Not that pretty. Unfinished and raggedy. Pretty crappy.

Those are just some of the ways city council members described the Rail Yard student housing complex, which opened this fall at the site of the former Dickinson dorms on Hillside Road.

Facing a litany of complaints from constituents, council last week asked the city solicitor and the planning department to investigate whether the developer fulfilled the promises made when council approved the controversial project.

“The unsightly garbage, the fact that all the utilities are facing the road as opposed to facing the railroad tracks. It doesn’t bode well with me,” said Councilman John Suchanec, who represents the area. “I can’t believe that council would have approved what we wound up with. I think things probably have been changed.”

Built by Pennsylvania-based College Town Communities, the Rail Yard complex includes 46 four-bedroom townhouses as well as 45 apartments spread between four three-story buildings. The $30 million project contains a mix of two, three and four-bedroom units for a total of 320 beds – approximately half the capacity of Dickinson.

Lacking any legal grounds to deny the code-compliant project, Newark City Council unanimously approved it in October 2019 – going against the recommendation of the planning commission, which had concerns about traffic, density and the lack of green space. Over the yearlong approval process, a number of nearby residents spoke out against the project.

Last week, council members said they have received complaints from constituents concerned about the aesthetics of the buildings and the quality of work. Among the complaints are that the air conditioning units face the road and the garbage dumpsters are out in plain sight.

“It doesn’t look that great to me,” Councilman Travis McDermott said. “I know that’s a personal opinion, but then it was brought to my attention when some of our residents reached out about that project, doing a little deeper dive into it. I seem to think that maybe the end product isn’t what was sold to the council at that time.”

He said he was surprised to learn that the apartment complex is fully occupied.

“When you drive by, it looks like it’s an unfinished project to me,” he said. “So if that’s not what council had approved originally, I think it’s something that the city should look into and attempt to rectify with the developers.”

Others were concerned about the lack of landscaping, though city officials said the landscaping is in progress and will be monitored by the city over the next two years. Any trees or plants that die within that time period will have to be replaced by the developer.

This isn’t the first time the Rail Yard has been in the city’s crosshairs. Last December, the city ordered a halt to construction until the developer addressed concerns from neighbors, including tractor-trailers blocking Hillside Road, trucks tracking mud onto the roadway, sidewalks being blocked and at least one instance of the contractor starting work earlier than allowed on the weekend.

“I think public works had had enough. This was causing unnecessary uses of resources for recurring issues,” then-Councilman James Horning Jr. said at the time.

Mayor Jerry Clifton said the current complaints about the Rail Yard illustrate a broader issue the city has faced with projects in the past where the final product doesn’t match up with the renderings shown during the approval process.

“I think we need to look at what we need to do to put a process in place that is absolutely concrete and lives in perpetuity so residents and future members of council can depend on the representations that are made by developers,” Clifton said.

City Manager Tom Coleman said the Rail Yard has a temporary certificate of occupancy but won’t get its permanent certificate until the spring because the developer still has work to do, including building a trash enclosure. He added that he will look into the issues raised by council.

Later in the week, he wrote in a memo to council that city employees visited the site and are coordinating a meeting between the developer, city staff, and council members to discuss concerns.

More broadly, he said he will come back to council with suggestions to improve the development approval process to avoid similar situations in the future. He added that some procedures have already been changed after city officials were unhappy with the new apartment building at the Park N Shop on South Main Street, where the electric meters were installed facing the road.

A representative of the Rail Yard declined to comment.

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