Council restarts redevelopment process at Executive Drive

WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Township Council passed two resolutions that restart the redevelopment process at Executive Drive at its Sept. 22 meeting, 11 days after an appellate court halted the previous plan with a unanimous decision from three judges. The new resolutions start the redevelopment process over: one authorized the West Orange Planning Board to undertake the investigation to determine whether the property qualifies as a noncondemnation area in need of redevelopment, and the other hired Heyer Gruel & Associates to complete the study. Both resolutions passed with a vote of 3-2; Councilwoman Cindy Matute-Brown and Councilman Joe Krakoviak cast the opposing votes.

The original plan would have turned 100 and 200 Executive Drive into a large apartment building, while redeveloping 10 Rooney Circle into a new library and animal shelter, and building a dog park on 2 acres of land on the property. A Payment in Lieu of Taxes deal was offered for 30 years.

That plan is now voided, as township attorney Richard Trenk said at the council meeting. The study will now be done on a smaller piece of land that does not include 300 Executive Drive.

“The only area that should be studied now is 10 Rooney, 100 Executive and 200 Executive,” Trenk said. “Essex Green is not part of this study. In addition, 300 Executive Drive, which is subject to a separate redevelopment plan that was never challenged in court, will not be part of any study area.”

Trenk pointed out that an amendment was made in 2019 to the state redevelopment law that qualifies the designation of buildings that have had vacancies of more than two years. The township administration believes that, under the amendment, the Executive Drive property will qualify.

Library Director Dave Cubie spoke at the meeting on behalf of himself and library board of trustees President Marge Mingin, asking the council to approve the resolutions to move forward with the process.

“The 10 Rooney Circle site will provide more space in the geographic center of town with more parking, safe spaces for outdoor reading and programming for children, and major technology upgrades and services so necessary for the changes within our society,” Cubie said at the meeting. “We are proud to support an overall project that will also create 65 affordable housing units at our current location.”

Several residents asked the council to vote down the resolutions at the meeting.

“I am completely surprised that just 11 days later that you the council have it back on your agenda to revisit this and to authorize yet another $30,000 for yet another planner to prove that Executive Drive is in need of redevelopment. The court has already answered that question,” resident Joyce Rudin said. “Who in the public is clamoring for this? Who amongst the voters in West Orange besides the developers? I haven’t seen the evidence of this, and I don’t think it’s a worthy project to move a library which is in walking distance to those people who most need the library.”

Gary Van Wyck said a PILOT should not be given to the developers in a time when many have lost their jobs. While neither resolution addressed PILOTs, they also didn’t rule one out.

“I think we should look at the ethics and economic imperative of granting those tax breaks at this stage if we are revisiting Executive Drive,” Van Wyck said. “I strongly recommend that everybody on the council takes to heart our soaring tax burden in West Orange and leave the owners to develop that property on their own dime instead of on ours.”

Matute-Brown, who voted in favor of the original redevelopment plan, said she wasn’t comfortable with moving forward on the redevelopment plan so soon after the appellate court’s decision.

“A lot of things have changed, and that also includes the world that we live in today,” she said at the meeting. “I feel a little rushed in this decision before the council. We don’t know what post-COVID looks like. I am not comfortable in this space right now, with this just being 11 days out.”

Krakoviak did not vote in favor of the original plan.

“There’s absolutely no reason that they can’t do it themselves,” he said of redevelopers. “I’m a big proponent of the library. I support an improved, expanded, modernized library. But that library does not have to be held hostage to a PILOT. If that’s the building that we think we should get, we should start negotiating for it.”

Council President Michelle Casalino, Councilwoman Susan McCartney and Councilman Jerry Guarino want to continue pursuing the project.

“We have to look at the whole thing, at what it will do in the long run,” Guarino said. “I’d like to see if it’s feasible.”