Two months ago, things looked bleak for the Clifton Adult Opportunity Center expansion plans.
Tucked away in the City Hall complex, the center, which helps young adults with developmental disabilities, had asked the New Jersey Historic Sites Council to expand a building that was part of the former US Animal Quarantine posta preserved site.
The proposal had the support of Clifton officials. But on July 14, the Historic Sites Board denied the application, saying that while the center’s work was admirable, the city had not properly argued its case or followed all required procedures. The council called the city’s approval “overbearing.”
City officials, after addressing the concerns by holding a public hearing, appealed the case to Elizabeth Dragon, assistant commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection.
On August 25, Dragon overruled the council’s refusal, saying the public interest outweighed any negative impact the construction would have on the historic value of the site.
“The project will have a public benefit by providing continued service to residents of the surrounding area with special needs,” reads Dragon’s decision.
The center’s proximity to city services like fire protection and police, and the safety that would come with that, was another argument in favor of the plan, Dragon added.
Grace Lisbona, executive director of the Opportunity Center, said she is relieved as the service needs to add classrooms and storage space to meet growing demand.
“Thank God they approved our request,” Lisbona said.
With state approval, the center can move forward with plans to build a two-story structure, which should allow it to offer day programs for people with developmental disabilities. As it stands, the center has 58 customers, most of whom are crammed into a few small rooms on site. Others assist remotely.
“Right now we have people attending Zoom,” Lisbona said. “We are running out of space.”
The center currently operates from two buildings on the site plus one of its two group homes. This house is on the Town Hall grounds and has a number of sheds that the group uses for storage.
The initial denial came after the state board determined that the proposed building would alter the historic setting of the former quarantine station. For nearly 80 years, the property housed a number of barns that served as “Ellis Island for Animals” imported to the United States between 1900 and 1979.
Muskoxen, giraffes, cattle, sheep and circus animals were first held at Clifton Quarantine Station. Today, a number of converted barns house the town’s senior center, animal shelter and arts center. The town hall is also on the property.
Clifton Mayor James Anzaldi said the Opportunity Center, which has been a tenant on the station grounds since 1982, has renovated buildings that needed repairs and turned them into homes for young adults with developmental disabilities . The group did this long before other organizations stepped in, he added.
“It is an exceptional organization that has helped so many families over these years,” the mayor said.
Staff at the center said it was unclear how many customers they would end up serving with the expansion.
Lisbona said this is a moving target, as needs vary depending on the adult in question. For example, those using wheelchairs may need more space than ambulatory adults.
The director added that she did not know when the work would start. The project has received Clifton Zoning Board approval. But the architectural plans and a landscaping and screen proposal that Dragon required in its conditional approval have yet to be developed. Still, the center has much of its funding in place for expansion, Lisbona said. She declined to provide specific cost figures.