MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Maplewood is still working to bounce back from the six-alarm fire that tore through the Avalon Apartments construction site on Feb. 4, destroying approximately one-half to two-thirds of the site.
The fire, which took approximately four hours and 120 firefighters to extinguish, destroyed the work already done on phases 2 and 3 of the Avalon Bay redevelopment project, which will create 235 luxury apartments on the former PSE&G site located at Boyden and Springfield avenues. Fortunately, the fire did not reach the completed sections of the site.
In the aftermath, the township is working with Avalon Bay, the site’s owner and redeveloper, as well as other redevelopers in town, to ensure something similar does not happen again. Despite lingering concerns about fire safety, the township is confident Avalon Bay will be able to finish the project, as they intend.
“We’re disappointed by the fire, to say the least, and we have been talking with Avalon Bay; they do intend to rebuild,” Mayor Vic DeLuca said at the Feb. 21 Township Committee meeting. “They lost about half the project that was under construction. There’s still a significant portion that is up and is being dealt with because of water damage.”
Despite the township’s desire to see the project complete, it is taking its time to ensure the project is done right.
“We’re not issuing any building permits until we get a fire safety plan and we are satisfied,” DeLuca said.
According to the mayor, township officials had met with Avalon Bay officials the previous week and had set out certain requirements for continued construction. One such requirement is the hiring of construction fire guards; these men would be New York Fire Department-certified individuals who would be on site during working hours and immediately afterward to ensure there is no danger of fire. These guards, who would be posted one every 50,000 square feet, would not double as security guards — their sole job would be to look out for fire hazards.
Additionally, although the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office has not yet released information regarding the cause of the fire, DeLuca said Avalon Bay will be required to refrain from using propane heaters, just in case. Such heaters were used inside buildings that had been spackled in order to keep the work from cracking in the cold weather.
Moving forward, DeLuca said the township will require indirect heaters positioned outside the building with ducts running into the area. Additionally, the site will likely use kerosene or diesel heaters in the future, he said.
DeLuca had previously stated at the Feb. 7 committee meeting that the township has already spoken with the three other redevelopers in town to ensure they are not using propane heaters anymore either — again, just in case.
DeLuca added that Avalon Bay will have to ensure all fire safety systems and fire doors are installed and that all fire doors are kept closed, as these doors help prevent the spread of fire. Some of the fire doors in the newer section of the construction site had not been closed in order to allow easier passage for workers, according to DeLuca.
Last, DeLuca said Avalon Bay will be required to provide weekly updates to the township regarding fire safety issues.
“We will be working with Avalon Bay to make sure they adhere to these requirements,” DeLuca said Feb. 21.
Currently a temporary engineer — paid by Avalon Bay — is looking at the surrounding structures to ensure they are stable and undamaged.
“We’ve been told by Avalon that they are going to expedite the building with extra crews working, maybe, double shifts,” DeLuca said. “We hope to get it up and running by the end of the year.”
But this is not all good news to some residents who live, work and play near the construction site, which is across the street from the Maplewood Community Pool. Resident Gary Jones spoke at the meeting to remind the committee of the inconvenience and disturbance the construction had caused last summer in the area. Many residents in the area complained that a lot of dust was blowing around the neighborhood from the site and that the noise was disruptively loud.
Jones called the dust and noise “unbearable,” asking, “Is it possible to get them to, not restrict work but, come up with something as a barrier (from our area)?”
“The good news is that the site work is already done, so they won’t be moving dirt around; that was the problem last year,” DeLuca said, though he added that the township will “continue to monitor it.”