SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — South Orange residents are not lacking qualified candidates to choose from in the 2017 Board of Trustees election, which sees two incumbents and two challengers running for three open seats.
Incumbent running mates Walter Clarke and Stephen Schnall are both coming off successful first terms on the board, respectively distinguishing themselves in the fields of infrastructure improvements and cultural development, among other areas. The third running mate on their ticket, challenger Karen Hilton, also boasts a strong resume consisting of extensive experience in government legislation and leadership within the South Orange Public Library. And independent challenger Nureed Saeed is also a viable choice, considering her expertise as a businesswoman and volunteer.
But even more important than their past accomplishments, all four candidates know exactly what they want to achieve if elected, especially in the realms of developing the downtown area, perpetuating pedestrian safety and preventing tax increases.
Saeed believes her vast network of contacts in the business world — where she worked for 15 years as part of the fashion and retail industry — will help her in recruiting desired businesses to South Orange’s downtown. But before forming any partnerships, she said the village needs to determine what it wants to be. Right now she said residents have differing visions for the village and its downtown, with some wanting it more like Maplewood and others viewing college towns like Princeton as inspirations. The candidate said her goal upon being elected will be to find South Orange’s identity.
“If we want to be a place for everybody to come to — a community — then we need to offer a wide variety of things in terms of services, stores, restaurants and housing,” Saeed told the News-Record in an April 20 interview. “But before we get there, we need to know what it’s going to look like and how it’s going to feel. And those things come from knowing who we are.”
To attain this, Saeed said she will focus on smart planning to ensure the downtown can reach its fullest potential. That means attracting businesses that will make people want to explore the area instead of simply getting their hair done and leaving, she said. And if more visitors start flocking downtown, she said changes must be made so they will not have to walk long distances, so she said she is in favor of implementing measures such as pull-offs so people can be easily dropped off in town.
Clarke’s plan for building up the downtown district is to drive foot traffic to major corridors such as South Orange Avenue, Valley Street and Irvington Avenue by hosting events there and putting in draws like electric vehicle charging stations. If businesses see a lot of people frequent the area, he said they will be more likely to move there.
As for what types of businesses should go downtown, Clarke said he would like to see more restaurants. Though the village’s storefronts are not large enough to garner interest from major franchises, the candidate said South Orange’s unique variety of eateries makes it competitive with any other municipality’s downtown. He said there are not too many places where one can find Ethiopian food and falafel so close together, making the village more attractive to those looking to try something new.
Schnall said he is very much in favor of downtown development, with the Fourth and Valley project, the empty Blockbuster property, and the possible hotel site on South Orange Avenue as prime focuses. To recruit businesses, he said the South Orange Village Center Alliance should continue using the survey the village commissioned showing what types of shops residents want. At the same time, he said the village will also persist in visiting nearby communities to see if businesses there can be convinced to open secondary stores in South Orange.
But the village should not be content to settle for just any type of business, Schnall said. The candidate recalled that the owner of the Blockbuster property wanted to put a dollar store in the lot, but the South Orange Board of Trustees did not think such a business would mesh with the rest of the downtown. So the board appealed to the owner to move in another direction, and the owner eventually agreed. The property remains unused today, but Schnall said he would prefer to have an empty lot with the potential for something great than be stuck with a store the community does not want.
Regardless of what goes into the downtown area, Schnall said adding more parking and signage should be a priority as well.
Like Schnall, Hilton thinks low-end businesses such as dollar stores are not in the best interests of South Orange. Instead, she said she would prefer to pursue high-end shops catering to the diverse needs of the community, especially restaurants, clothing stores, bookstores and gift vendors. The candidate mentioned Kitchen a la Mode as a good example of such a business, one appealing to all ages while providing for an enjoyable shopping experience.
Actually attracting businesses to South Orange requires making them feel wanted, Hilton said. To that end, she said she is in favor of supporting and expanding the SOVCA as well as reaching out to store owners directly as a board. She said she also wants to make sure sidewalks are adequately paved, trash is picked up and police have a presence to make the downtown a desirable place to visit. And businesses are nothing without customers; therefore, the candidate said the village has to better communicate what downtown offers and instill an enthusiasm for it so residents will want to visit.
More people downtown means an increased need for pedestrian safety. And the four candidates have plenty of ideas about how to keep residents safe.
One of Clarke’s main goals, if re-elected, will be to push for the completion of the River Greenway Project’s next phase, which he said will create a north-south corridor where people can walk safely. He said he also wants to obtain a grant to pay for an expanded bike route.
