding out - a significant proportion homeowners - are too elderly, too sick, or too poor to leave.

"It's hard to see your town deteriorate the way it has," said Lopez, 54.

A group of residents, Lopez among them, sued the township and firms involved in the redevelopment in U.S. District Court in Camden on May 27 after losing previous legal battles. The mostly African American and Hispanic residents claim, among other things, that officials have violated antidiscrimination and redevelopment laws.

The township is offering residents between $30,000 and $50,000, along with other assistance, to leave voluntarily, noting in a uniform appraisal report that property values were low because so many homes there were boarded-up. Property records show identical houses just outside the Gardens have sold for between $70,000 and $100,000 in the last two years.

The redevelopment, in which the township would use eminent domain as a final resort, has attracted the attention of the New Jersey Department of the Public Advocate, which met with the residents last year.

"The area has become blighted in part because of the actions of the municipality," said Public Advocate Ronald Chen, who is investigating the matter as part of broader efforts to reform the state's laws on redevelopment and eminent domain. "The fair market value is going to be a distressed, lowered figure, insufficient for families" to find a comparable replacement.

To Mount Holly officials, the redevelopment is the final measure after repeated failures to revive the Gardens, seen as a blighted bruise on the township of 3 square miles. Mount Holly so far has spent about $16 million on the project.

On May 27, the Township Council authorized the sale of the area for $9 million to Urban Keating Partners L.L.C., the firm charged with the development of more than 500 mostly market-rate homes and commercial buildings. A final site plan is expected to be approved this summer.

Jim Maley, an attorney for Mount Holly, said the first phase of the project will be in an area adjacent to the Gardens. Residents who cannot afford other homes and want to stay in the area could move into some of the state-mandated affordable housing units; there will be 50 overall. Others could move into the market-rate units using the township's compensation and making up the difference with the help of grants aimed at low-income homeowners, he said.

Olga Pomar, an attorney for about two dozen residents, and neighborhood activist Santos Cruz maintain the township has misled people there by aggressively going after residents to voluntarily give up their homes at unfair prices. Residents said they were unaware of the plans Maley described.

The Gardens neighborhood covers 30 acres in the northwest corner of Mount Holly, just blocks from the county courthouse. The heart of the Gardens forms the shape of a backward letter P: Two ends of horseshoe-shaped Martin Avenue intersect with Levis Drive. From Levis Drive, the spine, extend several smaller streets.

The neighborhood was built in the 1950s and originally housed Fort Dix military families. Its low, attached brick homes are now the province of the very poorest: One township survey found 47 percent of its households earn less than $20,000.

The trees that line the streets here have greenery so thick they touch one another to form a kind of canopy, giving the neighborhood an aura of closeness. The lived-in houses have flower gardens.

This is where Elucida Echevarria, 58, and her son, Luis Lopez, 32, live in limbo. Suffering from breast cancer and diabetes, Echevarria, a 14-year resident, wants to spend the rest of her life on Martin Avenue.

"I want to die here," Echevarria said, her voice breaking.

Lopez - no relation to Nancy Lopez - works the morning shift at Burger King for $7.55 an hour, then comes home to look after his mother, who speaks little English.

He keeps a video he took of the township demolishing the homes next door. Now it is only a bare field.

In 2000, the township master plan noted that using the state redevelopment law would lead to improvements. A separate report that year detailed a block-by-block analysis of alleged dilapidation, trash, obsolete layout and building-code violations.

The township began steadily acquiring properties as people's leases expired, and in 2002 voted to give the Gardens the formal "blight" designation necessary to make it a redevelopment area. The following year, residents sued, represented by South Jersey Legal Services, claiming discrimination and contesting the blight designation.

The residents lost the Superior Court case and attempts at appeal.

Transcripts of public meetings show the issue carved deep rifts. Officials tried to debunk rumors that homes would be immediately bulldozed and people would be pushed to the streets. Residents, sometimes to applause, said well-off officials didn't understand what it was to be poor.

The council approved a similar, amended plan in 2005, but residents protested that, too. Their lawyers called in experts to testify the plan would cause unnecessary harm to the community and unfairly target minorities.

Maley argues the neighborhood concentrates low-income housing and that dispersing it is more equitable. He said landlords overcharged many of the renters; dozens have been compensated and successfully relocated.

"I can't minimize it," he said. "It's a big impact on folks . . . but we're moving people, we hope, into a better condition."

Using redevelopment to turn high-crime areas into middle-income neighborhoods might lower crime statistics, according to Chen, "but how did you serve low-income, law-abiding residents?"

Longtime residents say crime was not as bad as officials claim - or at least, the criminals usually only caused trouble for other criminals.

Here in the Gardens, Bernice Cagle, 71, a 50-year resident, walks every day to care for a 94-year-old neighbor. There is also Angel Nieves, 65, who keeps a lonely vigil on his porch on a stretch of Levis Drive where the tree branches hang nearly to the ground, as if to hide what is behind them.

Lopez, an assistant teacher who earns $22,000, lives here with two of her children. Her fears have not gone unnoticed by her 9-year-old granddaughter, Isabelle Cortez, who visits frequently with her mother.

"You need to help our town!" Isabelle says one recent evening, after dialing 911 into her plastic toy phone.

To the divorcee, finding this home in the Gardens in 1987 for less than $40,000 was a blessing. Look at all of the open space for children to play, she thought, the nice neighbors. This was luxury compared to the apartment where she grew up in the South Bronx, where her mother checked the stairwells for drug pushers and homeless people before letting her in after school.

Now, at night, she looks down the once busy road and sees nothing, hears only the stillness. It makes her shiver.

The bad people are gone, but that didn't save it for people like Lopez.

This street.

This is where Lopez lives.

Not for much longer.