WEST ORANGE, NJ — Mayor Robert Parisi announced that Edison Village redeveloper DGP Urban Renewal LLC is about ready to close on the $70 million construction loan it had been seeking to fund phase 1 of the project in his State of the Township Address at the West Orange Chamber of Commerce’s annual breakfast at the Wilshire Grand Hotel on Feb. 3.
Parisi said the loan can close after the West Orange Township Council approves some “minor” amendments to the redevelopment agreement and related township documents, which the mayor stressed would not change the structure of the proposed mixed-use building or the township’s position on it.
And while Edison Village critics may be skeptical that the project will soon be moving forward after a decade of delays, Parisi said obtaining the loan ensures that 2016 is the year redevelopment comes to the downtown area.
“Following council action, this long-suffering project and redevelopment of the several acres of land that was first declared a redevelopment zone 16 years ago will finally begin full-scale construction and help to change the face of Main Street,” Parisi said. “I may not be able to make people believe that but this year, once and for all, will show that to be true and this project will be built.”
In an interview with the West Orange Chronicle after the speech, Parisi said he could not list any of the amendments off the top of his head, saying they are all contractual language changes requested by the lender that he believes are not very significant. He said the township is currently preparing copies of the amended documents for council members to review prior to vote, which he hopes will take place at the Feb. 23 council meeting.
But no voting will take place until after the township is assured that the loan will be closed, and the redevelopment agreement will be executed as soon as the amendments are made official, Parisi said. The mayor said DGP has promised the administration that those events will happen immediately after the council approves those changes. Still, he said the amendments will not go before the council until the redeveloper provides paperwork guaranteeing that.
Meanwhile, Parisi said he can understand if residents remain skeptical about the project’s future in spite of this latest development, acknowledging that the township has come close to moving forward in the past only to suffer setbacks. Yet through it all, he said the administration will not be discouraged.
“The only thing that would convince people (about the project’s future) is the start of full-scale construction,” Parisi told the Chronicle in a Feb. 8 phone interview. “I understand that and respect that. But that doesn’t mean the town is going to stop pressing forward to try to get this done. We’ve all worked hard. A lot has been happening behind the scenes to get us to this point.
“I don’t believe the amendments in the language of the documents are major changes,” he continued. “We’re comfortable with those changes and hope the council will be as well.”
Council President Victor Cirilo told the Chronicle he has not seen any of the specific changes but, having been involved with the preliminary discussions, knows the language mostly concerns subordination issues. Still, Cirilo said he is optimistic about the project’s future if the amendments are approved and the loan is closed. Based on his redevelopment knowledge, he said full-scale construction should begin shortly after the $70 million of funding is in place.
And that is good news for the downtown area, the council president said, because redevelopment has the potential to infuse new life into Main Street.
“I believe redevelopment is a fine tool to assist in the rehabilitation of historic areas,” Cirilo said in a Feb. 4 phone interview. “Redevelopment is the tool to make revitalization happen. It triggers additional investment. And I will continue to support this initiative. I believe that that’s in the best interest of West Orange as a whole.”
But Councilman Joe Krakoviak, a longtime Edison Village opponent, is not so sure what to think. He told the Chronicle that this is because he knows “absolutely nothing” about the amendments despite the fact that he has frequently requested updates on the project from the administration and redevelopment counsel. As a result, considering the “many times the mayor and redeveloper have promised progress in the project and then failed to deliver,” the councilman said he is reserving judgment until after he is provided with something concrete to examine.
Redevelopment was not the only subject Parisi discussed during his speech. The mayor warned that the township is facing a significant operating deficit for 2016 as a result of rising prices of fixed costs like insurance and basic operating expenses. Despite recent successes, including the reduction of 15 percent of the municipal workforce since 2010 and the restructuring of debt to save money from annual debt payments, he said measures will have to be taken to respond to this problem. He said that means looking at cutting programs and expenses, eliminating several more positions and implementing a tax increase.
“The only thing equal to the frustration of the budget process itself is the frustration of raising taxes,” Parisi said. “But this year’s budget presents a serious challenge and may ultimately impact the delivery of the services we have grown accustomed to.”
The mayor also acknowledged the “devastating” loss of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, which was severely damaged by a fire on New Year’s Day. As it is a national and historic landmark as well as a Main Street icon, he pointed out that the 188-year-old building will not be easy to replace, likely requiring a long and challenging process. Yet the township is not losing hope that the church can be saved.
“The township is committed to working with the church and the experts on each step with the hopes that, together, we can return the property and the building to its proper prominence,” Parisi said.
On a happier note, Parisi paid tribute to longtime West Orange registrar Denise Urso as Employee of the Year for her 30 years of service to the township. Joining the West Orange Health Department in 1986 shortly after graduating from West Orange High School, the mayor said Urso has climbed the ranks to her present position in a career characterized by “consistency, cheerfulness and a dedicated commitment to making each and every resident feel important.”
According to Parisi, despite the trials she has endured as she was treated for breast cancer during the past several months, she has maintained that level of enthusiasm at work as she helps residents, which, he said, just shows the type of person she is.
Now that her cancer treatments are completed, Parisi said the township is grateful for Urso’s good health and blessed to have her as an employee for years to come.
The West Orange Elks Lodge 1590 was also honored as Citizens of the Year for “relentlessly and faithfully” supporting important causes since being established in town during the 1950s. From hosting events for veterans to sending special needs children to camp to sponsoring local organizations like the Police Athletic League and the Community House, Parisi said the Elks have been a “loyal and steady force” in West Orange for decades. It would be hard to imagine life in this community without them, he said, which is why they deserved to be recognized.
Upon accepting the award, Lodge 1590’s Exalted Ruler Donald Reitmeyer expressed gratitude to the township for honoring the lodge’s contributions, adding that his organization was proud to give back to the community. Reitmeyer also thanked the lodge members for their work.
“Due to their efforts and all Elk members’, we are able to make a difference,” Reitmeyer said.
Looking to the year ahead, Parisi closed his speech by reminding residents that life does not have to be perfect to be fulfilling. While things might not always go as planned in their lives, he said everyone should be grateful to live in a community with “great programs,” “stimulating schools,” “safe streets” and “wonderful neighbors.” The mayor said everyone should feel lucky to be part of such a special place as West Orange.
“We are surrounded with everything we could ever hope for from life,” Parisi said, “2016 will be what we make of it.”
REVISED: The article originally said that the Township Council will not vote until it is assured the loan is closed. The sentence has been changed to reflect that the council will not vote until they are assured the loan will be closed.