NORTH WILDWOOD - The City of North Wildwood agreed with the owner of Marina Bay Towers, settling close to 15 years’ worth of litigation, and taking a step toward improving the living conditions in the bayfront senior affordable housing project, city officials said.
The agreement will allow Marina Bay Towers owner Paul Cocoziello to build a 12-story apartment, hotel or condo tower next to the existing structure, where he can sell or rent all units at market rate. In exchange, Cocoziello will renovate the existing towers and maintain at least 105 senior citizen affordable housing units. The renovated building could have up to 165 units, the city said, with potential for 60 to be sold or rented at market rate.
The 12-story tower would be close to twice the height allowed in that part of town by zoning, an official said. However, the renovations must be made to the towers with existing residents before construction can begin, according to officials.
North Wildwood Mayor Patrick Rosenello said the city has paid an average of $200,000 per year in legal fees, navigating a “legal octopus with no end in sight,” while collecting little to no money in taxes from the property.
If everything is fully implemented, Rosenello said the city could make $600,000-800,000 annually in tax revenue from the land.
For years, Marina Bay Towers residents had complained about poor living conditions, made worse by Hurricane Sandy.
In protests outside the building, seniors held signs calling Cocoziello a “slum lord” and demanding renovations, saying seniors didn’t deserve to live the way they were.
Rosenello described Cocoziello as “extremely intelligent” and said during mediation, the developer from New York often seemed to have a better grasp of the situation than the six-to-10 lawyers present.
“We got to the point of joking about why he didn’t just go to law school and save himself all the legal expenses,” Rosenello said.
Currently, less than 40 of the towers’ affordable housing units are occupied, the city said. The building has 143 total units.
Attempts to contact Cocoziello, who has set up several different LLC’s to oversee the property, were not immediately returned.
The mayor said he isn’t concerned that Cocoziello will turn all of his attention to the new project and let the affordable housing slip into disrepair again, adding there are protections in the agreement to make sure he follows through in his intentions.
Rosenello also pointed to the market-rate units in the affordable housing buildings as an incentive for it to be kept up.
“I think he wants to build a nice project. For personal pride and financial reasons, it makes sense for him to build a nice project. We’re all hoping this reset provides the right environment and opportunity to do that,” Rosenello said.
The mayor said that when the original idea for a senior affordable housing project first came about, there was so much hope for its potential.
“So many older people in North Wildwood were so excited about it. They thought, wow, I can sell my house, move into that, and stay in town. My mom was jumping over the moon thinking that was going to be her retirement living,” Rosenello said.
However, residents started complaining right away – the building was never all it was supposed to be. Retail shops planned for the first floor never came to fruition, residents began complaining about construction-related issues and then came Hurricane Sandy.
Then, lawsuits began to fly. “I couldn’t even tell you all of the different lawsuits since 2006 and the different judges for years,” Rosenello said, adding some judges would contradict others’ rulings before it was eventually streamlined to one judge.
At that point, Rosenello said it became clear to everyone it would be advantageous to hammer out a deal, learning from the city’s prior mistakes.
“The original agreement that goes all the way back to the '90s was not well done. It was poorly written. It just left a lot to be desired, so in the new agreement, every contingency possible is thought through. I think everyone knows what is expected and what the recourse is if they do not do what is expected. It’s a much, much more thorough, detailed agreement and understanding,” said the mayor.
“It's not saying we won’t have problems moving forward, but I think we will be on much firmer, clearer footing for everybody.”
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