WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Township Council voted 4-1 at its Jan. 9 meeting to approve a resolution that designates the Essex Green and Executive Drive area as an “area in need of redevelopment,” based on a recommendation from the West Orange Planning Board. Councilman Joe Krakoviak was the only opposing vote.
Krakoviak’s main concern and reason for voting against Resolution No. 17-18 was that the measure makes the owners of the 70-acre property near the center of West Orange eligible for certain tax abatements should they redevelop the mall and office park. Krakoviak is concerned this will result in the town earning less in annual tax revenue — a possibility he does not want to risk.
Before the discussion and vote on the resolution, township attorney Richard Trenk gave a presentation on the planning board’s decision to recommend that the council designate the property as an area in need of redevelopment, using the October 2017 report by town planner Paul Grygiel and his firm Phillips Preiss Grygiel LLC.
The report describes Essex Green and Executive Drive as “outmoded” and indicates that there is a 58-percent vacancy rate in the 403,000 square feet of office space and a 33-percent vacancy rate in the shopping center, which has 330,000 square feet. The property was bought by Clarion Partners in March 2016 for $97 million.
Should Clarion choose to redevelop the area, Trenk stressed that this designation allows the town to have more say in the process.
“By doing so, the township will have input in the plan,” Trenk said at the meeting. “We want input on this central piece of property for the entire town, and make sure it meets the township’s needs in the next 50 to 100 years.”
Council President Susan McCartney cited that as one reason why she voted in favor of the resolution. She also stressed that the resolution passed Jan. 9 was not a plan for redevelopment and did not mention tax abatements. According to McCartney, the resolution solely decided whether a plan would be made going forward.
“By being part of the redevelopment plan, it will help us redesign and enhance 70 acres in the heart of our town,” she said. “That is what we are voting on now.”
Councilman Victor Cirilo acknowledged that labelling Essex Green and Executive Drive an area in need of redevelopment is a “stretch,” but said office parks are becoming obsolete across the country, and he doesn’t want to see the area fall into a greater state of disrepair. According to Cirilo, the option of tax abatements — which Krakoviak and several residents at the meeting were opposed to — could be the deciding factor between a thriving site and one falling into disrepair.
“The Edison Battery Factory property would never have been built without tax abatements, therefore the township has lost no money on this agreement,” Cirilo said regarding the redevelopment project currently in progress on Main Street. “The area can easily become a dump if we leave it to market forces.”
Nevertheless, Krakoviak voted against the resolution because he does not want there to be a possibility of tax abatements
“There’s a really quick, easy way to fix this if we decide and we say and we agree that we are not going to approve tax abatements or PILOTs,” Krakoviak said.
Councilwoman Michelle Casalino said she voted in favor of the resolution because it will give the administration a chance to be involved in making a redevelopment plan with Clarion.
“I don’t feel I’m serving the community unless I say ‘yes’ to this resolution, and give the administration a chance to get us the best deal,” she said. Casalino also said that voting in favor of the resolution did not necessarily mean that she would vote in favor of the possible redevelopment plan when it is on the council’s agenda. She stressed that the two issues were separate and that she would need to see a truly good redevelopment plan before voting in favor of it.
Residents who attended the meeting were largely in opposition to the resolution, with more than a dozen voicing their concerns during the public comment portion of the meeting. Resident Adam Kraemer said the council members and administration should let the office space and retail markets decide what could happen with the property, calling the resolution “ill-advised public policy.” He was also concerned about the potential tax abatements Clarion could receive, saying that the taxes lost from the area would then fall on West Orange residents.
“I think you should let market forces decide what to do with the land,” Kraemer said. “Let Clarion Partners take the risk, not West Orange taxpayers.”
Norman Turner, another resident, shared the same viewpoint.
“Redevelopment is a great thing, don’t ever get me wrong,” Turner said at the meeting. “I would like to see the neighborhood and the place get redeveloped. But redevelopment at the expense of local taxpayers is not what you do. I don’t see the council protecting the local taxpayers. Don’t shove it down the throats of the people who live here.”