Additionally, Clarke said he would encourage the South Orange Police Department to continue issuing tickets — something it has been doing in record numbers. No one wants to get a ticket, he acknowledged, but enforcement is what will compel people to obey the law and keep people safe. If the police keep sending the message that pedestrian safety is a priority, he said people will take it seriously.
“If you’ve ever been to California — L.A. or San Francisco — you know that people don’t jaywalk there and people stop for pedestrians in crosswalks there,” Clarke told the News-Record in an April 21 interview, pointing out that this is the result of years of reinforcement from police. “That’s a culture they have. So we need to continue that culture. People need to know that they’ll get ticketed for that in town. That’s a human behavior change.”
Hilton also believes pedestrian safety is fundamental so she is in favor of adding lighting, making sure crossing lights are held long enough for seniors to cross and installing benches for people to rest. Cleaning up trash in the downtown area will make people feel safer as well, she added. And having a strong police presence and good neighborhood watch program will benefit public safety as a whole, she said.
For Schnall, the key to having safe pedestrians is doing everything financially possible to ensure no one gets hurt. That means fixing potholes and adding benches where needed, he said. It also means ensuring all locations are ADA compliant, which is why the board is now overseeing the renovation of the Baird entrance, he said.
If Saeed is elected, she said she will call for any approved development plan to include a traffic-safety analysis — especially if the project is situated along a main road. Leaving the decision to do such studies at the discretion of the developer is not in the public’s best interest, she said.
Additionally, Saeed said there are many easy fixes that would make South Orange safer. For instance, she said the crossing lights at the corner of Scotland Road and South Orange Avenue could be timed to enable diagonal crossing in which pedestrians can all cross at once, regardless of direction. In that time no turns on red would be allowed, she said, and people could walk in different directions if the center is made a blocked box. That way, she said, pedestrians would have substantial time to cross a dangerous area without fear of being struck by a vehicle, all at little cost to the village.
Of course, taxes are always a major issue during election season. So, unsurprisingly, the candidates knew just how they would prevent tax hikes if elected to the board.
During his first term, Schnall believes he demonstrated a willingness to keep taxes stable through his support of selling Village Hall. Bringing the structure up to required standards as a local historic landmark would have cost South Orange at least $7 or $8 million, the incumbent said. But selling the building instead is going to net the village $1.3 million, he said.
Schnall said much of those funds will be spent on infrastructure projects such as the Baird renovation, which he is overseeing. He listed refurbishing the South Orange Police Station and combining the SOPL with the Connett Building as other priority projects. And he said downtown development will remain a focus for him because it also is financially beneficial for the village.
“If we had not done the development projects,” Schnall said in an April 20 interview, “the increase to the taxes would have been significant.”
Downtown development is also integral to Saeed’s plan for stabilizing taxes, with the challenger saying she would take a close look at how each project will contribute to the tax revenue. At the same time, she said she would also carefully examine any Payment in Lieu of Taxes program to see its effect on ratables and school revenue.
Aside from that, Saeed promised she will be transparent in the budgeting process so the community can have a say in where its tax dollars should go. Without question, she said she believes the village needs to spend more on necessities and less on nice-to-haves. Community events are a positive, she said, but not when people’s streets are being left unpaved.
Clarke knows about the importance of infrastructure projects, having spearheaded South Orange’s switch to New Jersey American Water. He said he has especially learned the necessity of spending smartly — South Orange cannot afford to pave everyone’s road, after all. And while some infrastructure projects that are pursued may not be popular among residents, he stressed that deferring them is not helpful. Putting a pipeline in his own street has been disruptive for his neighbors and himself, but the alternative of not having water is far worse, he pointed out.
Beyond that, Clarke said he wants to continue pushing for increased state school funding to lessen the burden on taxpayers. He said he will also persist in looking for opportunities to share services with other municipalities, pointing out that the village has already seen success sharing its field-maintenance programs, IT department and animal-control service with Maplewood. He said he is interested in sharing the South Orange Fire Department with Maplewood as well, and he would consider sharing services with other nearby towns, including West Orange.
Hilton said the first action she would take to stabilize taxes is scrutinize current expenditures to ensure all money is being spent appropriately. She said she would also look for outside funding to supplement tax dollars. All the while, she said she would communicate with residents so they can better understand the budget process and how their money is being spent.
And since so much of that money goes to support the South Orange-Maplewood school system, Hilton said she wants to work with state legislators and advocacy groups to push for increased state funding.
“At the end of the day, our town needs to have more state revenue coming in for education,” Hilton said in an April 21 interview.