WEST ORANGE, NJ — Mayor Robert Parisi answered questions from the community at a meeting about the Essex Green redevelopment project, addressing concerns from residents regarding potential changes to the retail space and Executive Drive office park at West Orange High School on April 25. The property was designated as an “area in need of redevelopment” by the Township Council at its Jan. 9 meeting, after being approved by the Planning Board in December 2017. The property was bought by Clarion Partners in March 2016 for $97 million, and consists of 403,000 square feet of office space and 330,000 square feet of retail space.
West Orange resident Kevin Malanga filed a lawsuit against the town, the Township Council and the Planning Board on Feb. 14, saying that the decision to designate the Essex Green and Executive Drive properties as an “area in need of redevelopment” was “unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious.” The lawsuit is looking to overturn the redevelopment designation, according to Malanga.
While the lawsuit was mentioned at the meeting by resident Sally Malanga, neither Parisi nor Business Administrator Jack Sayers addressed or answered questions about it.
Many questions were posed about Payments in Lieu of Taxes and tax abatements that the designation makes possible for Clarion Partners as they redevelop the property. Parisi said that, as of now, there is no guarantee that a PILOT will be granted to the owners.
“There’s been no plan for a PILOT,” the mayor said at the meeting. “It’s early to talk about that. I know it’s a legitimate concern for a lot of people, but it hasn’t been discussed yet.”
Resident Adam Kraemer said he has researched other redevelopment projects that are in progress or have been completed around the state, and has not seen one that did not have a PILOT deal. Parisi again said that it is too early to say that there will definitely be a PILOT for Essex Green, because there is no plan in place for the project yet.
“Part of that discussion would be a PILOT, but it’s premature for that,” he said. “Until the plan is developed over the next few months, we’ll talk about it. I understand the concern.”
Several residents also brought up the town possibly moving the Department of Public Works to the Essex Green property. The DPW is currently on Lakeside Avenue, and West Orange has been looking to move the department for several years. A suitable location has not yet been found.
“It would be easier to serve the town if it was in the center,” Parisi said about the placing the DPW in Essex Green, which covers approximately 70 acres of land near the center of West Orange. He said that having the DPW trucks and equipment closer to the middle of town would make it easier for maintenance workers to reach all corners of the municipality during snowstorms, leaf pickups and other necessary functions.
Parisi also said West Orange would be able to address some of the town’s needs with the redevelopment project. He mentioned senior housing and a senior community center as well as possibly expanding the library and moving it to a new location in the future.
Kevin Brown, the vice president of the 32BJ Service Employees International Union and the union’s New Jersey director, said the town should avoid tax deals with Clarion, a company he said does not need financial help to update the property they own. Brown said the possible tax abatements will negatively affect the members of his union, which represents property service workers.
“Why would we want to provide help to a company of people who don’t need it?” Brown said at the meeting. “It’s not a cheap town to live in and everybody knows that.”
In response, Parisi said the fact that the office and retail space is partially unused is also detrimental to the town.
“We all want people to have jobs,” he said. “If (Essex Green) is dying and tenants are not moving in, that’s not good for the community either. Our goal is the same; we might disagree on how to get there, but the goal is the same.”
Michael Gorman disagreed with many residents at the meeting, saying that working with redevelopers could create opportunities for West Orange.
“I think it’s a tremendous opportunity when looking at this redevelopment,” Gorman said at the meeting. “We’re looking at how to create a better and well-built community. I think if we keep this at the forefront this could be a tremendous opportunity for West Orange.”
In explaining why he thinks West Orange should be involved in the redevelopment of Essex Green and Executive Drive, Parisi said the property is too big and has too many possibilities and benefits for West Orange not to be involved.
“Tenants had been pulling out of this space long before they took ownership,” he said, referring to property owner Clarion Partners. Tenants “were leaving or downsizing or going out of business. Government tries as little as possible, but if we were involved we would have more say. If this large land is going to be developed then the town should be involved. This is too big a process not to be involved.”