Opinion South Orange

OPINION: Valley Street Is Headed in the Right Direction

Jon Busch-Vogel is a 14-year resident of South Orange. He is also a member of the South Orange Planning Board and the South Orange Development Committee; however, his opinions here are his own and do not represent either body. Busch-Vogel works as a developer for Avalon Bay, a publicly traded real estate investment trust.

In Michael Parlapiano’s opinion piece, “Where is Valley Street Going?,” he rightfully draws our attention to the fact that there is a lot of change happening on Valley Street in South Orange.

Historically, Valley Street has been known for its variety of automobile repair shops and extensive curb cuts to access the same. Now, there are a handful of new commercial investments being made, and, more notably, there are many new residential developments with ground floor commercial space, either in construction or in planning. These mixed-used developments include 4th and Valley (106 apartments), 320 Valley Street (22 apartments), and 116 Valley Street (8 apartments). These predominantly residential investments follow on the heels of the successful completion of Third & Valley (215 apartments plus retail). In addition, the All Star Motors repair shop at 164 Valley Street is now being discussed as the possible location for a private development of off-campus student housing for Seton Hall students.

Mr. Parlapiano finds this activity objectionable, but it is not clear why. He states “there is no set of objectives, no plan, guiding the development of Valley Street” and that “this collection of projects do very little to transform Valley Street into pedestrian friendly retail corridor.”

However, this statement is in direct contradiction with the conclusions of the South Orange Vision Plan from 2009, which relied on a multi-disciplinary analysis of the opportunities and constraints of our Central Business District (CBD). The team the Village hired to study our various business corridors, including the Third & Valley Street site and the rest of the Valley Street corridor, was led by the Cecil Group and included not just skilled architects and planners, but also economists and others who looked at what was realistically achievable. This was overlaid on what our citizenry stated its aspirations were for the community. The end result was a very thoughtful plan that would not just sit on a shelf, but could be implemented consistent with market demand and would lead to meaningful positive change in the near term.

The Vision Plan essentially stated that the Valley Street corridor should be re-zoned for mixed-use development where the “new development will be predominantly residential,” and that this residential development would be “used to encourage more substantial change” along the corridor, including pedestrian activity and new retail space, essentially, an extension of our downtown and not an auto-district.

As an active participant in the Vision Plan process, a member of the Development Committee for over a decade, and a member of the Planning Board, I could not be happier with the progress we have made since the Vision Plan was completed. The Third & Valley opportunity, which was a direct product of the Vision Plan process, immediately became a high priority of the Board of Trustees. The site was put out to RFP in 2010 and awarded to the acclaimed firm of Jonathan Rose & Companies in 2011. Not only did we get the new commuter parking garage and Rescue Squad facilities that we needed, but we also have a beautiful multifamily building for residents that will shop in our stores and enjoy our restaurants, while making an approximate $700,000 annual payment in lieu of taxes (compared to zero tax dollars generated on site previously) which directly offsets municipal costs that would otherwise be paid through higher taxes.

Meanwhile the traffic and school impacts of this project have proven to be minimal, resulting in a highly positive ratable for our community. In addition, I expect that many of the residents of this and other new apartment communities in business corridors will become purchasers of our single family homes, as these younger residents fall in love with all that South Orange has to offer and look for more space for their families, which will in turn provide continuing support for our property values. These new developments also assist in the towns “Aging in Place” initiative for seniors downsizing, and also creates much needed affordable housing consistent with the Village’s ordinances and our State’s Constitutional requirements.

It is now apparent that the successful Third & Valley development is serving as a catalyst for more change, as it is enticing other developers to take notice of the underutilized property available in the corridor and what these properties can become. At a recent Development Committee meeting, the excitement for all the private sector investment being made here was palpable, including excitement for further diversification of our housing stock into well-managed privately owned student housing (as opposed to students renting in single family zones which has been a concern for many of our residents who live near Seton Hall). Fortunately for us, the trend of turning over Valley Street to mixed-use projects, providing positive tax ratables and support for our shops and restaurants, will likely continue as long as the regional economy stays strong.

I agree, as recommended by Mr. Parlapiano, that shared parking and other infrastructure investments would be wise to pursue, as would a more thorough review under the Master Plan process that is to begin later this year. The latter will better align our codes and zoning to reflect best practices in smart growth planning and transit-oriented development. However, all of the current private sector activity he begrudges is actually happening exactly as we hoped for and encouraged, and the Board of Trustees is right to accommodate it in a way that maximizes the aesthetic and retail value of the corridor and minimizes off-site impacts. Our professionals, both paid and volunteer, in conjunction with our governing body and Planning Board have a lot to be proud of, which is why other communities are looking to us now rather than us looking to them. New mixed-use development with ground floor commercial space that will support pedestrian activity and additional retail on Valley Street is exactly what we envisioned in our very comprehensive, inclusive and thoughtful Vision Plan and is fully consistent with our recent planning efforts.

So where is Valley Street going?  In the right direction.

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