WEST ORANGE, NJ -- Plans for final approval of renovations to a new Manhattan Bagel location and a preliminary report for the renovation of the Eagle Rock commercial area were discussed at Wednesday night's West Orange Planning Board meeting.

The items preceded the discussion and final vote on the Gregory School driveway and expanded parking lot. (story here)

Manhattan Bagel is taking over the former Dunkin Donuts site on Northfield Avenue. Among the plans for the building are an outdoor seating area, more window spaces and new finishes. Questions from the board regarding what it considered excessive signs for the space resulted in minor changes to the signs and awning, and the project was fully approved.

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Prior to that approval, Jeff Janota of H2M Associates unveiled a preliminary redevelopment plan of the Eagle Rock commercial area in an extensive presentation. Janota's job included reviewing the area for redevelopment and planning, including the geography of the area as well as reviewing the current use of the land, and the individual businesses located there. 

Janota said the Eagle Rock/Prospect Avenue location was considered a Non-Condemnation Redevelopment Area, meaning the land could not be seized and no eminent domain would be used to create change in the area. Instead, Janota, said his firm was asked to look at 18 properties in the area and make recommendations for better land use, as well as possible upgrades to the facilities themselves, and better access to areas such as Crystal Lake. Three types of areas were noted: Planned Commercial Space, a General Business District and Office Buildings.

Multiple criteria was used to determine if a property was in need of redevelopment, and of the 18 properties, 7 were noted by Janota and his firm for future redevelopment planning. Most of the comments for buildings came under Criteria "D", which was dilapidated areas or deleterious land use.

The West Orange Plaza was cited for it's "obsolete layout," including inefficient entrances and exits, an excessive amount of parking, a lack of curbing and delineated lanes and lines for spaces, among other things. Also in that plaza is the stand-alone STS Auto, which Janota noted was in the middle of the parking lot where a better entrance/exit should be.

The Eagle Rock Diner was cited for insufficient parking, a lack of lighting and a building that was compromised. It was later noted to Janota that by the time of this presentation, which was originally scheduled for May, the Eagle Rock had actually been demolished to make way for a new diner and building. 

The Eagle Rock Bowling Alley and Verizon office building were noted for bad parking layouts, accidents, and difficult driveways, and in the case of the alleys, insufficient lighting. Verizon was also noted to only have ten employees on site, and that the grounds were not well maintained. It was also noted that runoff from the locations also could affect Crystal Lake.

Similarly the Exxon/Mobil station was noted for not being set back enough from the roadway to allow for foot traffic or safe entering and exiting.

Mayfair Farms completed the list, being cited for poor maintenance, water in the basement, a poor roof, no energy efficient systems and parking lot deterioration. Of major concern was the fact that there were sanitary overflows behind the facility that happened up to four times a year that needed to be addressed as part of upgrading the sewer system, which is over 50 years old.

Janota said the overall plan also looked at the walkability of the area, lack of sidewalks and safe walking spaces and bicycling areas, among other criteria.

For many, the plan raised more questions than it answered. Janota tried several times to explain this was a preliminary report or overview of the area, and this plan for redevelopment was not intended to happen in a year, but could unfold for all the properties over many years, as long as 20 or 30, as current businesses changed or were sold to new entities. 

But several of the board members and the public were perplexed by the findings. 

Of major concern to one member of the public was how working with one of the properties to fix their own issues make them more viable. Janota said the plan could help owners to get low cost loans or payments in lieu of taxes to make the necessary upgrades they need. Councilman Joe Krakoviak, who said he already voted against this planning, said those loans or payments would then make the property attractive to a developer, who would inherit those perks and the township would be out the tax dollars as the developer created whatever they wanted on the site.

Board Member Jerry Eben questioned the STS building comments, saying it wasn't a bad building, so how did it get there, and what would West Orange Plaza have to do to move it. Janota suggested the building was simply now more in the way than it might have been before, and if the Plaza would in the future consider a redesign of the site, it might consider ending the STS lease early or negotiating new space to make improvements. 

Eben also questioned how or why Janota was trying to string properties together such as the bowling alley, Verizon and Exxon when each are independently owned. Janota said the properties could have their sites redesigned in tandem for easier entry and parking, among other things.

Board Member Councilwoman Susan McCartney said issues noted with the Exxon station had already been addressed, and also noted that most of the properties seemed to have property maintenance issues, not what she considered redevelopment. She also thought that this was going to be more of a preliminary Master Plan for the area, but Janota noted the area had almost no zoning issues, and any changes or sales of the properties would be by the property owners themselves.

Board member Lee Klein asked if these sites had been improved, would that have taken them off the list, to which Janota said it would. Klein then said that sounded more like rehabilitation to him than renovation. Janota noted this was a lesser study, which doesn't have the same powers as a redevelopment plan, and as such it was left up to owners to make improvements and updates.

Board Chairman Ron Weston noted redevelopment usually means blighted areas in need of improvement, so would Janota consider this a blighted area? Janota repeated that this was supposed to be a positive planning tool for the layout and design of an area.

Public Advocate Harvey Grossman asked if the properties in question were redeveloped, would that affect their taxes or leave the township open to tax appeals. Janota said it possibly could, depending on the changes made to a site...the taxes could go up, or they could go down, on an appeal.

Councilman Jerry Guarino, in the audience, asked if the plan would have to include the county, since he felt the county would have to be partners in this. Janota said it would not, because that would make it a full redevelopment plan to the county.

At this point, the plan has been presented to the board and public for initial comment and the Planning Board will now determine what if any of the recommendations would be considered for any next steps.