WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Township Council approved a resolution at its March 7 meeting designating The Alpert Group as the interim redeveloper of the Selecto-Flash site. The site consists of two properties in the Central Valley Redevelopment Area, of which the township has taken the titles through foreclosure proceedings.
The resolution calls for The Alpert Group, which is also the redeveloper of the ongoing Harvard Press project nearby, to demolish the empty building located at 18 Central Ave. In exchange, the company has the exclusive right to submit a redevelopment proposal for the cleared 18 Central Ave. and the vacant lot at 4 Tompkins St. until Dec. 31, 2019. If the township approves that proposal, The Alpert Group will be able to purchase the parcels from West Orange at a price of $1,500,000.
Township attorney Richard Trenk urged the council to pass the resolution prior to its vote, stressing that there was no downside. Trenk pointed out that The Alpert Group will pay all expenses for0 the demolition, a project that the township’s estimate showed would cost $375,000 excluding very expensive asbestos removal if West Orange undertook it. In taking on the project, he said the group will eliminate both an eyesore and a safety hazard — one without fire suppression systems that has housed squatters in the past.
“There is nothing that is gained by saying ‘We don’t want to get this down at what’s clearly a very reasonable price,’” Trenk said, explaining that the demolition would be very costly if the township bonded for it. “I don’t think anybody can sit here and say that removing a 64,000-square-foot building (and) dealing with asbestos is not in our best interest.”
Most of the council members agreed that it seemed like a good deal, but Council President Joe Krakoviak was unconvinced. Krakoviak, the only one to vote against the resolution, particularly had reservations about giving The Alpert Group the exclusive ability to submit a redevelopment proposal through 2019. He said there might be redevelopers willing to pay more for the properties, but the council will never know that unless the township issues a Request for Proposals.
“We’ll be asked to make a decision about (The Alpert Group’s) proposal in isolation,” Krakoviak said. “We will not have gone through the competitive process where we might have four, five proposals that we get to choose from so we’d have a much better idea of what the demand is.”
Though a rejection of this resolution would mean the township would pay for the demolition itself, the council president said West Orange could just put out an RFP to find a company willing to charge less than the $375,000 estimate. Once the property is cleared, he said developers might be more willing to see it as a redevelopment opportunity, which would generate bids in a competitive process that would allow the township to sell at the highest possible price. He said West Orange could also receive project ideas more appealing than anything The Alpert Group offers, such as doing an office building instead of apartments.
Joe Alpert, president of The Alpert Group, told the council that his company has not yet created any plans for the Selecto-Flash site since it is premature to speculate when the environmental remediation has not been completed. Its interim redevelopment agreement with the township does state that its application is expected to include approximately 100 residential units as well as possible commercial space, with the company also anticipating it will apply for a Payment in Lieu of Taxes program based on 10 percent of gross revenue from that venture. But the agreement also mentions that a PILOT program would not be sought if The Alpert Group turns the site into a surface parking lot instead.
Trenk, however, had answers for Krakoviak’s concerns. For one, he said the council will be under no obligation to approve The Alpert Group’s proposal if it is unhappy with it. He also pointed out that the office real estate market is not strong now, so constructing an office building might not be as ideal as the council president thinks.
Additionally, Trenk pointed out that no developer has expressed an interest in the Selecto-Flash properties before this. And he said companies especially will not want anything to do with it until environmental remediation is done. But that remediation likely will not be completed until roughly two years from now, the township attorney said, which is when The Alpert Group’s designation as interim redeveloper will expire anyway.
On top of that, Trenk said the council members will be free to evaluate The Alpert Group’s proposal against the market or get an appraisal of the Selecto-Flash site to determine whether there might be better alternatives. The best move now though, he said, is to make the company the interim redeveloper so it will demolish the structure.
“If we don’t go in this direction, my recommendation to the administration will be ‘Ask the council to bond it and take it down on our dime,’” Trenk said, adding that would start a six- to 12-month process when The Alpert Group is expecting to demolish the structure by the summer. “I just don’t see how that would be a good expenditure of our time and effort when we’ve got somebody who says ‘I’ll loan you the money for free.’”
