WEST ORANGE, NJ — Covering 330,000 square feet near the geographical center of West Orange, the Essex Green Shopping Center was purchased by Clarion Partners in 2016 for $97 million. The property was designated as an “area in need of redevelopment” by the West Orange Township Council in January 2018, and since then many West Orange residents have voiced concerns about the development of the project. In an interview with the West Orange Chronicle on Feb. 1, Lauren Holden, Clarion’s managing director of retail, addressed some of those concerns and shared the company’s vision for Essex Green.
Clarion does not own the adjacent office park at Executive Drive, which consists of four office buildings on 403,000 square feet and was also named as an area in need of redevelopment in January 2018. Executive Drive is owned by PAG Investments.
“We’re trying to elevate it into a town center,” Holden said of Essex Green. “What we want to do is elevate the facades and make a larger sidewalk. We want to create a green space and a community gathering space with outdoor seating. We’re very committed to finding a use for it.”
Clarion is seeking several variances from the Zoning Board of Adjustment for its plan; as per Clarion’s proposal, the board must approve where Clarion will be planting and moving trees on the property. At various Zoning Board meetings, residents have questioned the number of trees to be planted and the species used, arguing that species not native to New Jersey will not be properly cared for. Residents have also expressed concern that full-grown trees will be removed and replaced with immature trees.
“We’ve spent a lot of time working with a landscape architect,” Holden said of these issues. “We are adding new trees to the area. About 66 percent that are there are either dead or haven’t been taken care of properly. We’ve walked the property and decided where to transplant trees. The opportunity to reset the landscape to its full potential is very good.”
Holden said sustainability and noise control are important to the owners and they are in the process of looking into what green elements they can include in the property’s development.
“We’re evaluating solar power, electric vehicle charging stations and solar panels on the roof,” she said. “We’d like to make a common area outside the AMC and a rideshare meeting space could be there. We’re also looking into LED and energy-efficient lighting systems.”
In addition to landscaping and sustainability, Holden said Clarion wants to alter the entrance to the shopping center. Currently, most drivers enter from Prospect Avenue and turn right into the parking lot. To make the entrance and exit lanes more accessible, Holden said the directions would be changed to allow drivers to enter directly into the shopping center.
“A lot of delivery trucks are also cutting across the parking lot and this will change that,” she said. “If they go around Rooney Circle, they will be able to come back through that way. This will also connect to points on the surrounding property. It will connect to Marion Drive and will hopefully encourage people to walk around there.”
The owners are seeking a variance from the Zoning Board for a drive-through at one of the retail spaces, which Holden stressed would not be a fast food chain restaurant.
“We have a cafe and bakery tenant who would like to have a drive-through,” she said. “It would be landscaped with a retaining wall and a fence with awnings and windows. That place will also have outdoor seating.”
Holden added that the drive-through would be ideal for drivers with children in the car who don’t want to get out and go inside, or for individuals with disabilities that would make it difficult to get out of their cars and walk around.
“These are not going to be fast food places, they will be places that residents can sit and meet friends and linger for a while,” Holden said.
Though the shopping center was designated as in need of redevelopment, Clarion has chosen not to use the redevelopment process and is instead investing its own capital into the project. Clarion will not be seeking a payment in lieu of taxes.
“There was talk about it, but we’re investing our own capital,” Holden said.
Photos Courtesy of Clarion