Township officials met with the community Wednesday night at Edison School to review the details of the highly-debated project to redevelop the Thomas Edison factory building on Main Street.
Mayor Robert Parisi, along with representatives from the land's developer, Prism Capital Partners, LLC, fielded three hours of questions from a roomful of residents, eager to discuss the $125 million redevelopment plan.
Phase I of the project calls for 333 luxury apartment units for-rent and 18,500 square feet of retail space in the Edison battery building. It will also include a 635-space parking garage and a Jitney service to both the Orange and South Orange New Jersey Transit train stations.
Eugene Diaz, of Prism, underscored Prism's commitment to the project and said the company had been working to redevelop the land for years.
"We have stayed the course with this property … We stuck with it, we have it, we own, it, we have significant cash equity investment in it and we're prepared to use addition capital necessary to get it going and get it finished under this new plan which we believe is the right plan at the right time," he said. Up to date, Prism has poured more than $60 million on the 20-acre property and paid more the $3 million in land taxes.
"I know while some of you today might have your misgivings, once its built, everyone will walk around saying that's in my backyard, that's Edison's building in West Orange, you'll be proud of it."
While a handful of residents praised the plan to revitalize the downtown, many were concerned over the impact of the project on taxes, traffic, schools and the neighborhood. Others claimed the renovated building would fail to garner new residents.
Parisi was steadfast in his commitment to redevelop the area and admitted though he may not have all the quantitative data to prove redevelopment could revitalize the downtown corridor, "None of us know what's going to happen 20 years from now … at some point it comes down to having faith in what we are doing or not having faith."
"In a very difficult climate, we have the opportunity to see investment in our downtown," he said.
Why Include the Taxpayer?
Key among concerns was residents' staunch opposition to bonding $6.3 in general obligation bonds to the developer for infrastructure costs.
Resident Rosary Morelli questioned why the developer couldn't foot an additional money if the entire project would cost roughly $250 million. "It's pennies to you," she said.
Though Parisi admitted it was a "significant amount of money" for West Orange, he said the township spends millions of dollars every year investing in various neighborhoods.
"I don't believe significant investment in our downtown is going to happen without some sort of commitment to the infrastructure," he said. "We believe the interests of the township are protected."
Under the financial agreement for the project, the developer will repay 50 percent of the issued bonds to the township, with interest.
Diaz said infrastructure costs are usually undertaken by municipalities to support projects, "Whether you build offices, apartments, condos, retail or whatever it is … the infrastructure that is downtown is not capable today of supporting that kind of change. That absolutely has to happen."
The township will also enter a payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) agreement, whereby the developer agrees to pay a usually reduced amount to the township instead of regularly applied real estate taxes. PILOT provides incentives for the developers and residents seeking to buy the units.
The payments will subsidize additional municipal services needed for additional residents, Parisi said.
The PILOT payments will be 10 percent of the project's gross revenue. They are predicted to be roughly $950,000 in the first stabilized year, Diaz said.
While general taxes on a property would divert roughly 30 percent to the township, under the PILOT program, 90 percent goes straight to the municipality. The school district does not receive a percentage of the PILOT. Under general taxes, 60 percent is allocated to the school district.
Parisi, though, said the administration would work out an agreement with school officials to pay a per pupil cost for each student that comes out of the redevelopment project. He said a portion of the PILOT payments will be dolled out to the school district to offset the costs of additional students.
According to a Prism report, four percent of the 600 new residents at the Edison apartments are projected to be children.
Board of education member Megan Brill said the district would need a new elementary school in five years regardless of whether the development produced 40 new school kids.
'Faith' in the Downtown
Throughout the presentation, many residents expressed concern that the units would remain vacant.
"You're expecting people to move into the most challenged area of town," said one resident who did not disclose his name to Patch. "Attempting to put in a high-end development on Main Street is illusory."
With a 24-hour doorman and 14-foot ceilings, Diaz said the units will cater to a high-end demographic and people that make roughly $90,000 to $100,000 a year.
He estimated a one-bedroom, measuring 900 square feet, would rent for $1,500 to $2,000 a month.
"I am precisely in the demographic and socio-economic group that you addressed. It would be another lifetime before I move down to Main Street. One of the things we need to do is a reality check," said the resident who would not give his name.
Resident Maritza Brown begged to differ.
"If we don't have a downtown West Orange for the West Orange people to go to, then that's saying we don't believe in our town. These people that are saying they're not going to come downtown, then that means you don't believe in your town. We're thinking too small, we need to think bigger. We have an empty lot and someone's willing to invest millions of dollars in it," she said.
Other amenities of the project include:
- Washer/dryer in every unit
- An indoor pool and 16,000 square feet fitness center
- Roof-top with New York City skyline views
- Parks and open green spaces with walkways to the shopping area
- A lobby with an Edison historical exhibit
The Downtown Neighborhood
Though the meeting was catered to the residents in the immediate vicinity of the Edison lot, it was also open to the public at large.
Parisi took responsibility for only sending informational calls to area residents. "The administration was criticized that we didn't do enough to reach out specifically to the neighborhood that would be most impacted," he said. "This was not to exclude other people, it's simply an attempt to make sure that the people here that would live it everyday had an opportunity to come and be heard."
One such resident made an appeal to the administration to stop the rental project.
"Please consider us, living there everyday," said Laura Vazquez, who has lived in the downtown for 20 years. "I have seen my neighborhood, downtown, deteriorate (in the past 10 years) because there are no homeowners around my neighborhood, it's all people renting."
Though she agreed something needed to be done in the area, she said adding more rentals would only feed current problems in her neighborhood. "People that are going to come to these places are going to to create even greater problems than we already have," she said,
Others worried the possibility of a luxury building opening up in the middle of the downtown corridor would create an exclusive community.
Diaz assured that the building would not be a walled-up community. "This was designed with the idea of incorporation in mind." He said residents would be able to use the open spaces around the community.
The township council will vote Feb. 21 on two ordinances and a resolution to approve the finances and the infrastructure for Phase I of the project. If the resolution is voted down, the project will not move forward.
If approved by the council and the zoning board, the project will be complete in 20 months.
"I do believe that a revitalized downtown is good for the town," Parisi said.