Opinion: BOT Should Rethink Village Hall Plan

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Ben Salmon, owner of Kitchen a la Mode in South Orange, sent the following letter to the South Orange Board of Trustees on June 8.

At a June 9 trustee meeting, where several residents also spoke in favor of rethinking the restoration plan for the ageing Village Hall, the trustees agreed to revisit the idea of selling the historic building. The board had recently approved an additional $262,000 for asbestos removal in a restoration project whose expenses have ballooned and that is estimated to eventually total $6.5 million.

Dear Village President and Trustees,

While moving forward with the mapped out renovation timeline of Village Hall, I am writing to ask you to please simultaneously explore the sale of the building to a private party.

South Orange’s physical infrastructure is crumbling and we already pay some of the highest taxes in the country. In addition to Village Hall, the clock is ticking down on the time we have to address major physical plant issues with the Baird, the Library and the Police Department. Heck, we still own the Old Stone House which is, quite literally, crumbling. And DPW is headquartered in a floodplain; it was only recently that South Orange residents mobilized to refurnish their break room after it was devastated by flooding. In fact, our only buildings not in need of major repair are the Fire House—which went above budget and took years longer to renovate than anyone could have anticipated—and SOPAC, which we now officially own and has cost taxpayers quite a bit more money than originally projected.

Our municipal buildings will not only cost us tens of millions of dollars of future taxpayers’ money to renovate but they will require a long term strategic deferred maintenance plan and an annual budget to go along with it… And that’s ON TOP of all the bonding we would have to do to renovate our buildings and stop the roofs from caving in.

Something has to give. Am I the only one that questions this model? Are we sure we should keep going down this proverbial rabbit hole? At the risk of being overly repetitive, let me restate: It seems crazy to me that our buildings are in such bad shape and we ALREADY pay such high taxes. If we don’t start thinking differently and coming up with creative solutions, I worry greatly for the future fiscal health of South Orange.

In an ever changing world, do we really need a building that was imagined and built 120 years ago? In 2014, do we need a physical infrastructure that was created before computers, before the internet and before a variety of other technology that has changed the way work gets done?

I have a great deal of respect for history but just because something is old, does not automatically make it worth holding on to. Are we sure renovating and continuing to preserve all of these buildings is the smartest use of our resources and the best way to serve our residents? Should we be spending the money heating and cooling and lighting all of these buildings that serve a population of just 16,000? Are we comfortable with the fact that South Orange has a significantly higher environmental footprint than it needs to function effectively and efficiently? Are we absolutely sure that the renovation of Village Hall is so important that the next generation—our children—should be saddled with continuing to pay off the borrowing that needs to happen in order to do it?

I am not asking you to completely halt the renovations of Village Hall, though I am tempted to do so. It’s a noble project, the symbol of our town and a fascinating, enthralling building but ultimately, I am concerned that we are not seeing the forest through the trees here. This could very well prove to be a foolhardy endeavor that will cost more and take longer than we could possibly estimate. Phase One has already surprised us, as old buildings have a reputation of doing. Do we really think the change orders will stop there?

What I am asking is that you at least look into selling the building once again. Considering the stakes, it doesn’t seem like an unreasonable request to me. The market is different now than in 2011… Just ask any local realtor. Three years ago, the Ricalton’s building continued to sit empty. Since then, it’s been bought, renovated with millions of private dollars and opened to fanfare. A lot changes in three years. The Village Center Alliance didn’t even exist then and one of the main purposes of creating that organization was to recruit new merchants to the Village. That’s a very important tool the Village didn’t possess then that it does now and, as a new resource, is in and of itself enough of a reason to give this a second try.

That space is ripe for being repurposed into a restaurant and office—perhaps Village-related—space. A liquor license is currently for sale and with the new activity we’ve seen in the old Cryan’s space, Ricalton’s, the current expansion of Falafelly Yours and the new addition of regional chain Tito’s, restauranteurs seem quite interested in investing in South Orange right now. The fact that Village Hall comes with a parking lot would please both the Planning Board and many private investors.

The conversion of Village Hall would also help the landscape of the Village Center. The east and west parts of the CBD are separated and bottle necked by the PNC Building and Village Hall. The lack of any street level merchants on South Orange Avenue in those two buildings creates a barrier to the flow of foot traffic. A restaurant or other merchant there would connect the two parts of the downtown and add vitality to the strip between Village Hall and Rite Aid.

I humbly and sincerely ask that the Board of Trustees exercises due diligence by exploring the sale of the building a second time—in a vastly different real estate, development, restaurant and adaptive reuse market—while waiting for the next steps in construction of the renovation of Village Hall. There is very little to regret in doing so.

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