Opinion: Not Too Late to Avoid Mediocrity, Especially in Maplewood!

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John Harvey has lived in Maplewood for more than 30 years and has owned local businesses here. He is a founding member of Engage Maplewood and ohNo60, groups that oppose the current Post Office site development plan. The opinions expressed here are his alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Village Green or its editors.

A recent visit to Asheville (AVL), NC has been both inspiring and frustrating. Inspiring, observing our daughter loving her school experience, organic farming, the locals, and the place itself.

Also inspiring to observe the amazing effort by AVL residents, local businesses, and government towards creating a unique, successful, and sustainable way to live, work, and play.

Their efforts have created a community that is vibrant, where local businesses flourish (almost no chains in AVL) and that has become a magnet for attracting visitors, residents, and entrepreneurs. Along the way, the value of real estate has increased steadily. The many repurposed buildings have had positive environmental, financial, and aesthetic impact.

Culturally, people and businesses exhibit rabid support of locally owned businesses for economic and community reasons. The effort has also created a community well known for sourcing locally and organically grown food for health reasons and also for economic and community building reasons. As you can imagine this support has fueled the local economy.

The result is a vibrant place that attracts diversity: young adults and seniors, creative types and not, a variety of ethnic backgrounds, and any life style as long as there is respect for all.

The visit was also frustrating for me as a Maplewoodian. Experiencing life in AVL elevated my conviction that we are missing an extraordinary (once in a generation) opportunity to increase the vitality of Maplewood for years to come, with the current PO Redevelopment Plan.

All along this process the Mayor and the TC has emphasized the benefit of their Plan of increased visitors to Maplewood as one of the factors making the project desirable. The new apartments and new retail space, they emphasized, will bring many more visitors to enjoy and benefit our Town. The have said it will create a “destination,”

My visit to Asheville inspired an option to the current plan that would be significantly better for our residents, visitors, and our business community. It is possible, however, that this may not be the best option for the developer, JMF. Possibly, it could be developed this way without JMF?

While in Asheville we stayed at a terrific hostel called, “Sweet Peas Hostel” https://www.sweetpeashostel.com/ that has 43 accommodations of various types, at rates ranging from $28 to $68 per night. There is also terrific, well-designed communal space for cooking or simply relaxing.

This would be an amazing option for the PO space. Just compare the positive impact of this option to JMF’s planned 20-rental apartment.

Under the proposed Plan twenty (20) apartments will be occupied by roughly 25-30 residents, many whom will commute to NYC for work from Monday to Friday, while dedicated space for their escape vehicles is reserved 24/7 in the basement. These visitors will have occasional visitors, but most of the time they will live by themselves.

Compare this option to a hostel that attracts about 3,000 new/repeat visitors each year who stay an average of 2.5 days, as is the case at SweetPeas. There is significant peak seasonality in AVL during the summer and fall. These numbers are normalized for the average, full year.

So, from an economic perspective a hostel-type approach provides a significantly greater positive impact for our community than what JMF has proposed and the TC and PB has endorsed. It provides a continuous flow of visitors, many of whom will recall our Village, and perhaps visit in the future. These visitors may patronize a variety of our businesses – coffee shops, restaurants, gift shops, and yes, nail salons.

If you believe this is a better option for Maplewood you are probably asking, “Why didn’t the TC think of it?”

There are several possible reasons, in my opinion; an intense focus on one developer, (mis) perceived maximum financial benefit for Maplewood, a lack of creative thinking, and the unwillingness to consider an alternative to the typical McMansion approach to commercial development. Also, the Development Plan required the demolition of the existing building.

But perhaps most striking, the development plan explicitly permits micro-hotels. This option was thought of, and never explored.

If you take the NJ Transit east or west you will find many similar buildings to the developer’s proposal in towns like South Orange, Millburn, Morristown. Don’t you believe Maplewood IS different than South Orange, Millburn, and Morristown?

Aren’t we celebrating our Town’s unique qualities with the “Best Downtown in NJ” Award celebration this Saturday?

So, let’s move onto the second factor the TC has told us will add to the vibrancy of the Village and our local business community: five new retail spaces on the ground floor of the proposed PO Redevelopment.

I (like many others) would prefer not to guess on the identity of prospective tenants, since in this case we are the sellers, and should be able to consider the impact of a sale before moving forward. Without knowing the identity we are left to hypothesize. Would, for example, a location of a national chain benefit our community? And, not negatively impact current locally owned businesses?

Here is one idea from Asheville. What if the first floor of the PO Redevelopment was renovated to include stalls that local artisans could rent to create and sell their wares, to an audience that would visit Maplewood?

One example of many in Asheville that is working well is https://www.odysseyceramicarts.com/, which provides rental space for work studios, galleries, artists-in-residence.

If the goal of the PO development is the vitality of Maplewood Village, bringing unique visitors into our Village, especially by train, why shouldn’t we demand a proposal that demonstrates this…now?

Do you really believe a coffee shop, a real estate office, or a relocating an existing local business will increase the vitality of Maplewood? As owners of this land, shouldn’t we play a role in this decision?

Finally, there is a pristine fall out shelter located in the one-half of the basement of the current PO structure. It has never been used (thankfully!) and it would make an amazing performance space or the home base for an assortment of community-based organizations like Rent Party, the Maplewood Fencing Alliance, or even a food bank. This could be private, or public and financed by the upper floors.

I, along with many others do not believe the current PO Redevelopment Plan will enhance the vitality of our community. I believe this a poor financial deal for us, the taxpayers, who own the property now.

Many of you may believe it is too late to change this decision, the deal is done, and it is time to move on.

This is not true!

If you agree with us these next two weeks are critically important. If you say or do nothing a collection of businesses that result in a lost opportunity, or that actually cannibalize other local businesses will be reality, and many other more exciting options will never have been explored.

Maybe ask our Mayor on Saturday at the “Best Downtown” celebration what he is doing to live up to his word that the merchants at the PO site location will increase the vitality of our business district. My guess is that an answer will not be forthcoming.

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