Maplewood Village Alliance Board Hears Proposal to Repurpose Post Office

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At last week’s monthly board meeting of the Maplewood Village Alliance, the special improvement district for the Village, Mayor Vic DeLuca dropped what one board member called a “bombshell” when he announced that JMF Properties, the designated developer, had agreed to lop off one floor of the proposed building, bringing the height down to 45 feet.

DeLuca’s comments came just before Fred Profeta, former Mayor and MVA board member who recently stepped up to criticize the current plan, was to propose a plan to repurpose the existing building rather than demolishing it and rebuilding.

Profeta originally introduced the idea of reuse during the public comments portion at the last Maplewood Township Committee meeting on February 3.

The Maplewood Township Committee will meet tonight, February 17 at 7:30 p.m. to vote on an ordinance on final passage to adopt amendments to the redevelopment plan for the Post Office. The ordinance is likely to be voted down in light of the changes the developer has agreed to make.

The Township Committee granted considerable power to the Alliance over the Post Office building’s design in the redevelopment plan, which states that any site plan shall be provided to the MVA for review and approval before being submitted to the Maplewood Planning Board. The Alliance formed a special design review committee, which has been talking with the developer throughout the process.

“After having been effectively excluded from the design review process regarding The Station House, the Alliance was determined not to see that happen again with the post office property, right in the heart of the Village,” said Profeta in an email to The Village Green after the meeting.

(JMF’s principal, Joe Forgione, has hired David Minno as architect for the Post Office building. Minno also was the architect for the Station House, an apartment complex on the site of the former police station on Dunnell Road that was developed by J.G. Petrucci.)

Addressing the other MVA board members, DeLuca said, “If you are saying the plan should be trashed or changed…you should remove yourself from that [design review] role and just let [the plan] go to the Planning Board.”

“Why?” countered Profeta. DeLuca said Forgione would not continue with discussions if he thought repurposing the building was on the table.

“If this body takes a position now” on reuse while the township is still in exclusive negotiations with JMF, “it’s not fair or objective,” DeLuca said.

Profeta later said in an email that since the TC could always “take the Alliance out of the picture by amending the Redevelopment Plan, I think that this statement by the Mayor effectively guaranteed that the Alliance would not ask the Township Committee to take a hard look at re-use.”

Profeta told the board that while he was glad the developer was listening to concerns about the building’s height, he believed the TC’s original decision to allow demolition conflicted with the town’s code, which states that a building should not be demolished unless the building’s owner can demonstrate significant financial hardship.

“The Post Office is extremely compatible to reuse,” said Profeta, citing its open, spacious interior. He said reuse, while it can be expensive, can result in considerable savings in the long run.

Noting that “Maplewood doesn’t need new shops, but new shoppers,” he suggested  leasing the ground floor to the New Jersey Fencing Alliance (NJFA), which currently occupies a space on Burnett Avenue. Profeta said he had spoken to leaders in the local fencing community who thought the idea was “fantastic.” However, he told The Village Green he had not yet spoken to NJFA’s owners.

There could be two floors of residential apartments above the retail floor, and the building would still come in under 45′ in height, said Profeta.

Board member Alan Weiser said placing a fencing school in the building was “limited” and that Maplewood should look to towns such as Westfield for how to rejuvenate its retail landscape.

“To take this position in the midst of” negotiations with the current developer doesn’t make sense, said Weiser. Board member Ellen Davenport agreed, adding that the current Post Office is a “horrific arrangement” and she looks forward to a new building.

Board member and local business owner John Meade suggested the building be demolished and parking be added. “We need parking,” he said.

Board member Joe DePlasco took the Mayor to task for “dropping crumbs” of information, and for not allowing the public more involvement. Invoking the Station House, in which he said the architect failed to use the required building materials on the back of the structure, he asked, “Why should we trust this process? Why should we believe this architect?”

Board member Paul Sotrop said he agreed that the Station House hadn’t turned out as the MVA had planned and said that’s why the design review committee was now “baked into” the redevelopment process. He said it was “great news” that JMF agreed to reduce the number of floors.

As to why reuse hadn’t earlier been considered, Sotrop said at the time, Kings had been expected to move into the new space and the building was essentially being designed around them.

“You’re right,” said Profeta. “We are a prisoner of our history.”

DeLuca said the township had learned from the Station House that an extra pair of eyes was needed, which is why the MVA has power over the design.

MVA Board President John James said the Alliance had made suggestions during construction of the Station House but little changed. “Now we are telling [the developer] as opposed to making suggestions they would ignore.”

“The cake ain’t baked” in terms of the Post Office building’s design, said Board member John Branigan.

James said perhaps there should be discussion of repurposing; however, he said JMF’s plan had benefits including more parking, more open space surrounding the building, enhanced pedestrian access and access to the train station and better views. He also said having a new building would “set the standard for other landlords” in the Village to improve their properties.

“I see no upside potential to reuse versus [having] a new building of a similar scale,” he said, while adding that the design was not perfect and he too was concerned about the choice of architect.

Board member Allison Ziefert cautioned against the town developing a reputation as one where developers were not welcome.

In the end, James asked Profeta if he would hold off on making a motion and depending on how negotiations go with JMF, it would be brought up at a later meeting. Profeta agreed.

“The first step is to consider JMF’s design and plan” which may occur in March or April, said DeLuca in an email after the meeting. “If after the MVA and Planning Board reviews [the plan] the project does not get approved, the MVA will consider Fred’s suggestion as a recommendation to the TC.”

Resident and local business owner John Harvey said his group OhNo60 had recently held a meeting about the project for merchants, who discussed concerns about competing businesses moving in, rents being driven up across the village, and whether the gain in parking spaces would suffice.

“I think that the concept of re-use was simply raised too late in the game for it to achieve any traction with the Alliance,” said Profeta after the meeting. He continued, “…the concept of re-use, while on ‘life support,’ is not entirely dead. I think it’s unfortunate that the Township Committee never considered it on its own.”

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