In the end the rest of the Township Council sided with Trenk’s reasoning, with Councilwoman Susan McCartney pointing out that the deal was simply too advantageous to turn down. Councilman Victor Cirilo agreed, pointing out that the council probably would have gone with The Alpert Group even if an RFP had been issued due to its acclaimed reputation and track record of successful projects. Making it the interim redeveloper now just means the Selecto-Flash building will be demolished, Cirilo said, which will make the blighted Central Valley area more attractive.
Councilwoman Michelle Casalino added that the Selecto-Flash site’s relatively small size — it is collectively 1.5 acres — will likely not make it attractive to other redevelopers. Even if the size could be overlooked, Casalino said losing the deal is not worth the gamble.
“I just think the benefit outweighs the chance of a better opportunity down the road,” Casalino said. “It’s safe and it’s now.”
That measure was not the only one related to the Selecto-Flash site passed at the meeting. The council unanimously approved a resolution authorizing Mayor Robert Parisi to execute an agreement with Matrix New World to conduct a preliminary site assessment and site investigation. According to the agreement, the assessment will include a site visit and a review of environmental databases and files to determine possible areas of concerns. The investigation will then evaluate those areas of concern that have impacted soil and groundwater through measures including a geophysical investigation, soil boring installations and a groundwater investigation.
All of this work will be funded by a $77,238 Hazardous Discharge Site Remediation Fund grant obtained from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the New Jersey Economic Development Authority. Per the agreement, any costs exceeding that amount will be paid only if additional grants funds are approved.
Completing the assessment and investigation — as well as the eventual environmental remediation — will bring the township one step closer to its ultimate goal of making the Central Valley area a transit village complementary to the Harvard Press project. That project is moving along well since breaking ground on Feb. 13, with Alpert telling the council that construction is underway for the 128-unit apartment building on the Orange side. The Alpert Group is also in the process of realigning the Rahway River to its original flow as well as converting a historic art deco building into a 162-car parking garage, he said.
Meanwhile, Alpert said his company has obtained all approvals associated with the 100-unit apartment building on the West Orange side of the project. He said it will next apply for the 9-percent low-income housing tax credit program by May 27, and it will hear if it has been accepted by July 27. If his company does not get the 9-percent tax credit, he said it can apply for the non-competitive 4-percent tax credit program. But he thinks The Alpert Group will have a good chance at getting the higher credit, especially since it already received that credit amount for the Orange phase of the project.
Alpert said he wants to make 55 percent of the units in the West Orange building workforce housing, which are units open to those who qualify for affordable housing but also meet a minimum income level. Trenk said that will go a long way toward helping the township meet its affordable housing obligation. But he said it will only happen if West Orange pays The Alpert Group $3 million from its affordable developers fee fund to assist with the construction. As a result, the township attorney said the Planning Board and the Township Council will soon have to approve a resolution committing those monies as long as The Alpert Group receives a tax credit.
Once that is done and the credit is obtained, Alpert said he expects to start construction on the West Orange side in January 2018.
“We’re very happy that we’ve gotten to this point,” Alpert said. “We want to show you more construction on the West Orange side.”
The Alpert Group president was not the only one eager to start building in town. The council members seemed enthused by the amount of progress that has been made in recent weeks, with Cirilo in particular emphasizing that redevelopment will greatly benefit the community.
“We can help the entire neighborhood,” Cirilo said. “It helps with ratables. Your home values improve, and there’s a higher demand for these homes.”
Bill Sullivan, the Alpert Group’s attorney, agreed that redeveloping the Central Valley district will make a world of difference. For starters, Sullivan said people will be less tempted to commit crimes in a pleasant neighborhood than the decrepit industrial area currently there. Trenk had said earlier in the meeting that the West Orange Police Department sees more crime reports in the Central Valley area than anywhere else in town.
Likewise, Sullivan said the Harvard Press project will make the underutilized Highland Avenue Station in Orange a pivotal hub for commuters. Alpert said his company is in talks with NJ Transit about adding morning and evening MidTown Direct lines to the station once apartments are constructed. Orange has already received a $614,000 grant from the New Jersey Department of Transportation’s Transportation Alternatives Program to make improvements to the long-closed station building.
Overall, Sullivan said this is a move in the right direction for the Valley.
“The redevelopment of this area is going to be a tremendous asset for redevelopment in the entire Valley,” Sullivan said, explaining that it will “make all that property more valuable and more attractive and draw people down to the Valley as a part of the community.”
Photos by Sean Quinn