Town discusses Essex Green designation

WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Planning Board discussed the possibility of the Essex Green shopping center and office buildings becoming an “area in need of redevelopment” at its Nov. 1 meeting, after town planner Paul Grygiel presented a report to the board that showed the redevelopment needs of the complex in West Orange. Town residents have spoken out against the possible designation, saying that the tax abatements for which the property would then be eligible would ultimately be a burden on taxpayers.

Clarion Partners bought Essex Green for $97 million in March 2016.

According to Grygiel in a phone interview with the West Orange Chronicle on Nov. 21, there are two different types of areas in need of redevelopment: one that has been condemned, and one that has not; he specified that Essex Green would be a non-condemned area in need of redevelopment.

“It allows for tax abatements and gives the municipality more control over future development,” Grygiel said. “The municipality can set parameters, and the town would have more control.”

The planning board is meeting again Dec. 6, and will again discuss the redevelopment proposal. If the planning board passes the proposal, it must then go to the Township Council for approval. Grygiel said that, should the proposal eventually be approved and passed by the council, there would be no immediate changes implemented that would affect the businesses currently part of Essex Green.

“In the immediate future, nothing will change,” he said. “Stores won’t have to close. In the future it’s possible that they may close or they may remain there. There’s no plan right now, it won’t do anything to affect those businesses. It does not in and of itself change the property and the tenants there.”

Grygiel’s report called the complex “outmoded.” Covering 65 acres, the report also said that 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.

“Everyone can see that the property is outdated, but nothing more,” West Orange resident Sally Malanga said at the Nov. 21 Township Council meeting. “I’m all for modernizing Essex Green — but without the help of West Orange taxpayers. For it to be declared an area in need of redevelopment, the facilities have to be in disrepair and you can’t find tenants. This is not the case with Essex Green.”

Resident Kevin Malanga questioned the use of the word “blight” as a description of the property, saying that Essex Green and the office complex is not a blighted area.

“It’s truly not a blighted area,” he said at the meeting. “It’s pretty well maintained. It’s a worthwhile endeavor, but it should be done with the company’s money, not taxpayers’.”

Councilwoman Susan McCartney said she currently supports the initiative to designate Essex Green as an area in need of redevelopment. She also pointed out that Grygiel’s report did not use the word “blight” anywhere in reference to the property.

“They are vacant and that is discontinued use,” McCartney said in reference to the empty storefronts in the shopping center. “It could be worth so much more. I don’t want to use taxpayer money; I have no intention of issuing bonds.”

McCartney, who is the council’s representative to the Planning Board, said that she supports the proposal to designate Essex Green as an area in need of redevelopment because it will give the municipality more control over the area.

“The retail market has changed so dramatically,” she said. “What I want is to be a part of that discussion; I want to see a total plan. There’s a lot that can be done with 70 acres.”

But council President Joe Krakoviak was less supportive of the proposal, saying that the town already has a seat at the table and already has a say in how the complex is developed.

“This is not an area that is sucking wind,” he said at the meeting. “We don’t need a redevelopment designation to have a say about what goes there. I’m concerned about potential major financial issues for the next 30 years.”

The planning board will discuss designating Essex Green as an “area in need of redevelopment” at its next meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 6, at Town Hall.