WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Township Council unanimously approved two resolutions endorsing amendments to the township’s affordable housing spending plan and Fair Share Housing Center plan at its April 25 meeting, allowing West Orange to put up $3 million toward subsidizing 40 affordable housing units in the 100-unit residential building that will be constructed for the Harvard Press redevelopment project’s West Orange side.
West Orange’s commitment to paying for 40 of the total 55 affordable housing units planned for the building comes as the township continues mediation with Fair Share, a public interest organization with the court-appointed authority to set the number of affordable housing units a municipality is required to provide, and Garden Homes, a developer looking to produce some of those units in its pending West Essex Highlands project.
Shirley Bishop, the township’s affordable housing consultant, reported in February that Fair Share had agreed to reduce West Orange’s units from 1,362 to 953. But that number is still too high considering the town’s limited space to build, Bishop said at the time.
While that number may change as negotiations continue under a mediator appointed by the Superior Court, Bishop said at the April 25 council meeting that the 55 units are a positive step forward nonetheless. And she is not the only one who feels that way.
“I think we should all feel comfortable knowing that both Fair Share Housing Center and the court master, who reports to the court, are both supportive of this,” Bishop said. “You are providing 55 more units of low- and moderate-income housing that you had not provided in another plan.”
All $3 million will come from the West Orange Affordable Housing Trust Fund, which contains monies collected through development fees and other sources. According to its spending plan, the fund currently contains $3,378,468.24 with a projected revenue total of $4,545,000 through 2025. That amounts to an anticipated total of $7,923,468.24.
Of that, the plan states that $5,047,908.82 will be dedicated to rehabilitation and the West Orange side of the Harvard Press project — including the $3 million endorsed by the council. The other $2,047,908.82 will go toward an ongoing rehabilitation program with Community Action Services that provides funds for owner- and renter-occupied homes and units.
Additionally, the plan shows that $2,275,559.42 will be designated to make units more affordable while $600,000 will be committed to administrative costs. It also states that any shortfall of funds will be offset by bonding, and any excess of funds or remaining balance will go toward rehabilitation.
Of course, Bishop pointed out, that $7.9 million projection is not guaranteed to materialize. But the spending plan can always be amended if it does not, she said.
The fact that West Orange is so willing to comply with its affordable housing requirement is refreshing to Joe Alpert of The Alpert Group, the redeveloper for the Harvard Press project. Alpert told the council that many towns try to fight their obligation, but West Orange has only made his job easier. And he said the fact that Fair Share and the court master have both submitted letters of support speaks volumes.
“It means everyone is coming together for something that’s very controversial,” Alpert said, referring to the affordable housing requirement. “I applaud West Orange.”
Alpert also informed council members that preparations for the West Orange side of the Harvard Press project — which he calls the Valley Road Residential Building — are moving smoothly. The redeveloper said he already has full working drawings and approval from the planning board. He is now applying for the competitive 9-percent tax credit program and will find out whether he is accepted by the end of July. He can apply for building permits immediately thereafter if he is accepted, which he said is a very real possibility thanks to the help West Orange has provided.
“We have more municipal support than almost any town I know of in the state, so I feel very comfortable,” Alpert said, adding that passing the two resolutions puts the application in a “fantastic position.”
Construction should start by Jan. 1, 2018, Alpert said, and it is expected to be completed and occupied exactly one year after that. He further said that the 55 affordable housing units will be workforce housing, meaning tenants must fall within an income bracket of $35,000 to $60,000 for families. Rents for those units will be between $900 and $1,100, while rents for the 45 market rate units will be between 10 to 15 percent higher.
Once completed, Alpert said the Harvard Press project will do much to revitalize the Valley district of West Orange and Orange — especially if NJ Transit adds more MidTown Direct lines to the Highland Avenue Train Station. He said that possibility is coming closer to a reality now that the Orange side of the project is so far under way. In addition, he said Orange has obtained a $614,000 grant from the New Jersey Department of Transportation’s Transportation Alternatives Program to make improvements to the long-closed station building. He himself has been working with Councilman Victor Cirilo to lobby NJ Transit for additional MidTown Direct lines.
If NJ Transit follows through on its promise to increase MidTown Direct service if the station can show increased ridership — which the Harvard Press project is expected to produce — Alpert believes it will spark additional changes in the Valley. Coffee shops and newsstands will crop up in the area once the station building is open, he said. And the region overall will benefit, he added.
“It’s more of an economic boost as much as a housing boost and a social boost for truly integrated housing,” Alpert said.
But if NJ Transit does not follow through for some reason, Alpert said a lack of MidTown Direct lines will have no impact on the timing, affordability or feasibility of the Valley Road Residential Building. He said his company is being conservative with its market rents, so the additional lines would only be a plus. The project is moving forward “full blast” whether those lines happen or not, he said.
Meanwhile, Alpert told the council that the Orange side of the Harvard Press project is coming along nicely. The redeveloper said work on the residential building has progressed to the second-floor framing after breaking ground in February. The Art Deco building has also been cleared out for its conversion to a parking garage, he said, and the ramp will soon be added. He said the Rahway River realignment has been completed as well, with only the vegetation still in need of planting.
The redeveloper added that he expects to start marketing the residential building to prospective tenants in September, though the promotional materials are not ready yet.
As for the Selecto-Flash site — the two West Orange-owned properties for which Alpert was named the interim redeveloper at the council’s March 7 meeting — Alpert said concrete testing done on the existing building there showed two “hot spots” of contamination that will be removed prior to demolition. It is possible that the rest of the concrete could be crushed and reused onsite, but he said the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection will have to issue a Beneficial Use Determination for that to happen. He said The Alpert Group will apply for one in the near future.
At the same time, Alpert told the West Orange Chronicle that the preliminary site investigation paid for by the township’s $77,238 Hazardous Discharge Site Remediation Fund grant is in progress. That analysis will determine what contaminants are in the soil and what remedial actions will be required to address them. He said such remediation could be as simple as capping the dirt — which means laying concrete or asphalt on top of it — though it is too early to know.
Whatever happens, the council members were appreciative of Alpert and Bishop for taking the time to explain where things stand now. Councilwoman Michelle Casalino particularly praised the redeveloper and consultant for their willingness to break matters down.
“They really explain in great detail,” Casalino said. “It really helps for the audience to realize what’s happening here step by step. Both of you do a great job.”
Photos by Sean Quinn