The Maplewood Township Committee voted unanimously Tuesday to designate JMF Properties as the official developer for the Post Office site, and voted 3-2 to grant JMF a 5-year tax abatement.
Both votes came after more than a dozen residents implored the governing body to vote against both measures, and also followed a debate among the committee members themselves. More than 50 people were in attendance.
One resident, Lara Tomlin, dropped a bit of a bombshell when she told the TC she had recently corresponded with famed architect Richard Meier, who grew up in Maplewood and graduated from CHS. Tomlin said she reached out to Meier and forwarded him JMF’s most recent renderings for the Post Office building and told him she believed the current building should be saved from demolition and repurposed.
“I agree with you,” said Tomlin, reading from Meier’s email response. “[The proposed building] shouldn’t be built.” Meier continued, “I’d be happy to design something for the site” and asked Tomlin to put him in touch with JMF.
Meier and architect Peter Eisenman, also a CHS alum, previously stated similar views about the proposed project in a discussion as part of the Maplewood Ideas Festival.
Former Mayor Fred Profeta — who has staunchly advocated for adaptive reuse of the building — exhorted the TC to reach out to Meier. Referring to the project’s current architect, David Minno, who also designed the much-maligned Station House, Profeta said, “Mr. Minno or Mr. Meier — whom would you choose?”
Inda Sechzer said she had recently corresponded with Eisenman, who said the current Post Office should be saved. “What else do you need, who else do you need to hear from, to be convinced you are heading down the wrong path?” asked Sechzer.
The committee members all said they would like to explore further discussions with Meier, and passed a motion authorizing Mayor Vic DeLuca to reach out to the architect. Township Committeeman Marlon K. Brownlee wondered if Meier would offer his services gratis or if there would be a cost involved. “Let’s not assume this is [an] altruistic [offer].”
Steve Weber, a city planner, thanked DeLuca for his considered response to a letter Weber recently sent asking questions about the development. He also acknowledged the TC’s thoughtful analysis and hard work on what was a difficult process. “No one is to blame here,” he said, noting that when Kings pulled out of the project and the original developer then withdrew, the project’s original vision was compromised. While he is in favor of the project’s apartments and unconcerned with its proposed scale, “adaptive reuse deserves a hard look.”
Paul Sotrop, a member of the Maplewood Village Alliance design review committee, told the audience that a group of at least a dozen local architects had been deeply involved in the design process every step of the way.
Calling it a “difficult discussion,” DeLuca said he believed the project would enhance the Village. “This is not like the Station House,” he said. “Mistakes were made at the Station House.” As a result the township made sure the Planning Board and the Design Review Committee had to approve all design elements, and the developer made considerable changes to the building as a result of public input.
“Your comments and concerns are being heard,” he said. He noted the new project would include more parking, better flow behind the building, an improved connection to Memorial Park and outdoor plazas with seating and space for events.
In a recent phone interview before Tuesday’s vote, JMF’s principal Joe Forgione said the proposed building has “evolved into something that everyone will be proud of.” He said the building “has four fronts” and that equal attention to detail has been paid to every side. “There is no forgotten corner.”
DeLuca said the township had raised the possibility of reuse with “a couple” of developers who had originally submitted proposals and they said it was not a good option. “No one has proven that [reuse] is possible.”
“We put this developer through a lot,” said DeLuca, and most developers would have walked away. “He has a vision.”
Several committee members noted that changes will still be made to the current design as it goes through more stages of approval.
While all five TC members expressed confidence in designating JMF as the developer, there was less consensus on the PILOT.
As she had at the ordinance’s introduction, Committeewoman India Larrier voted against the abatement, noting that the developer was not building any affordable housing units and would also get a $200,000 credit from the township toward clean-up of the property.
“I don’t think [JMF] has to have a PILOT to be here,” said Larrier. She said if there were no tax abatement it might take the developer only a year or two more to turn a profit, given the high rents the apartments will command.
Brownlee said he had changed his mind since initially voting in favor of the PILOT, citing the affordable housing issue as one concern.
“The project will not go forward without a PILOT,” said DeLuca, who noted the township only had issued five PILOTs in town and had no plans to offer any others. He also pointed out that the tax abatement is only on the improvement to the property, but does not affect the land taxes.
Township Committeeman Jerry Ryan said he supported the PILOT albeit “reluctantly.” He later told The Village Green he believed the developer would back out of the project if there were no PILOT, and also that he was comfortable with the tax abatement as it was short-term.
While both Larrier and Brownlee said they believed the developer was eager to move ahead with the project with or without a PILOT, they were comfortable with the possibility of JMF walking away from the deal.
Former TC member David Huemer told the TC that selling public land to pay for the township’s operating expenses “is like selling the family silver.”
Deputy Mayor Kathleen Leventhal said she would make a strong push to have JMF go further than currently proposed in making the project meet sustainability requirements, mentioning higher LEED certification and solar power as two options.