Bank makes final pitch for lifting age restriction on Absecon Visions project

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ABSECON – Representatives of the bank that owns the failed Visions development say they are hopeful the Zoning Board will approve lifting the project’s age restriction at the Dec. 18 meeting.

“It’s the best for everybody,” said Jack Plackter, an attorney representing Amboy Bank, which took back the property from developer Vince Simonelli.

After months of hearings, the Zoning Board heard the bank’s final testimony Nov. 22. Plackter will need at least a 5-2 vote on the seven-member board to be successful in lifting the 55-and-older age restriction.

Lifting the restriction would allow Amboy Bank to market the property to developers, who could finish construction of the project off Pitney Road, which now resembles a ghost town.

“It’s an embarrassment on a major highway,” said Rodger Gottlieb, principal of RLG Associates, a spokesperson for Amboy Bank.

A completed development would help lower property taxes across the city and provide hundreds of potential customers for Route 30 and downtown Absecon businesses, they say.

“The schools are at under capacity,” he said, “so there would be no extra cost there because you wouldn’t have to build new schools. Also, I’m sure that downtown businesses would benefit from a nearby residential development.”

Finally, the project could help Absecon meet nearly half of its affordable housing requirements, Plackter said.
The Visions original approvals date back to 2004 or 2005 when Simonelli proposed an upscale senior housing development for homes costing above $300,000.

“In good faith, Simonelli built a 13,000-square-foot community center and completed all of the infrastructure improvements,” Plackter said. “He wanted to show he was committed to the project.”

Plackter said the senior housing boom was fueled by North Jersey residents who hoped to sell their $700,000 upstate homes and purchase South Jersey properties for around $250,000.

“They’d pay cash and live off the difference,” he said.

However, the real estate crash eliminated the senior housing market three years later, killing Simonelli’s marketing strategy. As a result, Simonelli couldn’t afford to maintain
the community center or pay back the loans he received to finance the project.

Only 17 units of the original 264 were sold, Plackter said. Another 25 units were never completed.

With the hope of somehow turning the project into a profitable development, Simonelli received a new approval to construct a greater number of smaller and less costly units. However, he was unable to make the project successful in the declining economy.

By the end of the decade, Amboy reached an agreement with Simonelli to take back the property, leaving the bank with about $20 million of debt and a barely started development.

Plackter said Amboy reached out to the state’s top residential development companies with favorable terms but received no interest in a senior housing project.

“Our experts say there is no senior housing market and it won’t come back for another 10 years,” he said.
Current local real estate sales figures posted at area senior communities prove the market is gone, Plackter said.

“Right now, owners of homes at the Gatherings at Bel Aire are selling them for about $80 a square foot,” Plackter said. “That’s less than it costs to build a new home. Builders aren’t going to build if they can’t make a fair profit.”

That leaves Amboy with an unfinished project and the city with millions of dollars of potential ratables undeveloped.

Plackter said the Visions location is currently approved for 369 two-bedroom units, which would appeal to empty nesters, professional couples and one-child families.

Some 60 of the units would be affordable housing units, Plackter said. The city is currently required to build 144 such units.

The city’s affordable housing plan calls for the creation of less expensive housing units in well-established neighborhoods because Absecon is essentially built out, Plackter said. Those areas will be located near Upland, New York and 10th avenues and along Pitney Road.

“There is a misconception that affordable housing units are Section 8,” Plackter said. “It’s not the case.”
The houses would be easily recognizable because they would be smaller and built on smaller lots than nearby homes.

“They’ll stick out,” Plackter said.

Conversely, the affordable housing units contained in the revised Visions project would look similar to neighboring structures, he said.

When everything is factored in, it makes sense to approve the project, Plackter said.

The Planning Board meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 18 in City Council Chambers, 500 Mill Road.


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