As a Westfield resident and former executive director of the Downtown Westfield Corporation (DWC), I have been involved in the evolution of our downtown for over 20 years. In my career as a professional planner, I have worked in towns with diverse central business districts such as Burlington, Vermont and here in New Jersey, in Montclair and Princeton.These communities have benefited from dynamic policies that enable a central business district to thrive.
So I am very pleased that the Westfield Town Council recently designated our Downtown Westfield Special Improvement District (SID) as an area in need of rehabilitation. This is a first and long overdue step in sparking necessary investment to revitalize our town center.
And as a member and the vice chairman of Westfield’s planning board, I believe that it is critical to understand and be informed about important economic and land use planning decisions, so I would like to take this opportunity to comment on the benefits of rehabilitation and redevelopment designations.
An area in need of rehabilitation encourages the renovation of existing buildings through tax incentives. It enables owners who improve their properties to grow into their increased property tax assessment over five years. By structuring their tax increase by 20% a year, property owners are provided time to attract new tenants and businesses before the full amount of their incremental new taxes are due.
It is important to note that this designation results in no lost tax revenue and Westfield can expect an increase in tax revenue beginning in year one. Many downtown properties need significant investment to bring them up to modern standards and the investment is unlikely to happen in this challenging economy without prudent economic policy.
It is encouraging to witness the process underway to designate the municipal parking lots, the Lord & Taylor properties and the Rialto as “areas in need of redevelopment.” This will allow the town to address some of the recommendations that came out of our recently adopted Westfield Master Plan Reexamination Report. The report highlights the public’s desire to address our parking challenges, diversify our housing stock and create more public plazas and amenities.
Redevelopment designation is significant as it allows the town to enter into a redevelopment agreement and retain significant control over all aspects of a project. The agreement may or may not include a Payment In Lieu Of Taxes (PILOT), which would allow the town to retain 95% of a negotiated fee with only 5% going to the county.
Throughout New Jersey, PILOT agreements have been the economic engine driving the transformation of many downtowns all over the state including neighboring towns Cranford, Summit, Fanwood and Morristown. In Princeton, the municipality was one of the first towns in the state to leverage the expansion of the redevelopment criteria to successfully revitalize its downtown.
In 1994, a municipal parking lot and library site was designated as a redevelopment area and a PILOT was negotiated with the developer. The agreement resulted in not only incremental municipal revenue but the creation of an attractive parking garage with residences, shops and restaurants, a beautiful new public library and a popular and busy public plaza. A former surface parking lot has now become the heartbeat of a thriving downtown.
It is exciting to see the bold steps this administration is taking to finally address the challenges in our downtown. The time to act is now, with vision, courage and confidence. Back in 1999, the DWC developed a downtown improvement plan that called for enhanced streetscapes, lighting, pedestrian spaces, historic preservation and mixed-use redevelopment of surface parking lots and underutilized sites. Sadly, major aspects of the plan have not yet been implemented but the recommendations are as relevant today as they were 20 years ago.
It is time for Westfield to stop sitting on its assets. Thank you Mayor Brindle, Town Council and my Planning Board colleagues for courageously championing and supporting a vision for re-imagining our downtown. I would encourage my fellow residents to support these efforts.
Michael La Place