Michael Parlapiano is a 22-year resident of South Orange. He is also a member of the South Orange Zoning Board of Adjustment; however, his opinions here are his own and do not represent the ZBA. Parlapiano has previously posted Opinion pieces on Village Green related to student housing here and here.
Valley Street has become the hub of redevelopment activity in South Orange and is being rapidly transformed. But transformed into what? Our [South Orange] Master Plan calls for Valley Street to be a walkable, pedestrian friendly retail corridor, and that certainly would be a huge improvement over its current state. But the projects underway today are taking us in the opposite direction.
In reviewing these projects it is clear that there is no set of objectives, no plan, guiding the development of Valley Street. Instead we are getting an incoherent set of projects, with those that go for approval to the Planning or Zoning Boards attempting to abide by our outdated zoning regulations, while for select other cases the Board of Trustees takes control and overrides our zoning in order to approve very large projects supported by tax abatements. And through it all, the Board of Trustees does nothing to create the infrastructure that would support the transformation of Valley Street into a walkable, pedestrian friendly retail corridor.
Urban planners have found that to be walkable and to draw pedestrians, a street must first and foremost feel safe to people on the sidewalks and crossing the street. It also needs to have a high density of retail without gaps for things like parking lots, and the streetscape must be interesting with a mix of landscaping, lighting and building facades that draw pedestrians. As the new Valley Street takes shape it unfortunately has none of these characteristics.
The redevelopment of Valley Street is bookended by two completed projects: On one end is the Third & Valley development, with significant pedestrian friendly streetscape improvements but only two small retail spaces to draw pedestrians to the area. On the other end (just across the border in Maplewood) is the new CVS, a car-centric parking lot oriented development that would be more at home on Route 10. In between are six properties in various stages of completion:
- Blink Fitness: next door to the CVS, this adaptive reuse of the long vacant structure is a significant improvement overall but does nothing for Valley Street. The business fronts on the Stop and Shop parking lot with the Blink customer parking lot on Valley. The business does not rely on shared public parking, adds no street level retail to draw pedestrians, and made no landscaping or other improvements to make this stretch of Valley Street more pedestrian friendly.
- Buy-Rite Liquors: a recently approved adaptive reuse of the former Modern Auto Body site across from Blink Fitness, this property stretches for a full block on Valley from Roland Avenue to Arnold Terrace. The owners will turn this one story building and large parking lot into a Buy-Rite liquor store, including landscaping, facade, and lighting improvements that will make the block more pedestrian friendly (no guard rails on Valley like at the CVS and Blink parking lots). But with the building set back from the street, the streetscape from Roland Street to Arnold Street will primarily be a parking lot.
- 320 Valley Street between 5th Street and Roland: site work has begun on this 22 unit apartment building with a 2,400 square foot street level professional office. The building includes tenant, employee, and visitor parking in an underground garage and does not rely on shared public street parking. In gaining approval for this project the developers were specifically blocked from including any retail or even medical uses from the site.
- 4th & Valley: this high density, three to five story mixed use project requires substantial zoning variances for height, density, lot coverage, and parking. It includes 10,000 square feet of retail space on Valley Street and a wide sidewalk and landscaping that will substantially improve the pedestrian streetscape. This project includes no on-site parking for customers or employees of the retail space, relying instead on existing shared public street spaces on Valley and in the Academy Heights neighborhood.
- Napa Auto Parts: early stage proposal to replace the NAPA Auto Parts store and the single family house next door with a mixed use building that includes a small retail space to be developed largely in conformance with the existing zoning. Though there is an undersized empty lot next to this proposed development on the corner of 3rd Street that is currently used for parking, that lot is not part of this proposal and will remain as parking.
- Private Dormitory: early stage proposal for a large private dormitory on the site of All Star Motors across from Third & Valley. The property spans both the Valley Street business zone as well as reaching into the residential zone behind.
This collection of projects do very little to transform Valley Street into pedestrian friendly retail corridor. Instead we appear to be aiming for a series of businesses more like CVS. There are three critical issues that must be addressed to prevent this outcome.
The first is parking. Dedicated parking for each business, which we find in most projects on Valley and is required by our zoning laws today, encourages customers to drive, shop, and then drive away. The exception to this is 4th & Valley where the Board of Trustees took control and allowed the developer to ignore the zoning requirements and rely entirely on shared public parking. That is the right approach but it needs to be applied to all projects on Valley through an update to our zoning laws. Shared public parking is better for many reasons: it encourages people to park and then walk to their destination, passing other businesses along the way; it is more efficient because parking demand varies by business (Blink will have customers in the morning when Buy Rite is still closed); and shared public parking allows retail locations to be built in a continuous string, creating a density of retail that is more interesting.
The second is infrastructure. While we must change zoning to require businesses to rely on shared public parking, we then have to invest in public parking for Valley Street. In addition we also have to make safer pedestrian crosswalks, safe pick-up/drop-off locations, better lighting and public landscaping.
Finally and most importantly, we need a plan. I know that we are about to begin work on a new Master Plan, but given the pace of change on Valley Street and a number of transformative projects already in process, that plan will come too late. Rushing to get things done without agreeing on a plan first usually ends badly. We are seeing the results of that approach already on Valley Street.
I urge the Board of Trustees to take charge of the future of all of Valley Street, not just of those few big projects where developers attract their attention, but of the entire street. Only a comprehensive approach will lead to a successful transformation of this critical piece of our town.