Planning Board passes Essex Green proposal

Photo by Amanda Valentovic
Township planner Paul Grygiel answers questions from the Planning Board and the public at the Planning Board meeting on Dec. 6.

WEST ORANGE, NJ — After two meetings of testimony and discussion, the West Orange Planning Board passed a proposal saying that the 70-acre Essex Green property is an area in need of redevelopment. The recommendation will now go to the West Orange Township Council, which will consider whether the area should be designated as a redevelopment area.

The board passed the proposal 6-1, with board member Jerome Eben being the only opposing vote. Board member Gary Wegner was not eligible to vote because he was not present at the board’s November meeting, and did not have the opportunity to listen to the audio recording before the December meeting.

The recommendation was voted on after town planner Paul Grygiel, whose firm Phillips Preiss Grygiel, LLC, Planning & Real Estate Consultants is contracted by the town, gave a report finding that the Essex Green shopping center and office park meets the criteria to be designated as a non-condemned area in need of redevelopment.

Grygiel told the West Orange Chronicle in a Nov. 21 interview that approving this designation would give the town more control over the businesses that would lease space in Essex Green and the site’s overall direction, as well as opening the possibility for future tax abatements.

According to the report, the complex is “outmoded.” The 403,000 square feet of office space has a 58-percent vacancy rate, and the 330,000 square feet in the shopping center has a 33-percent vacancy rate. Some residents have raised concerns regarding the area being called “blighted,” a word not used anywhere in Grygiel’s report. Addressing questions about the word “blighted,” Grygiel explained that the property is not blighted and is not a condemned area that has fallen into disrepair. It is being considered for designation as a non-condemned redevelopment area based on the vacancy rates.

The complex is eligible to be designated as an area in need of redevelopment, according to the report, by meeting criteria that include discontinued use of buildings, unimproved vacant land, dilapidation and obsolescence. According to state law N.J.S.A. 40A:12A-5, “a delineated area may be determined to be in need of redevelopment if, after investigation, notice and hearing as provided in Section 6 of P.L.1992, c.79 (N.J.S.A. 40A:12A-6), the governing body of the municipality by resolution concludes that within the delineated area any of the following conditions is found.”

“The natural turnover rate is between 5 and 10 percent,” Grygiel said at the meeting. “When you get into the 20s you run into some trouble. This shopping center isn’t getting any newer. This is not uncommon throughout New Jersey for older shopping centers like this.”

He also pointed out that if the property is designated as an area in need of redevelopment, there is no guarantee that changes will be made immediately, if at all.

“It may change the use, it may not,” he said at the meeting. “This is a non-condemnation designation; condemnation was off the table for this property.”

Clarion Partners, which purchased Essex Green for $97 million in March 2016, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

“This is an important economic engine of our township,” Planning Board member Ron Weston said, explaining his reasoning for voting in favor of the proposal. “It meets the criteria in terms of what’s there. This is an integral part of our township and there are people who could be using that.”

Councilwoman Susan McCartney, who sits on the Planning Board as the council’s representative, also voted to support the recommendation.

“All we are at is step number one,” she said. “We’re just making the designation. The site right now is underperforming economically. And if we designate this, it’s an economic driver. We can transform the site to become more economically viable for the township, to generate additional tax revenue.”

Eben was the sole vote against passing the proposal because he said he wants to see the town do more without having the area designated as an area in need of redevelopment.

“There’s no doubt that there is validity to the report,” he said at the meeting. “We should ask our officials in the town, the people that we pay very good money to do a certain job, to do their job.”

Eben suggested using the township’s police, fire, building, zoning and even health departments to look into the facility and identify what needs to be done to improve it — a step he would like to see taken before designating the complex as an area in need of redevelopment. According to Eben, while the buildings on the property are outdated, there are measures that could be taken that would not involve a redevelopment designation.

“There’s things that could be done,” he said. “You could take ceilings out, you could do a lot to that building from an interior point of view right now and make that building viable. There’s no reason why it can’t be done, reasonably priced, with the corporation that owns it now.”

Several residents spoke at the meeting, expressing concern regarding the designation.

“You saw no gang activity, no graffiti, no drug use, so how is that detrimental to the safety, health, morals or welfare of the community?” resident Kevin Malanga asked, citing the statute regarding areas in need of redevelopment.

Another resident, Jennifer Larsen, questioned why the town would take this step rather than leaving it to Clarion, the site’s owner.

“Why this route, rather than looking to the developer to find the best use or find the use that would appeal to West Orange?” Larsen asked. “I would love to see a better, updated Essex Green than what’s there, but not at the expense of other things.”

Residents are also concerned with the potential financial implications this designation could bring, as it would make the site eligible for certain tax abatements. Residents fear that they would ultimately be paying for the complex’s renovation through their taxes.

According to Mayor Robert Parisi in a comprehensive Facebook post addressed to residents on Dec. 7, it is too early in the process for residents to have fears pertaining to Payment in Lieu of Taxes, or PILOTs.

“The idea of a PILOT is very premature at this time as we are focused on the zone and the plan primarily. No PILOT has been promised or discussed and, to be clear, without an eventual public use, the administration will not support or propose a PILOT,” Parisi wrote in his posting on the “West Orange 411” Facebook page. “The idea of a tax abatement or specifically a PILOT … on this project was not brought up by the township at this point, but has been made an issue by residents opposed to the concept.”

He did, however, stress that PILOTs are common in redevelopment in New Jersey. He cited data that shows that Bloomfield has four redevelopment projects and four separate PILOTs, Orange has two projects and two PILOTs, South Orange has five project and five PILOTs, Verona has two projects and two PILOTs, and Montclair has three projects and three PILOTs.

“I always respect the public’s opinion as that is an important role in my job, but it is also important that decisions be made based on facts — not fliers or (social media) posts that are filled with inaccurate information,” Parisi wrote, using the Edison Battery redevelopment as an example of how PILOTs can help a township. “The Main Street Redevelopment project has not cost West Orange taxpayers money. The property generates higher taxes than it did and the eventual PILOT payments will produce more revenue than the property ever could have before that. From a strictly economic position, the township makes out better in PILOT funding as the county only gets a small percentage based on statute and the township keeps the rest, enabling us to provide necessary funding to the Board of Education and netting a greater amount of money than under a traditional property tax structure where the township only keeps roughly 25 percent of the tax dollar.”

According to Parisi, this designation, for both Essex Green and the neighboring Executive Drive property, fills two priorities for the township: that the township will have a seat at the table regarding how these properties are redeveloped and that the zone can be available for public use, such as relocating the Public Works Department and the animal shelter.