WEST ORANGE, NJ – After more than three hours of debate among members of the West Orange Township Council and the public, the council voted 4-1 to approve a resolution designating the Essex Green and Executive Drive area as an “area in need of redevelopment” consistent with recommendations recently made by the West Orange Planning Board.
Councilman Joe Krakoviak was the only council member to vote against this resolution at the council meeting on Tuesday. All 16 West Orange residents who spoke about this resolution during public comment also strongly opposed it.
The main concern cited by most of the residents was that this resolution would open the door to tax abatements for a property that was bought for $97 million in March 2016 by Clarion Partners, which has more than $43 billion in real estate holdings worldwide.
Before the residents lambasted the resolution, township counsel Richard Trenk laid out the case as to why the planning board voted to call Essex Green and Executive Drive “an area in need of redevelopment.”
In his presentation, Trenk said that the planning board found that the buildings were obsolete, which has led to high vacancy rates.
According to a report prepared for the township by professional planner Paul Grygiel, Executive Drive has 403,000 square feet of office space and currently has a 58-percent vacancy rate. In addition, the report states that there is 330,000 square feet in the shopping center, which now has a 33-percent vacancy rate. The report called Essex Green “outmoded,” Trenk said.
“Why should the township get involved in the redevelopment of this area?” said Trenk. “By doing so, [the township] will have input in the plan. 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.”
Among the first residents to object to the resolution was Adam Kramer, who called the resolution “ill-advised public policy.”
“Let market forces decide what to do with the land…Let Clarion Partners take the risk—not West Orange taxpayers,” said Kramer.
Referring to the high office-vacancy rates, attorney Michael Kalmus said he was told that there were no availabilities in the Executive Drive buildings when he inquired last year about moving his firm there.
“We ultimately moved to the Eisenhower Corporate Center,” he said. “I was later told that the developer is purposely not leasing spaces for what appears to be ulterior motives.”
Resident Kevin Malanga said the area must be blighted to be eligible for redevelopment.
“Most of the corporate buildings in our town need updating,” said Malanga. “Does that mean they are eligible for redevelopment? It certainly does not.”
In resident Robert Daniel’s comments, he referred to the Phase 2 of the Edison Redevelopment Project, which calls for the moving of the West Orange Department of Public Works and animal shelter.
“Don’t lie to us,” he said. “Stop the disinformation. Township officials are looking to give a tax abatement to Clarion to get a new location for the Public Works Department.”
Clare Sylvestri asked the council to look into why the Essex Green occupancy rate has gone from 96 percent when Clarion bought it two years ago to only 77 percent occupancy now.
“Why has the vacancy rate ballooned since Clarion took over?” she asked.
After taking in the comments, which included personal attacks against council members, newly instated Council President Susan McCartney spoke first about why she favored this resolution. She said that calling this an “area in need of redevelopment” is not synonymous with giving the developer tax abatements.
“By being part of the redevelopment plan, it will help us redesign and enhance 70 acres in the heart of our town,” said McCartney. “That is what we are voting on now with this resolution.”
Krakoviak said he was voting against the resolution in part because he estimated that the township would be making approximately $4 million more in property taxes now if Prism Capital Partners did not receive tax abatements to redevelop the Edison Battery Factory property. Krakoviak added that Essex Green provides the township with $4.5 million in annual tax revenues, and he did not want to jeopardize this revenue.
“The Edison Battery Factory property would never have been built without tax abatements, therefore the township has lost no money on this agreement,” said Councilman Victor Cirilo, who admitted that it was “a stretch to declare Essex Green and Executive Drive in need of redevelopment,” but that he was voting for the resolution because office parks are “becoming obsolete on a national scale.”
“The area can easily become a dump if we leave it to market forces,” he said.
Councilman Jerry Guarino said he was voting for the resolution because he is “looking for what will create higher property values throughout West Orange and make it a better place to live.”
“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,” said Councilwoman Michelle Casalino.
The four council members who voted in favor of the resolution expressed their dismay about the personal attacks they have received by resolution opponents, and asked for a more civil discourse in the future.
The next West Orange town council meeting will be held on Jan. 23.