WEST ORANGE, NJ — West Orange is locked in a lawsuit with Prism Capital Partners, the redevelopers of the downtown Edison Village project, after the West Orange Township Council voted to reacquire the property and terminated the development deal that was approved nearly 20 years ago, in 2003. The first phase of the project has been completed, but Prism has not moved forward with the second phase despite having an approved plan and financial agreement for the former Barton Press and Department of Public Works properties.
A new plan for the property was introduced and passed unanimously at the Aug. 17 council meeting; however, prior to that meeting, Prism filed a lawsuit against the town and West Orange officials, saying that Mayor Robert Parisi, Council President Cindy Matute-Brown and Councilman Bill Rutherford are “disingenuous in their characterization of their intent for the downtown property.” The lawsuit also includes Whoopi Goldberg’s company, Whoopi Inc., saying it was conspiring with the town to use the land for a sound studio; no one at the company responded to a request for comment.
The new plan for the second-phase property is on the council agenda for second reading at the Sept. 14 meeting.
“Prism has always been supportive of redevelopment of the downtown,” Eugene Diaz, a principal partner at Prism, wrote in a letter to the West Orange Chronicle on Aug. 10. “Instead of working with us so that we may finish the good work we started, the township has abruptly, and with no consideration for our investment and commitment to the township, shifted its interest to a celebrity and an unproven redeveloper, neither of which have any experience or history in large-scale developing in the township.”
In an email to the West Orange Chronicle on Aug. 31, Diaz said the town is trying to profit from cutting Prism out of redevelopment.
“The township is not ‘turning square corners’ and is trying to profit from its actions by cutting Prism out of the redevelopment, after Prism elevated the studio opportunity at the request of the township,” he said. “The other parties are complicit in this illegal and unethical activity.”
Diaz also accused the town of not making a worthwhile plan to relocate the Department of Public Works headquarters, which is currently adjacent to the Prism property.
“No one wants to live next to this unattractive, busy operation! During the 15 years since making that promise, West Orange officials have failed to put forth a meaningful plan committing to it,” he said. “The township owes Prism $20 million in redevelopment area bonds, plus the requirement to relocate the DPW. The township is acting unethically and is attempting to get out of these commitments by creating a sham default by Prism.”
Prism stayed on the project while the town fought litigation that delayed the completion of the first phase, and Prism now says the township is reneging on its promises.
“The township is threatening to take the remaining land for less money than we paid for the properties in 2007, despite agreeing that values have risen tremendously,” Diaz said. “Now, instead of living with the agreed-upon deal and giving Prism the promised opportunity to recoup its initial investment and create a vibrant 24/7 neighborhood, we are faced with having to fight a lawsuit over recovering our investment in our property in the downtown.”
But the township stands by its decision, saying that Prism has breached its redevelopment relationship with West Orange.
“They have had almost 15 years to complete Phase 2 of this project and, despite approvals, have failed to live up to their commitments,” Parisi said in a statement to the West Orange Chronicle on Aug. 30. “For Prism Green to attack prominent members of the West Orange community and volunteers in our collective effort to improve the township is atrocious and unacceptable.
“Our responsibility is to the community, not to Gene Diaz,” Parisi continued.
In an interview with the West Orange Chronicle on July 26, Matute-Brown said reacquiring the property is not a bailout for Prism but a chance for the township to control its own vision for downtown West Orange. In a statement to the Chronicle on Aug. 30, she said the council wants to work with a redeveloper that will finish the project.
“I was involved in the attempt at negotiations with Prism Green’s representatives, and I can easily report to the public that the township of West Orange and all of its representatives acted with the utmost good faith in an attempt to resolve the long-standing and numerous issues involving Prism Green,” Matute-Brown said in the statement. “Our only interest is working with a group that can actually finish.”
Rutherford also made a statement sent to the Chronicle on Aug. 30.
“It is unfortunate that Prism Green has chosen to attack the township and its leaders for attempting to complete this redevelopment effort; name calling and hyperbole reek of desperation and are counterproductive,” he said.