Town talks senior housing above library

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — The Township Council approved two resolutions at its Nov. 27 meeting that will allow a study to be done on the West Orange Public Library to determine whether it qualifies as a noncondemned area in need of redevelopment. One resolution, passed unanimously, authorizes the West Orange Planning Board to investigate if the property qualifies. The other, approved with a vote of 4-1, authorizes the township to hire the planning firm Heyer, Gruel & Associates to prepare the study for $8,000. Councilman Joe Krakoviak cast the only opposing vote, saying that the Planning Board should be able to hire the firm.

“We have a real need for senior housing in this community,” Mayor Robert Parisi said at the meeting, explaining why the administration wants to find out if the library could be designated as an area in need of redevelopment. “Several months ago we talked to Joe Alpert for no reason other than that Joe and his company are the redevelopers of the Central Avenue valley project, and he is also an expert on affordable housing.”

The township asked Alpert and his team of engineers to find out if housing could be built above the existing library building. According to Parisi, Alpert said the building is structured to withstand five stories of affordable senior housing being built over the existing structure, which currently has two levels.

“That’s huge, because it doesn’t have to displace the library and we can accommodate a real practical need,” Parisi said.

The mayor said the study would be the first step in developing a plan for possibly relocating the library to the Executive Drive section of Essex Green, along with relocating the Department of Public Works. According to Parisi, library trustees and library Director Dave Cubie have been involved in conversations about relocation.

“This is not a new conversation,” Parisi said. “If you recall, in the early part of the century, the town spent years trying to incorporate a new library into the Edison redevelopment project. Economically it didn’t work out, so that plan was scrapped. Determining what Joe Alpert’s experts have said that we can build a five-story structure on top of the library is the first piece. But whether we decide to move the library to the Executive Drive site or not is secondary.”

Parisi said that, even if senior housing is built on Mt. Pleasant Avenue, the library does not have to be moved; it can stay at its current location. He also said that if the library does move to Executive Drive, an annex could be maintained inside the current building.

Councilman Victor Cirilo asked why a study had to be done to determine if a publicly owned building can be classified as an area in need of redevelopment. Parisi said that if it is not a redevelopment area, the town would have to auction the building off to develop it and would lose control.

“A public building would require you to just put it on block,” township attorney Richard Trenk said at the meeting. “Then you lose total control. This is the only way you would decide what the future of that site would be. That’s the way you turn this property, other than selling it.”

Councilman Jerry Guarino asked if a Payment in Lieu of Taxes would be possible if the plan moved forward.

“This affordable housing would actually become tax ratable for the township, because it would make a nontaxable parcel of land into tax revenue, which is good,” he said at the meeting.

Parisi said a possible PILOT would also ensure that the senior housing units remain affordable.

“If we want to make senior housing affordable, a PILOT would help guarantee their affordability for 30 years,” he said. “There’s an economic advantage from that perspective.”

Trenk agreed with Parisi, saying, “There would be a PILOT on this, which is a positive because right now you’re collecting zero on that site.”

After Krakoviak asked what the potential cost would be, Parisi addressed the financial plan for the library’s options.

“We do have some money,” Parisi said. “There are contractual obligations that Prism has to fund us, not only for the property but for the relocation costs. That’s in excess of about $9 million. It doesn’t go as far as it used to, but it’s still enough money for us to do some of what we’re talking about.”

Parisi said that if the town is able to build senior housing above the library, the money that would come in would cover the cost of either moving the library or making capital improvements to the current building.

“There would be some cash that would come to the town from that property,” he said. “We would certainly expect that that would cover any relocation costs for the library, or if the library were to stay that it would cover any costs that would be a result. There’s a lot of moving pieces, but we think we can do a lot if not all of it without any public funding. That’s the hope.”

Councilwoman Michelle Casalino said that when the township conducted a survey of West Orange’s seniors last year, housing was found to be one of the main issues in the results. She sees the possibility of building senior housing above the library as a positive for West Orange.

“We had a discussion about this a year ago, the need for senior housing,” she said at the meeting. “Whichever direction we go, I think we’re on the right path because it’s a need. This gives our residents an option and I look forward to being in conversations to see what we can do.”

Photos by Amanda Valentovic