‘Change Isn’t Easy’—South Orange Village President Offers Explainer on Downtown Development

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The following essay was posted to the Facebook group SOMA Lounge NJ by South Orange Village President Sheena Collum and is reposted here with her permission. Collum reports that she posted the essay in response to a thread on SOMA Lounge in which the original poster wrote that the new five-story Vose & Taylor development was blocking views of the historic Village Hall tower from the west on South Orange Avenue. The poster wrote, “Coming down the hill into South Orange, I was always struck by the historic beauty of Village Hall, but now the mammoth latest apartment building blocks the tower of Village Hall. I am so saddened to see the impact this new building, which is completely out of scale with the rest of the Village, has on our town. I can’t even reconcile how the decision makers who allowed this to happen could approve this design without negotiating a step back and a height limit that was in line with the scale of our Village. So saddened to see this.” The post had elicited 285 comments before the OP turned off commenting. The comments showed a lively debate with many commenters supporting development in the village as necessary to create commercial ratables, improve the look and vibrancy of the downtown and provide more market-rate and affordable housing; others said the developments are too large, are unattractive, and are ruining the character of a once-quaint downtown. Read the post and comments here. Find Collum’s post and comments here

Hi Neighbors,

For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Village President Sheena Collum. I’m intimately involved with every redevelopment project and financial agreement in town. While every Village President (or Mayor) brings a unique skillset to the table when elected, my area of expertise is planning and redevelopment. I share that because my education and background gets questioned so just as a preface, I have a master’s degree in public administration and am the Executive Director of the American Planning Association in New Jersey.

This project was 5 years in the making and is drastically different from the 8 story, no affordable housing, maximum tax incentive that was proposed when I came into office. If you look back at the records, we walked away from this project, and I urged the governing body not to even consider what was being proposed. This is important because many projects don’t even make it into the public eye. The ones that do strike a reasonable balance of planning, design, community benefit agreements, and finances.

While I realize the original post is focusing on how you can’t see the Village Hall tower from a location on South Orange Avenue, the following is the value proposition of what this project does bring to our community. As you read it, I ask you to consider the trade-offs of what is being built and subsequent benefits versus the pre-existing conditions and use.

First and most important to me, it is compliant with our Housing Element and Fair Share Plan (our community’s affordable housing obligation). There is 10% inclusionary on-site and we negotiated a payment into our Affordable Housing Trust Fund in the amount of $825,000 for the money needed for land acquisition to advance our Third Street project (“South Orange Commons) which is twenty-six 100% affordable housing units for low-income families in addition to low-income individuals with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. As a side note, if you saw the announcement last week, the third street project was awarded nearly $5.5M in Low Income Housing Tax Credits through the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency which helps us with the gap financing needed. I couldn’t be happier – it’s a first for our community. We have 192 credits we owe the state to develop our “fair share” of affordable units and we’re doing that through 20% inclusionary requirements (1 in 5 units being constructed being affordable), payments (when appropriate) into our trust fund, and we also quintupled developer payments for off-site affordable opportunities. As some history, this beautiful (quaint) town, paid urban areas in the past to build affordable housing through Regional Contribution Agreements rather than fulfilling this responsibility. This practice was made illegal (which I completely agree with) and now we need to get the job done. This project (and the various other ones you see around town) fulfill our 3rd round rules and produce the credits we need by 2025. The alternative is a builder’s remedy lawsuit (aka we get sued by developers for not hitting our numbers which is what you see all throughout the state right now – no thanks, we’d rather work with people and comply).


Artist’s rendering of Vose + Taylor project currently under construction in South Orange Village

Photo of site prior to demolition.

Now that was the long paragraph, I’ll paraphrase the rest for those who have made it this far:

Scale: What was already permitted in this location (yes, all the way back to the 1970s) was 4 stories, this project is 5 stories. For what it’s worth, it’s a mid-rise building and at the lowest end of a mid-rise scale.

Parking: There is no loss in public parking, there’s actually an increase and covered which is always preferred. The 1 parking spot per unit is underground.

Money: This project will be in the top 5 revenue generators for the South Orange community. Taxes are very high and that’s what happens when we rely on only single-family homes to fund services and initiatives (this is the difference between us and a Montclair or Morristown which were the most common towns referenced during the Master Plan process of communities we would like to be more like). Ratables from commercial districts need to increase. The Annual Service Charge model is structured so that as the project succeeds, our taxpayers do better and in this instance, escalates from 10% of total gross revenue to 15% (the max). Please remember this as you support projects like our Baird and Library and road improvements, etc. A new consistent revenue stream is cost-avoidance for every homeowner. Without new revenue we either 1) defer maintenance or 2) levy it on taxpayers. In addition to the new annual reoccurring revenue, the Village received $1.3M (on top of the replacement parking for the Taylor Place Lot) and negotiated a $700,000 community benefits contribution. That is well over a 5% down payment of the operating budget for our various capital projects (it’s equivalent to over 2 tax percentage points in the municipal levy).

Retail Space: The ground floor will be activated with 11,000 square feet of “new” commercial space with reputable operators (I cannot speak to more details right now due to contract negotiations between the owner and tenants, but I believe you will be very pleased). There will also be 10,000 square feet of Class A commercial office space on the 2nd floor – something we desperately need from market research.

Community Benefits: Another component, which I am really excited about, is the creation of a co-retailing space on the ground floor (2000 sq. feet) which has been deeded to the Village for $1/year and we will sublease. The purpose of this space is to allow artists/makers/merchants, etc. to have a cooperative in town and sell goods (similar to the pop-up shops we’ve had in the past around the holidays). Ground floor retail in this location goes for about $40/square foot. We’re creating an opportunity for those who cannot afford these types of rents to participate in a shared space. The value proposition of this is over $3M during the term of the agreement in rent alone and that does not take into account the overall value of an exciting retail incubator in the heart of our downtown.

Lastly, for those who have been around for a while, various parcels within the site sat vacant for a decade (Blockbuster went out of business in 2012 and no operator came in) or had tremendous turnover of businesses. This project follows all smart growth principles and is an example of equitable transit-oriented development.

So, in closing, I know change isn’t easy. But as you look at some of the new activity happening – it is thoughtful, it is transparent, anyone who wants to participate certainly can and there truly is always more to a story then what may make its way to lounge. I continue to remain available to anyone who wishes to express their concerns or ideas or want to get involved, contact me anytime.


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