February 1, 2014 at 7:45 AM
MAPLEWOOD, NJ – The Township hosted an information session with the designated developers of the downtown Post Office site in an effort to inform the public about the progress made on the project and to solicit feedback.
Mayor Victor DeLuca kicked things off with a recap of the events that have led up to this point. The Township Committee had decided fifteen years ago that the property could be put to a higher and better use than as a post office, and chose to not continue the lease of the post office building, which was set to expire in November 2013. From 2011 through 2013, the Township held various public meetings to gain resident and merchant feedback and hired the planning firm Phillips Preiss Grygiel, as well as a team of students from Columbia University, to explore potential uses for the property.
In February of 2013, a plan was written outlining the parameters the Township wanted to see in the project. After more public input, the plan was approved in July of 2013, and the Township solicited Requests for Qualifications to find out which developers might be interested in acquiring the property and developing it.
They received packages from eight developers and chose three of those to submit proposals.
There had been much public criticism of the Committee for not allowing residents and merchants to review the proposals prior to choosing the developer, L&M Development Partners.
“One thing I want to stress is that this is not a final product,” said DeLuca. “Anything you see here is still going to go through a lot more discussion with the stakeholders. Every time we have a meeting, we get better ideas than what we have already. There is going to be pushing and pulling of various aspects.”
He noted that parking and the look of the building, construction details and more are still in the process of being decided. The Maplewood Village Alliance Design Committee will be involved in crafting hr final designs, and it will be a number of months before anything is ready to go before the Planning Board.
Jonathan Cortell of L&M Development Partners presented the initial design concepts which he admitted are already in the process of being changed based on feedback from local merchants and residents.
“I am a Maplewood resident,” Cortell said. “I work for a development company which has at its disposal contacts and resources who can collaborate with us in assuring that what we do here on this site is preserve and extend the greatness of Maplewood.”
The plans as described would place a 10,000 square foot Kings Supermarket in the lower level, which would be sub-grade on the uphill side of the sloped property and at grade level on the downhill side, near Village Coffee. Above that would be a floor of retail spaces, possibly divided between three retailers (to be determined later) at sidewalk level. Above that would be three stories of rental apartments, comprised of one and two bedroom apartments.
A key element to the design is a thoroughfare behind the building that would allow cars and pedestrians to travel all the way from Baker Street to Ricalton Square.
As described, the plan would bring a net gain of 27 parking spaces to the site. Residents of the apartments would be granted overnight parking permits for the site, but would have to move their cars elsewhere during the day (except on Sundays). Additionally, employees of the businesses in the building will not be allowed to park onsite, but will have permits for designated parking elsewhere.
The issue of the disruption of village life, traffic and parking during demolition and construction was addressed. Bill Balter of Wilder Balter Partners explained that the demolition should take less than one month, and the rare moments of traffic disruption will take lace only when trucks enter and leave the site with the debris. He estimated the construction phase to last about ten months, and expected the impact to village life to be minimal, since the design of the site will allow all staging to take place behind the structure.
A question and answer session followed the presentation. One issue raised was the loading dock situation for a larger supermarket. It was explained that the dock would be behind the building, and that during the delivery window of hours (which would be limited) some parking would be obstructed.
“We will be able to make things dramatically better than they are now, but it won’t have everything on their (Kings) wish list,” Balter said. He noted that the current store requires trucks to park on Maplewood Avenue, a situation that creates problems with traffic. That will no longer be the case.
One resident asked if the train platform could be opened to Ricalton Square to allow commuters to exit trains directly to the site without using tunnels. Cortell said they will be talking to New Jersey Transit about what changes and options might be considered.
Dave Helmkamp of Engage Maplewood noted that the drawings did not seem to include the full 10,000 square feet of retail space and 5,000 feet of back-of-house space Kings has indicated it wants, and asked it the first floor retail spaces would have to be encroached upon. No firm answer was given, but it was said that many creative options will be considered to achieve the desired results for all.
A concern was raised about the choice of design elements and building materials, which was not entirely in keeping with the character of the rest of the village.
“It is important to us to weave this building into the fabric of the village,” Richard Metsky of architecture firm Beyer Blinder Belle said. They promised to bring cohesive design elements into the project as it progresses.
Another major concern is the scale of the building, with some feeling that it is simply too large for its surroundings. Cortell said that the plans were drawn using the parameters set forth in the Township’s proposal guidelines. The same objection had been raised during the public meetings when that plan was being finalized.
A resident asked what would become f the current Kings space if and when they move across the street. DeLuca indicated that Kings would have about 15 years remaining on its lease of that space and it would be up to them to find a replacement to sublease the space.
When asked what impact the 25 residential units would have on the already overcrowded school system, it was estimated that the building would house five children of which two would probably be school age.
One resident asked why not put underground parking beneath the building. First the issues of time and expense were raised, but then civil engineer Jack Ingles brought up concerns about digging so deep that close to the train tracks and to Maplewood Avenue and thought there were too many negative possibilities. DeLuca raised the possibility of a parking deck somewhere in the village in the future to address the need for more, since it appears that this project will not solve the village’s parking shortage.
Local resident Inda Sechzer asked why the building had 25 residential units and a fifth level that put it out of scale with the rest of the avenue, and suggested that a building one story lower with fewer units would be more appropriate for the neighborhood. Again, the developers stated that they were simply following the allowable guidelines from the town’s RFP, but did say that with the building’s upper floor setbacks, its mass should appear more acceptable.
Regarding the state mandate regarding affordable housing, it was stated that the building would follow the state guideline of 10% of the units being affordable, which in the end will be two or three of the units.
A video of the meeting may be viewed here: