MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The Maplewood Planning Board unanimously granted final approval to the controversial Post House development during its Dec. 8 meeting, thus ending an extended process that saw numerous revisions to the site plan, shows of both objection and support from residents, and a lawsuit.
With its 9-0 vote, the board officially gave its permission for JMF Maplewood LLC and Gladstone of Maplewood LLC — the property owners who closed the deal to buy the old post office building for $1,250,000 on Nov. 16 — to construct a mixed-use facility, which will include 20 residential units and five retail spaces. The decision comes after the board had already granted preliminary approval to the project on Oct. 13, shortly after the developers presented an altered site plan that shifted the structure closer to Maplewood Avenue by approximately 6 feet and farther south by 10 feet to accommodate a wider driveway at Ricalton Square.
Mayor Vic DeLuca said the building process will begin in early 2016. And while it has taken a rather long time for the project to be approved, DeLuca is pleased that it is finally coming to fruition.
“I believe this will be a positive addition to Maplewood Village,” DeLuca told the News-Record in a Dec. 11 email.
DeLuca is not the only one happy to see the project passed. Victor Gallo of Village Facts, a local organization whose members say they are committed to providing the truth about the development to the rest of the community, told the News-Record that his group is also satisfied with the Planning Board’s decision and its willingness to listen to residents.
“We are pleased that the process has moved forward and that the Planning Board included conditions in the final site plan that were requested by Village Facts to ensure the use of high-quality building finishes” Gallo said in a Dec. 12 message. “Village Facts plans to closely monitor the construction to make sure that these conditions are adhered to and enforced.”
But not everyone was glad to see the Post House approved. Dirk Olin, president of the opposition group Village Keepers, called the Planning Board’s decision a “terrible mistake,” lamenting that the project is “too big,” “cheaply designed,” and in conflict with the look and feel of the village.
Olin said the aesthetic of the project will harm Maplewood Village in the long run.
“This is going to degrade the look and atmosphere of a village that was just voted most charming in the state,” Olin told the News-Record in a Dec. 14 email. “This dreck will be the first thing that people will see when they get off the train. That will detract from market values of the residential properties in town because the village is what attracts lots of home buyers.
“Just as concerning, this is a dangerous precedent,” he added. “That’s why, going forward, Village Keepers will be advocating for new protections against any similar violations of the governance process and the village aesthetic.”
Olin voiced his disappointment as much in the process that brought about the Post House as in the project itself, criticizing the Maplewood Township Committee in particular for its handling of the situation. In the past year alone, the Village Keepers president asserted that the committee ignored world-renowned architect Richard Meier’s advice not to go through with the development, sold the property at an “absurdly low purchase price” with a five-year PILOT before final approval had even been granted, and “surrendered public land forever without seriously considering a public use.” Additionally, Olin lamented the fact that the Planning Board gave its preliminary approval less than an hour after the developers introduced the revised site plan, giving residents no time to review the changes for themselves.
Engineer Dave Helmkamp and architectural designer Inda Sechzer, who are both members of OhNo60!, another opposition group, agreed that the process left much to be desired. They said they were particularly frustrated that the Township Committee appeared not to give much thought to adaptively reusing the old post office building, pointing out that the RFP it issued called for a new construction, though they were told no feasibility study was ever done for the possibility of saving the existing structure.
That is tremendously disappointing, Sechzer said, because the bricks and steel structure of the old post office building are essentially in “pristine” condition despite their age. She said Maplewood could easily spruce up the building and make it into something the whole town could enjoy; instead, Sechzer said, it is tearing down masonry and steel to put up new masonry and steel, which she said does not make sense for a community that prides itself on being green.
“From a sustainability point of view, it’s incredibly wasteful,” Sechzer told the News-Record in a Dec. 11 phone interview.
And although dozens of residents spoke out against the project, Helmkamp said he did not feel as though their voices had been truly heard by the township. As proof, he said all one has to do is view the site plan.
“We’re looking at the same building that was proposed by JMF a year ago,” Helmkamp told the News-Record in a Dec. 11 phone interview. “The overall structure — where the doors and windows are and how many apartments there are and how many stores there are — none of that has changed at all.
“If you have a situation like that, that’s evidence that the developer’s priority was first and foremost,” he said.
DeLuca disagreed that the opinions of community members had been discounted. In fact, the mayor said the township made sure to get everyone’s feedback during the process.
“There were more formal and informal meetings and public hearings about this project than any other project in town,” DeLuca said, pointing out that the originally planned fourth story was excised and parking would be located underground at the request of community members.
“Concerns of residents were factored into the final design,” the mayor said.
Even though the project has been approved, Helmkamp and Sechzer said they still have concerns about the old post office building — or more specifically, what could lie underneath it. They said that in reviewing the building’s 1956 site plan, they noticed the architect had indicated that the basement foundation walls and footings from the 1869 Ricalton Schoolhouse — originally located at the site — were to be largely preserved when the school was eventually demolished to make room for the post office. A crawl space was to be constructed so that people could access what parts of that structure were saved.
While there is no guarantee anything is there, Helmkamp and Sechzer said they asked the township to investigate the matter with the hope of rescuing some artifacts before the post office building is torn down. But they said the township told them the building is the responsibility of the developers now, and passed the request to JMF and Gladstone. Whether the matter is looked into or not is up to them, but Sechzer said she hopes the developers follow through for the good of local history.
“If something’s there, maybe they could dig it out and put it on one of the sites that the town owns (where residents can see it),” Sechzer said. “We feel it’s worth investigating even if we find out there’s nothing there.”
Joe Forgione and Steve Kalafer, respective principals of JMF Maplewood and Gladstone of Maplewood, did not respond to requests for comment before press time Dec. 15.