WEST ORANGE, NJ — The Township Council approved an ordinance at its Sept. 4 meeting that will allow the Essex Green and Executive Drive property owner to move forward with its redevelopment plan for Executive Drive. The measure was approved 4-1, with Councilman Joe Krakoviak voting against it.
The ordinance allows Clarion Partners, who bought the property in March 2016 for $97 million, to update the office building located at 300 Executive Drive, which consists of 403,000 square feet of office space and 330,000 square feet of retail space.
Susan Gruel of Heyer, Gruel & Associates, the planner involved with the project, attended the meeting to present the Executive Drive plan to the council. She explained that the Executive Drive area “was part of a larger designation as an area in need of redevelopment.”
“We were not involved in that designation,” Gruel said at the meeting, before launching into discussion about the plan to redevelop the Executive Drive area. “The draft was discussed at the Planning Board meeting in July of this year. There was public comment, and there were several provisions that were added to the plan.”
According to Gruel, additions to the plan made after the Planning Board meeting include changes to accommodate the “Complete Streets” policy, connectivity, sustainability and circulation.
“What is anticipated is to modernize an existing, aging office complex, to utilize the existing zoning on the site,” Gruel said.
In response to a question from Councilman Victor Cirilo, Gruel told the council that zoning is part of the Executive Drive plan.
Clarion filed a standard Zoning Board application for the Executive Drive area on Aug. 29, the same day that it was announced Clarion would not be seeking a Payment in Lieu of Taxes for the Essex Green project. The Township Council does not have to approve regular Zoning Board applications, but does have to approve redevelopment plans and proposals.
According to Anthony DellaPelle, a lawyer specializing in land use with the firm McKirdy, Riskin, Olson & DellaPelle, in a phone interview with the West Orange Chronicle on Sept. 10, zoning is included as a part of the redevelopment plan.
“Because the zoning doesn’t change, it becomes the same as anything else,” DellaPelle said, adding, “Sometimes it supersedes it and sometimes it becomes an overlay, but the zoning is included as a part of the plan.”
DellaPelle also said there are usually no special variances necessary for a redevelopment plan.
“If they have a non-condemnation designation, the town has the power to utilize tools like a PILOT or changing the zoning,” he said. “All of those are options.”
When asked by Krakoviak in the meeting whether the zoning in redevelopment projects changes, Gruel said it doesn’t in many cases.
“Not necessarily in most, a lot of it is overlay,” she said, citing a project in Jersey City that kept its existing zoning. “My understanding was it was to modernize and be able to upgrade this building, and that’s the intent. We put together a redevelopment that has the statutory requirements in the plan so that it meets the statute.”
Krakoviak also asked Gruel if it is common for a redevelopment plan to be presented in parts, with only one section of the property being redeveloped at a time. Gruel said that, in more than 50 redevelopment projects that she has worked on, this has been done, though it is not the norm.
“We have done it this way,” Gruel said. “It is not the normal way of doing it, but this is a little different than what we have done in many other areas. This is a discreet building that is staying and that makes it a bit different. But we have done it this way in other areas. There’s nothing in the redevelopment statute that says that you can’t designate an area and then have separate plans for that particular overall area.”
And township attorney Richard Trenk added that the plan for 300 Executive Drive was being presented first because Clarion decided to go ahead with this part of the project in order to make the property more attractive to potential tenants.
“Clarion decided to come in right now and put in a proposal to the Zoning Board because they didn’t want to wait,” Trenk said. “The concept of 300 moving forward is because the owner of 300 went and did all the architectural plans and they’d like to try and tenant, or do whatever they want with 300, because it’s staying an office building.”
Several residents spoke at the meeting and encouraged council members to vote against adopting the ordinance, saying that the plan could be fulfilled without the redevelopment designation.
“What you’ve put forth is not a redevelopment plan,” resident Norman Turner said. “What you’ve put forth is a renovation plan. That is not redevelopment. And if you guys vote on this as a redevelopment plan, you’ve got a problem.”
He added that the council should wait for a total plan to be presented before voting on it.
“An investor invests, and he expects a return on his investment,” Turner said. “If you invest $100 million, you know you’re going to get your money back. So in my mind, creating a redevelopment plan is not something you vote on in pieces. You vote on a total plan, and you don’t have a total plan. I’m not against redevelopment; I’m for redevelopment. But provide a plan that’s feasible, provide a plan that you can see in its totality.”
Clare Silvestri agreed with Turner at the meeting, also asking council members to vote down the Executive Drive plan as it only constitutes a portion of the overall redevelopment plan.
“You should not be adopting this ordinance on this small piece of the redevelopment property without seeing a full plan,” Silvestri said. “Because so much could be done, I think it’s prudent for the council to wait until we see phases two, three, four, whatever. What is proposed in this redevelopment plan is a renovation. It’s not anything that requires a redevelopment zone and all that’s associated with that process.”