Op-Ed: Keep Maplewood Village Civil

by The Village Green
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The growing ranks of Maplewood citizens who oppose the cookie-cutter behemoth that is proposed for the old post office site are about to swell still further. As people learn what transpired Wednesday night during the Maplewood Village Alliance board meeting, they are sure to be appalled by both the still-emerging details of the Frankenstructure—and, just as important, the behavior of its would-be creators.

The Village Keepers was created in hopes of elevating the dialogue about both this proposal and future questions affecting the welfare of the village. Sure, we have a point of view: We think the design in question is financially irresponsible, environmentally harmful, and community-blind. But we expected that the other side would at least listen to our concerns and respond with decorum.

Not so much.

On Wednesday night, it became abundantly clear that the current governing body is functionally deaf to its constituents and, in at least one case, nastily antagonistic to someone who would dare to question proposal details. Even if that someone is a representative of what is arguably our single most important commercial establishment in town.

My personal opposition to the incumbents is somewhat painful. I worked on the campaigns of a majority of the current committee members. I know that they work their tails off. I know that they rarely get credit—and certainly not very much money—for the hours that they put in to keep the town we love up and running. But that does not mean we should refrain from expressing ourselves when we disagree with them.

And disagree with them we do. For me, the camel’s back broke Wednesday night.

In town hall, during review of the post office proposal by the Maplewood Village Alliance board, on which the mayor serves, the mayor displayed a level of incivility toward one speaker that was so hostile it made audience members cringe. He launched into a harsh interrogation, berating a representative of Kings Supermarket. And for what? For raising the perfectly reasonable business concern that the market might well not be able to continue operating if the new development proceeds.

That’s Kings, as in the proprietor identified by our own redevelopment plan as the anchor of Maplewood village commerce. Does anyone want Kings to leave Maplewood? So that a handful of new residents can occupy an apartment building with a private gym and a yoga instructor?

At issue was the turning radius of the Kings delivery trucks and their ability to back in to the driveway across the street to unload. But on display was an approach to public policy that reduced conversation to confrontation. The mayor was actually yelling at a representative of Kings in a public meeting. I infer that there is a back story here, but that doesn’t justify such public acrimony.

This was after the project’s architect compared town residents to “walking wallets.”

This was after the developer could not articulate a single concrete commercial tenant, nor really even a retail value proposition, for the first floor of the proposed building.

This was after we were shown that the structure’s elevated walkway would amount to a barrier reaching six feet tall between sidewalkers and the supposed shop entrances.

In the movie, Boris Karloff will play the building.

But leave aside the proposal’s sundry demerits. What is now evident is that the mayor is willing to risk the loss of Kings in pursuit of a pet project that a burgeoning plurality of residents and downtown merchants actually oppose.

Take a walk around your neighborhood for signs of the time.

From Boyden to both Burnetts. From Clinton to Courter. Dehart to Durand. Up Elmwood, down Elberta—and the mayor should not even look at Euclid. On Highland. On Hilton. All over College Hill. They are on Jefferson and Jacoby—on Kendall and Kensington—on Pierson and all over Park Road. Wellesley and Wyoming, too. Village Keeper signs total some 400 to date, and that’s only because we ran out of inventory.

In fact, more than 30 signs grace Maplewood Avenue alone, including some rather interesting addresses:

Village Ice Cream, Linda’s Cleaners, Kim’s Nails, Maplewood Wine, Leo’s Nails, St. James Gate, the Village Barbers, the Mapleleaf Diner, Village Wine, Madeline Moss, Freeman’s Fish Market, Scrivener’s, the Village Coffee shop.

All of those proprietors and more have taken Village Keepers signs to help dispel this looming shadow over Maplewood.

On Wednesday afternoon, at Bank of America, a staffer asked about the issue was blunt: “You know, everyone of our customers is against it.”

“What percentage?” asked her interviewer.

“No, seriously,” came the response, “everyone.

The proposal here is to sell a crown jewel of town property for 39 cents on the dollar and maybe gain $10-a-year for the average property owner. That’s one big casino—but in this case we are rolling dice with the commerce and character of our town.

Asked about the abomination, one member of the MVA design review committee said, “Look, we improved it. It’s not as bad as it was going to be.”

Really? Is this our standard? Not as bad as it might have been?

This is a slippery slope toward mediocrity. And—who knows?—maybe an even taller village skyline down the road.

Shown the design, another New Jersey architect, said, “Well it’s obviously generic. But it’s hard to judge without context. These are the same designs and materials that we’ve been seeing for the past 30 or 40 years. So this could be just about anywhere.”

In this case, the “where” in anywhere is us. Who are we? Why did we, or our parents, move to this town?

Proponents of the Frankenstructure have every right to voice their views. But they also have a duty to keep the debate civil. The Village Keepers will continue to pursue the goal of civil discourse, whether the mayor yells at us or not.



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