The low-income apartment complex in Lackawanna appeared doomed from the start, but on Monday night lawmakers green-lighted a $8.5 million project they hoped would jump-start development on a barren stretch of Ridge Road.
In a 3-2 vote and after a lengthy executive session, City Council members approved the 32-apartment project at 264 Ridge, the former site of Friendship House, that would be owned by a tenacious nonprofit organization called Community Services for the Developmentally Disabled.
The two council members opposing the project were First Ward Councilman Abdulsalam K. Noman and Second Ward Councilwoman Annette Iafallo.
Voting for the development were Council President Keith Lewis, Fourth Ward Councilman Kevin R. Surdyke and Third Ward Councilman Joseph L. Jerge.
"This is the worst I ever felt leaving a council meeting," said Jerge, who opposed any nonprofit development. "But I think the possibility of a long drawn-out court battle could financially devastate the city, lead to a higher tax burden and lay-offs."
The project is the subject of a lawsuit in State Supreme Court, where Community Services for the Developmentally Disabled tried to force the city to approve the transfer of the 2.5-acre parcel.
The matter before Supreme Court Justice Tracey A. Bannister was set to reconvene Thursday.
"There are too many inconsistencies," maintained Lewis, before lawmakers huddled with lawyers in executive session to discuss the project. "The price of the property, the location, the zoning. Did it go before the Planning Board?"
Mindy Cervoni, chief executive officer of Community Services for the Developmentally Disabled, was a vocal advocate for the project – in City Council chambers as well as in court.
"We believe that this project will revitalize the community," she told city council members during the public comment portion of the meeting. "A huge community room, a gorgeous playground. This is a complex for families. Who doesn't want to put an Aldi's next to a building like this?"
Rev. Mark E. Blue of Lackawanna's Second Baptist Church also spoke in favor of the project at the meeting.
"It would be a great thing for the First Ward," he said. "It would increase the population. If we have more people, we may get the bus service we need. There is a lot of misinformation out there. It is not low-income housing. It's affordable housing."
Cervoni defined annual income parameters for tenants as "at least $14,000 and not more than $30,000."
Sweetening the purchase agreement for Lackawanna was the developer's offer to double the sale price for the parcel from $50,000 to $100,000, City Clerk Jeffrey P. DePasquale said after the vote.
Despite the last-minute price hike, it's been a rocky road for project boosters.
City Council members were asked to approve the apartment complex during three sessions in December. During the first session, the measure was tabled for review. At the time, members questioned the nature of the project saying they had been misled. They also objected to site preparation being done before an official land transfer.
On Dec. 19, the council voted 4-1 to direct Mayor Geoffrey M. Szymanski to approve the land transfer. But on Monday Lewis admitted that in December they didn't have all the information necessary to make an informed decision.
And at a special session later that month, council members approved the land transfer, apparently clearing the way for the project. But that vote was later determined to be invalid.
Complicating the debate was an offer by the city to move the project's location to 90 Dona St., where the former New Lincoln Elementary School is scheduled for demolition.
Cervoni said changing the location is out of the question.
"We are in a bad situation," Cervoni said. "We agreed to everything the council asked for. We received authorization for mobilization and began construction. We had building permits."