More than two dozen citizens spoke before the South Orange Village Trustees at a special meeting Monday night called to decide on the fate of Village Hall.
Although the choice over renovating the building for government offices vs. selling it for adaptive re-use for a hotel or restaurant use was tabled until tomorrow, the Board still opened the meeting to public comments.
The majority of commenters favored adaptive re-use — but also called for assurances that the exterior be preserved.
Bob Zuckerman, Executive Director of the South Orange Village Center Alliance, read a letter from the SOVCA Chair Matt Glass, supporting adaptive re-use and stating that such use would connect the two sides of South Orange Avenue while providing evening and weekend activity at the building and in downtown — something that municipal offices fail to do.
John Vogel noted that the building was already an adaptive re-use since it was constructed as a fire house. He said the building was “not designed as an office building” and would make better space for a restaurant or hotel use.
Against the argument that the building should be maintained as the center of civic life, Michael Minor used soaring rhetoric to say that a building does not represent the town’s government. Rather, said Minor, “we represent our government.” Minor added, “the facade will not change, but we have to change.”
Former Village President Doug Newman brought the argument back to practicalities, noting that only 15 full-time employees had been working in Village Hall before renovation (plus 5 part-time employees). Given the trend toward shared services and reduced government, Newman said, the “construction costs border on lunacy.” Newman also said that proponents of keeping the building as municipal offices were “confusing preserving form with preserving function.” He added, “adaptive re-use should be innovative, not sentimental.” Several other commenters echoed Newman’s observation that renovation would leave the town with debt and a “custom-built” “white elephant” that no longer was needed.
Other speakers were excited about the prospect of a hotel or restaurant. One Seton Hall professor said that in her 42 years of teaching at the university, there was “nowhere for people to stay” and that “a hotel would be wonderful — as long as the rooms aren’t $500 a night!”
However, calls for adaptive re-use also came with the caveat that commenters wanted assurances that the exterior of the building would be preserved. One speaker said he was concerned when people he respected — such as Amy Dahn — said that the exterior could not be protected if sold into private hands.
Members of the South Orange Historic Preservation Commission, led by Dahn, protested that no assurances of preservation in perpetuity could be made if the building passed from public ownership to private ownership.
Dahn presented a text-filled video containing many of the concerns she outlined in an editorial to Village Green. Members of the Historic Preservation Commission then took turns reading from two letters sent to the Board of Trustees last year detailing their arguments against the sale of the building as well as the economic benefits of historic preservation.
Other members of the public also supported retaining the building as Village Hall. Former Planning Board member and Chair Tom Hut said that he “rejected any ideas other than restoring it to the center of civic life.”
“We need this,” Hut said. “Not a boutique hotel or restaurant.”
Karen Marlowe said that although she understood how expensive it was to renovate Village Hall, Trustees hadn’t show what the benefit of sale would be. “You haven’t shared how it would benefit the town … and offset costs.”
Susan Falk, who moved to South Orange in 1968, said that she felt “the way you are treating Village Hall renovation is the way you treat elderly members of the family.” Falk urged the Trustees to “treat it with respect.” She also invoked a slogan being employed by opponents of the Post Office redevelopment project in Maplewood: “Keep the Village a Village.”
Opponents to adaptive re-use also expressed concerns that the proposed business ventures would fail, leaving the building uncared for and derelict.
After public comments closed, Village President Sheena Collum apologized for not being able to offer more financial information due to “active negotiations.” Said Collum, “I wish there was more that we could put out.” Township Administrator Barry Lewis explained some of the processes that staff were undertaking to measure the costs of relocating government vs. renovating and remaining in Village Hall (see video below).
But the major question that Collum sought to answer had to do with the ability to preserve Village Hall’s exterior should it be sold for adaptive re-use.
Village Redevelopment Counsel Joseph Baumann took the question, answering, “One of the things that was clear from the Board of Trustees from the beginning of this process was to make sure that Village Hall remain an historic site and be preserved in perpetuity regardless of the legal structure — sale, lease back, whatever that may be — so it will be preserved through deed restrictions, through contract and otherwise so that the historic nature of that building will be preserved in perpetuity regardless of which choice is made by the Village Trustees.”
Board of Trustees Counsel Steve Rother added, “There will be an historic easement placed on the building which would be enforced by an independent trust that does that, a nonprofit trust the sole purpose of which is to enforce such easements.”
Sheena asked Rother to “talk a little bit about what an historic easement is.”
Rother explained, “It goes even beyond the easement because we do have as a result of the prof contracts that we let for the renovation of the building as municipal offices we have plans and specifications for the exterior renovation and as I understand it Mr. Bowman is going to build into the redevelopment agreements the requirement that the exterior of the building be renovated to the standards that we would have under the plans and specifications had we renovated the building for municipal use.”
After the meeting, Dahn told the Village Green that Rother was incorrect and the only way to ensure preservation of the building’s exterior was through continuing its ownership by the town.
The Trustees will reconvene at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, June 30 at 7 p.m., go into executive session, then open the meeting to the public at 8 p.m. The Trustees will hold a board discussion, take a straw poll, then vote to strike two resolutions and vote to adopt a third (the Trustees are considering two resolutions on adaptive re-use and one on renovation). The meeting will take place at SOPAC.