Government Maplewood Opinion Towns

Op-Ed: Support the Process for the Proposed ‘Post House’ Development

The following op-ed addresses the proposed Post House development at the former Maplewood Post Office site in Maplewood Village.

Paul Sotrop serves on the board of the Maplewood Village Alliance, and is one of many past presidents of the Maplewood Middle School Home & School Association. The opinions expressed here are his own.

I’m absolutely thrilled that we’ve finally got some progress in the great controversy that some think is sweeping through our township like the announcement of the canceling of “American Idol” has breezed through the tabloids. Yes, it’s the demand from the group calling itself “The Village Keepers” that we all be civil in this discussion over the fate of a piece of property.

So far, I’ve been waiting patiently for something, if you’ll pardon the expression, concrete from this group, other than “Please put one of our signs in your yard and show support for our cause.”  Other than that, we really don’t know what their cause is.

All they ask is that the area, which almost 50 years ago was commonly referred to as “Town Centre,” yes, even with the “e” and “r” transposed in an “I love the 1990s!” sort of way, is kept as a “village.”

It’s a village? It’s got branches of two global banks, one regional bank, and an assortment of stores in between where one can obtain all sorts of exotic and interesting merchandise that Marco Polo would treasure. Plus, we’ve got two Mexican restaurants, three Asian restaurants, ice cream from Pennsylvania and frozen yogurt from Morristown. And of course, there’s the movie theater, which is 65 feet tall.

Last time I checked, the streets are still paved and there is no water well for public use in “the village,” although I’m told that within a stone’s throw, you might find some chickens.

It’s not a village. It’s a modern commercial district of a small scale with progressive minded entrepreneurs, gluten-free wi-fi connections, and plenty of pizza choices. Ten years ago, when my wife and I stepped off the train from NYC for the first time, we looked left and saw that nasty loading dock and bedraggled edifice. Well, they had to put the post office’s warehouse somewhere, right? Then we looked past it and saw what looks like one of many small towns across the South and Midwest where we came from. I think all y’all call it “flyover country.”

So what do these possessors of “Village Keeper” signs really want? Well, I know that at least one of them wants the Building Formerly Known as the Post Office (BFKPO) torn down and the property turned into a parking lot. We’re still waiting for the Green Team’s perspective on that idea.

Then there’s part of the coalition who want the township to turn the building into a public space for multipurpose use. It seems that having The Woodland, the 1978 Art Center, the basement of the Memorial Library, the DeHart Center, Town Hall with its two meeting rooms, along with meeting spaces in churches and schools isn’t enough. We don’t need more meeting spaces. We’ve got plenty. If anything, community groups need an app where they can schedule their meetings, and announce them to engage Maplewood residents.

Let’s not forget one other public meeting space. It’s called “The Burgdorff Center” and it’s where I attended an assortment of public meetings about the redevelopment of the BKFPO, along with the presentation of the results of the township’s parking study. I was not the only member of the public in those meetings.

For those of you who forgot about them, these meetings were conducted by the township’s planning consultant, who is a Maplewood resident by the way, and he sought input from Maplewood residents about redeveloping BKFPO. The Burgdorff Center is also where the presentation was held after the completion of the Columbia University study.

None of this happened last week. It happened within the last four years. And for the record, the fate of the BKFPO has been on the Township Committee’s radar for the last 10 years. Yes, that’s right. Ask your township committee members, both past and present, how long this has been an issue. Also, the same number of people attended those meetings as did the contentious Township Committee meeting when the BKFPO was approved, and the contentious Maplewood Village Alliance board meeting of last week. And as an added bonus, it’s been the same people! So I’m not even remotely convinced this is some “movement.” It’s a nice slogan that lacks specific meaning, on a sign, in a bunch of yards. But it’s far from specific, such as “I Like Ike.”

So why is it that in the last three months, with our second development proposal, a little more than a dozen people have been showing up at meetings to express this deep love for BKFPO? Where were their rancorous voices four years ago? And why didn’t they tell us specifically what they wanted, rather than wait till now to tell us what they don’t want? Some of them say the process is rushed, and the community needs more time. 

Well, when the post office opened, the “I Like Ike” campaign buttons had just been put away. So we’ve had about 50 years to figure that out and at least two of the people who demand more time were actually there when the Post Office opened. And while that’s been going on, an assortment of other mixed-use three-story properties seem to have functioned extremely well in Town Centre and on Springfield Avenue.

But it appears that this hasn’t been enough. As the VK Squad offers up their alternatives for the site, the rest of us have work to do.

Some of that work, for me at least, is to continue to support the process, which has been open and availing. We have a developer with a track record. Joe Forgione [of JMF Properties] is proposing a project that is consistent with other properties in town. The plan incorporates retail space in a part of town where retail vacancies are extremely low, and have been consistently low even through lean times.

The project includes residential spaces, which is consistent with recommendations by the township’s planning and business development consultants. The project includes improvements to the sewer system, improvements to pedestrian access to the business district, and traffic improvements that are combined with traffic calming measures. None of those terms were required in the redevelopment plan. The building will be LEED certified, which is required by the redevelopment plan. The developer is very excited about his plans for this building to be “wellness certified,” a first for New Jersey.

Six years ago when I first became aware of this project, I was very skeptical about the process, and approached the presentations with a lot of caution. The police station property redevelopment process had a lot of residents concerned, including me. A lot of lessons were learned, and BKFPO has been a much improved, and much more constructive and positive process. I listened, observed and participated.

Most important, I took the time to learn, and volunteered to be part of the process. I served on the Post Office Development Review Subcomittee during the discussions with both developers, and am pleased with the results. Nobody rolled over on this deal. Not the township. Not the developer. It’s been a series of healthy discussions and reasonable compromises.

No, this is not a landmark property. When it’s completed, it will harken to the repurposed sorts of light industrial properties that are appropriate in New Jersey. No, it will not be a star-chitect designed project, which obviously was not in the cards, but star-chitecture doesn’t do much for Newark Broad Street, as seen with the Mies van der Rohe buildings and plaza.

I know that for our town centre to thrive, we need to give non-residents a reason to get off the trains, other than to ride out from the Big City to meet their new small town Realtors. They need to see some sort of activity when those trains roll into Maplewood Station that is inviting and welcoming. The Post House development, with its plans for outdoor plazas, will provide some of that sort of attraction.

I don’t believe that improving outdoor plazas and traffic flow is the only solution, but it’s a welcome start. So if the VK Squad has some constructive ideas to spur additional economic activity, and is willing to help execute those plans with volunteer hours, I’m sure I’m not the only person who is eager to listen.

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