WESTFIELD, NJ — A vacant movie theater in Downtown Westfield and an expansive department store on North Avenue are being eyed for redevelopment.

The Planning Board on Monday recommended that the Rialto Theatre along with the Lord & Taylor property and two nearby parking lots owned by Hudson’s Bay Company be declared non-condemnation “areas in need of redevelopment” under the state’s land use law.

The designation would make the property owners eligible for tax incentives — including agreements for payment in lieu of taxes, or PILOTs, intended to entice real estate development while giving the town greater input into that development.

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Phil Abramson, CEO of the redevelopment planning firm Topology, told the board that both The Rialto Theatre located at 244-254 East Broad St. and the Lord & Taylor property at 601-613 North Avenue have long suffered fiscal woes.

“They both were experiencing structural macroeconomic issues prior to COVID,” Abramson said at the virtual meeting. “And then they both were hit really hard during the pandemic.”

The Rialto Theatre has been vacant since its last operator abruptly left the building about a year ago and since that time municipal officials have said they would like the see the property converted into a performing arts center.

Getting the building functional, however, would require investment.

“The whole basement was just full of water,” Abramson told the board, referring to photos of the basement.  “As you can see that is not a good long-term condition to have underneath a place of public assembly.”

Working through the state’s criteria for declaring a property in need of redevelopment, he said, the building is not handicapped accessible, and its previous use as a movie theater is no longer viable due to the economic environment in which the owners find themselves.

“Even the larger theaters are having trouble these days, but at least they are at a scale that they can offer in-theater dining and those sorts of things,” Abramson said.

MORE: Would the Westfield Rialto Theatre Work as a Performing Arts Center?

Board members said they didn’t want any future developer to interpret the redevelopment report as indication that the building, which dates to 1922, should be demolished.

Abramson replied that he would provide the town documentation stating the report does not mean the building should not be demolished.

“I can’t look the other way on the facts, but what I can say is I’ll provide a clarification and say that whatever flaws that this building has right now, we’re not taking the position that they’re insurmountable,” he said.

Bill West, a Summit Avenue resident, hopes to see the building converted for another use instead of being demolished.

“That building is truly historic and a treasure,” West told the planning board. “Granted it’s in a bit of disrepair and functionally obsolete considering theaters that are out there … the adaptive reuse is absolutely something that should be pursued.”

Lord & Taylor

The Lord & Taylor property and two accompanying parking lots, which are owned by Hudson’s Bay Company, Abramson said, are also obsolete and meet the threshold for the state’s designation as an area in need of redevelopment.

The significant parking lot that surrounds the Lord & Taylor building, he said, separate the downtown from the residential portions of the municipality, making it less pedestrian friendly.

This, he said, can have an impact on the economics of the downtown. “It does create a physical barrier from the residential parts of the community where all the walking wallets sleep at night,” Abramson said.

Key to the recommended designation, he said, is that under the land use law, a property doesn’t have to become completely obsolete to be considered out-of-date for the purposes of declaring an area in need of redevelopment.

“It’s a function obsolescence versus a non-functional obsolescence,” Abramson said. “You would never build this today.”

Previously the Hahne's department store, it became Lord & Taylor in 1990, he said, and the building is surrounded by expansive parking lots that could be put to better use.

“This is an inefficient way to use valuable land and it comes at the expense of other more valuable uses,” Abramson said.

Planning Board Chairman Robert Newell said that Hudson’s Bay Company, the property owner, told the town that it could not support a 142,000-square-foot retail store.

A redevelopment designation could bring in other options.

“Hudson’s Bay has no interest in keeping that as a solely retail space, and they have come to the town to see what they can do,” Newell said.

What’s Next?

Following a public hearing on the designations, the town council is anticipated to vote on the planning board’s recommendation to designate the properties on Aug. 11.

Email Matt Kadosh at mkadosh@tapinto.net | Twitter: @MattKadosh

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