SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — The Master Plan Management Committee held a townwide listening session at the Loft in the South Orange Performing Arts Center on Feb. 27, as it continues to solicit feedback from the community during the visioning phase of creating the Master Plan.
An initial townwide listening session was scheduled for Feb. 12, but was canceled due to snow; a final session will be Saturday, March 16, from 3 to 5 p.m. at SOPAC.
These listening sessions are in addition to the many sessions being held in the 10 identified South Orange neighborhoods. Each neighborhood has a neighborhood ambassador chairperson who works with neighborhood liaisons to bring information to the Steering Committee, which will then report to the Management Committee about the findings.
The Management Committee includes village President Sheena Collum, Planning Board Chairman Harold Colton-Max, Planning and Zoning Committee Chairman Trustee Mark Rosner and zoning official Greer Patras, as well as an administrator designee, two at-large members and Topology, the planning firm that is overseeing the master plan.
The Feb. 27 townwide listening session was standing-room only as residents engaged with one another and the Topology staff to discuss what they envision for the future of South Orange.
The conversation ran the gamut of topics, covering everything from the possible expansion of jitney services and affordable housing to ensuring safeguards that protect small business owners from rising rent prices.
The listening session was guided by a list of set questions that were moderated by two Topology staff members. These questions asked included: What are some favorite communities to visit outside South Orange and why? Is anyone looking to move in the next five years and, if so, why? How would you characterize the commercial district? And, what do you think of the mobility and circulation in South Orange?
Many attendees cited Montclair as their town of choice outside South Orange, with reasons varying from a wider selection of entertainment to more child-friendly activities.
“We should aspire to be more like Montclair, or even our sister town Maplewood,” said one audience member. “Both have vibrant and walkable downtown areas.”
On the subject of relocation in the next five years, many audience members shared that, as taxes continue to increase in the area, they will have no choice but to move.
“Once I retire, I won’t be able to afford South Orange taxes, and I may not be able to get around as easily as I do now,” said one attendee. “I need to live where it is affordable, I have access to reliable transportation and I can maintain a quality of life that I’m comfortable with.”
Another couple in the audience stated that they have plans to move out of South Orange due to the lack of diversity.
“I don’t see any diversity in our neighborhood,” they said. “Our daughter is the only black child for several blocks, and the enrollment of black students in the school district is decreasing.”
Regarding perceptions of the commercial areas in South Orange, the police station construction and vacant former town hall were identified as sites that are unpleasant to look at and in need of work.
Another issue identified is the lack of space and development of professional offices.
“There’s a lot of construction focusing on commercial and retail spaces, but there is no office space to be found in South Orange,” said one audience member.
Commercial area improvements suggested by residents were road repairs and new paint jobs, and adopting a more consistent exterior for local businesses.
“There’s no uniformity in the facades of either downtown or Irvington Avenue,” one resident said. “It looks like a whole hodge-podge of whatever anyone wants to do.”
Parking, traffic and walkability were other topics many residents said the town should pay close attention to; concerns that were mentioned included a lack of well-designated areas for pedestrians, sidewalks in disrepair from potholes and lack of drainage, and a lack of bike paths outside of the main roads.
Areas cited as having the worst traffic were South Orange Avenue near Rite Aid, the gazebo near the South Orange Rescue Squad and Third Street whenever a train arrives, Valley Street during rush hour, and the intersection of Ridgewood Road and South Orange Avenue.
Attendees also said South Orange will have to increase affordable housing units in order to meet legal requirements and ensure that the community remains diverse. Collum told audience members that the town is lagging in its affordable housing efforts.
“In the past it was authorized that municipalities could do regional contributions and pay other communities to build affordable housing for low- and moderate-income families, which was a practice that South Orange engaged,” Collum said in a recent phone interview. “Developers were previously able to get away with it by not building the housing but paying into affordable housing trust fund. I’m a huge advocate for affordable housing and for bringing South Orange into compliance. All new construction has a requirement to produce 20 percent of affordable units.”
As the visioning phase continues, community groups who are providing input include representatives from: the Board of Adjustment, Historic Preservation Commission, Seton Hall University, South Orange-Maplewood School District, Community Relations Committee, Village Center Alliance, South Orange Chamber of Commerce, Interfaith Clergy Association, Valley Street Corridor, Community Coalition on Race, Arts Advisory Committee, Senior Citizens Advisory Committee, South Orange Public Library Board of Trustees, Transportation Advisory Committee, Designer Review Board, Environmental Commission, Development Committee, People With Disabilities and South Orange Parking Authority.
Once the visioning phase concludes, the next step will be a drafting phase, which will take place from May through October, when plans are developed by a technical review committee that includes Topology and the village administration. For more information, visit www.somasterplan.com.