Opinion: Post Office Redevelopment Needs To Move Forward, Not Back

0 FacebookTwitterPinterestEmail

Victor J. Gallo is a partner at Carter, Ledyard & Milburn LLP in New York City and has 20 years of experience in environmental and land use law. The views expressed are his own, and do not represent the views of the firm or its clients. The views expressed do not represent the views of The Village Green or its editors. The Village Green does not represent or endorse the accuracy of statements made by the author. 

In May 2013, when the Township of Maplewood announced a proposed redevelopment plan for the post office site one block from my home, I was skeptical. The new Station House development on the former police station site (within view of my home) was already being widely reviled as too massive, cheap-looking, and architecturally-uninspired. I agree.

To avoid making the same mistakes again, I participated in the Township’s public review process on the proposed post office redevelopment plan and commented that the plan must require top rate finishes in terms of windows and exterior building materials, that there should be a predominance of one type of material and color rather than a patchwork, and that there should be no false balconies or tacky plastic ventilation exhausts. Constructive comments were made by many others, and the plan was revised to address these comments. In July 2013, the Township Committee adopted the revised “Maplewood Village Post Office Redevelopment Plan” that requires the old post office building to be torn down to make way for a new mixed-use development.[1]

After a developer was selected to carry out the Redevelopment Plan, now known as “The Post House,” the developer proposed a change to the plan to increase the permitted building height, which I and others vigorously opposed.  The turning point for me in favor of The Post House project came in February when the developer unveiled a re-designed proposal that removed one floor from its proposed building, reduced the height within the limits of the Redevelopment Plan, and improved the windows and building materials to be used on all four sides of the new building’s façade. The current vision of The Post House now strikes an appropriate balance between the need for long-term ratables, improved infrastructure and better traffic circulation, with appropriate massing, building and landscape design, while at the same time being an economically attractive project to a private developer.

Even though the project has been refined and improved over the past several months, the group Village Keepers Inc. remains stuck on whether the old post office building should be taken down to begin with. They sued the Township on this point back in May; waited to notify the Township and the public of the lawsuit until after a contested election in June that centered on this very issue; dismissed their lawsuit before a decision was made; and now suggest they might re-file the lawsuit because “we’ve just begun to fight.”

The Village Keepers lawsuit alleged that the Township agency responsible for reviewing development in Maplewood Village failed to comply with a design standard that prohibits building demolition unless the owner can prove a “significant financial hardship.” However, their complaint flagrantly ignored two critical facts:

First, the 2013 Redevelopment Plan has already unambiguously determined that the post office site is to “be completely cleared of existing buildings, parking lots and other improvements, as well as existing trees and other plantings.”[2]

Second, as a matter of state law, the Redevelopment Plan supersedes the development regulations of the municipality, including the design standard that prohibits building demolition absent “significant financial hardship.” [3]

The Redevelopment Plan could not have been more explicit in concluding that “there is no reason to retain any of the existing structures or vegetation.” As a result, by operation of state law, no Township agency, other than the Township Committee itself, has the legal authority to prohibit demolition of the old post office building or to require the owner (i.e. the Township) to prove a financial hardship for demolition as a pre-condition to project approval.

When it later amended the design standards in 2014, the Township Committee did not express an intention to reverse the superseding effect of the Redevelopment Plan. In fact, the amendments did not make any change whatsoever to the particular design standard that prohibits demolition. Even if the Redevelopment Plan did not supersede the directly conflicting design standard, it is well established by New Jersey’s courts that a specific law (e.g., requiring demolition of a specific site), trumps a general law (e.g., prohibiting demolition in a larger district).[4] A more detailed legal analysis of Village Keeper’s claim is available on the Village Facts website at: https://villagefacts.org/news/.

Aside from the fact that any lawsuit on this point is legally baseless, it is also way too late, diverts limited Township resources from other priorities, and perpetuates divisiveness among residents who are all passionate about their community. If Village Keepers Inc.’s leadership were truly concerned about retaining the post office building, they should have sued years ago when the Township adopted the plan to demolish the structure, or even earlier, when it determined that the site was blighted. Instead, the task at hand is to secure an excellent site plan for the Post House with legally enforceable provisions that hold the developer to his word to construct a first class development at a key juncture point in the Town.

[1] The plan is accessible online at: https://www.twp.maplewood.nj.us/DocumentCenter/View/1309.

[2] Redevelopment Plan, p. 35.

[3] NJSA 40A:12A-7(c).

[4] See e.g., Hackensack Water Co. v. Tax Appeals Division, 2 N.J. 157, 165 (1949) (“Where there is any conflict between a general and specific statute covering a subject in a more minute and definite way the latter will prevail over the former and will be considered an exception to the general statute”).

Related Articles