Oakland Considers Historic Downtown Revitalization

In a marathon meeting of the Oakland Borough Council on July 19, 2023, a fierce debate on downtown redevelopment plans, a multi-million dollar bridge project, and road infrastructure issues took center stage.

Mayor Schwager announced the introduction of a capital ordinance to fund the Page-its-way Bridge. The project, which includes a $3 million grant from the state Department of Transportation and a $1.64 million grant through the State Assembly, will bid in August. Efforts are ongoing to secure an additional $1 million from Congressman Pasquale and future funds from the DOT in the next fiscal year. In response to resident queries, Mayor Schwager reassured the public that a combination of grants and bond money would adequately fund the contract, though additional grants could help reduce the budget impact.

Alongside the bridge project, Mayor Schwager acknowledged the urgent need for road infrastructure improvements. She cited recent disturbances to road conditions due to PSE&G, sewer line works, and the installation of handicapped ramps by the county. A $1.035 million project for road repaving, the Oakland Road Program, is scheduled to begin in August, coinciding with the repaving of Route 202 and the work at Bush Plaza Park.

Resident Kevin Heffmen, who runs the Historical Open Facebook page, presented a detailed plan for restoring the architectural roots of downtown Oakland at a recent borough council meeting. Heffmen proposed the idea of reviving late Victorian architecture, consisting of an eclectic mix of stylistic elements, to make the town a destination for visitors and enhance the pride and identity of residents.

The proposal also outlined potential alternatives to his plan, including leaving the downtown as it is, allowing developers to construct at will, or developing a comprehensive plan for the downtown area. Heffmen argued that a planned restoration would be beneficial, increasing tax revenue, supporting affordable housing, and potentially enhancing residential real estate values.

Heffmen’s presentation was interrupted by a procedural dispute about his allotted time. Despite the passionate plea and significant community support, no council member motioned to extend his presentation time. As a result, the presentation was postponed.

Amid the tension, the council made significant decisions, such as the appointment of a part-time fire inspector and awarding contracts for refurbishing recreation complex fields and flood insurance services. The council also introduced a municipal referendum for an annual levy via the Open Space Trust Fund and discussed creating a new law enforcement officer (LEO) class.

The council scrutinized several legislative issues, including the American Broadband Deployment Act and Assembly Bill 84376, which could limit local authority in the deployment of wireless equipment. The future of the Streetscape initiative, aimed at beautifying Oakland, was also debated, with the potential shift of responsibility from the planning board to the council being a significant point of contention.

The meeting concluded with discussions on several community initiatives, including a styrofoam pickup event by the Marine team, a historical project by the Arts Committee, and the borough receiving a $10,000 grant for employee health awareness. Lastly, the council commended Kevin Heffern for his dedicated service to Oakland.

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