SO considers student housing on Valley

Photo by Amanda Valentovic
A student housing building has been proposed to take the place of All Star Motors in South Orange, above, to serve students of Seton Hall University who want to live off campus.

SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — The South Orange Board of Trustees heard a presentation about a possible student-housing building on Valley Street at its Dec. 10 meeting, after a two-year process that has seen the plan for the building change. No action was taken at the meeting, and Village President Sheena Collum said the governing body would decide by the end of the year whether or not to move forward with the plan.

Kyle Petrelli, the co-founder of Stolar Capital; Jake Feldman from Vertical Realty Capital; and Adam Byrley, the COO of Preiss Company Student Housing Experts, a student-housing management company, were at the meeting to present their plan for off-campus housing that would serve students at Seton Hall University. The building is located across the street from the Third and Valley apartment complex and is currently the site of the All Star Motors Auto Shop.

In the presentation, Petrelli talked about the challenges the site faces in addition to the benefits of a student-housing complex in South Orange.

“It’s important to understand why we chose a student-housing project here,” he said. “If you’re standing at the front of the property on Valley Street, there’s about a 30-foot incline. We need to excavate all of that land. Doing so comes with a tremendous cost, but there would also be a large retaining wall that needs to be built on the site.”

Petrelli said that, because the site becomes narrower toward the back of the property, it would be difficult to fit the layouts required for a multifamily-housing building. The flexibility of student housing works better with the shape of the property. In addition, the property lies within two zones. The combination will allow for retail space in the building, which Petrelli said would charge lower rents to incorporate community uses.

“We are traditional multifamily developers and looked for every single way to build apartments on this site,” he said. “It would cost us more to build that Third and Valley, because we have environmental issues and excavation.”

A retaining wall must be built at the back of the property because of the slope and parking requirements, Petrelli said. There are also different parking requirements for student housing — the developers are proposing 62 spaces, while traditional apartments would require 102.

“The demand is different as well,” Petrelli said. “There are a lot of mixed-use luxury apartments going up on the Valley Street corridor. We would have a lot of competition, unlike with student housing, where there is no private student housing. And with the size of the site, it just makes it difficult to fit those types of apartments.”

He also discussed the benefits that student housing would bring to South Orange, adding that developers are working with SHU to create a SHUfly shuttle stop in front of the building. Students are more likely to use public transportation, bike or walk to campus.

“There are not student-housing facilities in this area, so we think there would be a lot of interest in this property,” Petrelli said. “None of the tenants would make use of the public schools and drain resources from them. There wouldn’t be any burden on the train stations at rush hour. There are also a lot more tax dollars that are involved — we’d bring $350,000 to $400,000 of new ratables for the town and we are not requesting any sort of abatement.”

Among the other benefits, Petrelli said that a student-housing building would eliminate students living off campus in otherwise quiet neighborhoods in the village, where residents have complained about trash and noise in the past.

“We believe that eventually Seton Hall is going to have to address this situation themselves,” he said. “The school has been growing. They grew at a record number last year and this past year had the largest freshman class that they ever had.”

Feldman addressed the design of the building, as well as concerns some residents have expressed regarding student housing. He said developers began working on the project in December 2016 and met with neighbors and town officials to gain feedback, with the last meeting happening in April 2018. The plan changed from a five-story building to a four-story one as a result.

“We met with a neighborhood association to get ideas about the type of design and the type of structure it would be,” Feldman said at the meeting. “Some of the feedback was to provide a tribute to the auto-oriented, industrial and somewhat gritty past of Valley Street. We’re committed to coming up with a design that works for everybody.”

Feldman also addressed concerns that were brought up at the meeting about what student housing is. He made it clear that the building would not be a dorm, it would be off-campus private student housing.

“The point we’re trying to convey is that this looks, smells, feels and operates, for the most part, like a traditional multifamily building,” Feldman said. “They can fit as seamlessly into the fabric of the community as any other type of use and any other type of project. These are not brick boxes with a bunch of students just in them.”

In addition, several residents asked how the building could contribute to South Orange’s affordable housing options, mentioning concerns about students being counted as qualifying for affordable housing even though they might come from affluent families.

Byrley said financial aid would be taken into consideration when students are applying to live in the building and the diverse demographics of SHU students would contribute to the diversity of the residents in the building. Collum added that many SHU students are the first in their families to attend college.

At the end of the presentation, Collum said that should the BOT vote to move forward with the developers, Planning Board review and approval would be required. The Dec. 10 presentation was intended to provide information to trustees and the public.

“We need to be decisive about the direction we are moving in so we’re not spending time on something that is not happening,” she said.