Post Office Development Moves Forward to Planning Board Review

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After nearly four hours of contentious discussion, the Maplewood Village Alliance board voted to accept the recommendation of its Post Office Design Review Subcommittee (PODRS) that the design for the Post House mixed-use development is in compliance with the design guidelines of the Alliance.

The Alliance is the non-profit entity that manages the Village’s special improvement district. Its board is comprised of local residents, business owners and property owners in the Village, as well as Township Committee liaison Mayor Vic DeLuca.

The next step for the project — which includes a subfloor for 21 parking spaces, outdoor plazas, another 64 outdoor parking spaces, a ground floor with five retail spaces and a lobby and fitness center for residents, and two upper floors with 20 apartments — is a review of the site plan by the Maplewood Planning Board after the township engineer finishes reviewing the documents.

The Post House would replace the current vacant post office building, a one-story midcentury structure.

John Branigan, head of PODRS, reported to the full board that the proposed building met the guidelines with regard to materials, massing, proportion and scale, visual compatibility, and other standards.

Developer Joseph Forgione of JMF Properties said he was excited about the project not only because it would, he said, improve access to the train station, add parking, improve traffic circulation, create plazas, and include a major sewer improvement for the Village, but because it “exceeds the intent of the redevelopment plan.”

Forgione said the building did that by not only reaching for silver LEED certification for sustainability but by being the first proposed proposed building to pursue WELL Certification in New Jersey through the International WELL Building Institute and its WELL Building Standard. [A publicist for the International WELL Building Institute clarified that the building is “one of” the first proposed buildings in New Jersey to pursue the certification.] Forgione explained that WELL is a building standard that “focuses on human wellness within the built environment.” Forgione is working with the consultant Delos on the WELL Building Standards which include providing for physical fitness, sourcing locally grown food for residents, ensuring air quality, and more.

However, a number of citizens took to the microphone to voice their displeasure with the proposed project. Many expressed dismay at the size of the building which is taller than surrounding structures as well as larger. Audience members audibly murmured when a rendering showed a view of the proposed building from the train station.

A number of speakers questioned the tax break that the developer was receiving in the form of a 5-year payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT), saying that the location was the most prime real estate location in a highly desirable town and did not warrant a tax break.

MVA board member Joe DePlasco questioned the process, asking architect David Minno what assurances he could provide that the development would abide by the requirements determined by the design process. DePlasco, who lives across the tracks from the Station House, said he was “suspicious” because “the building you delivered is somewhat deficient. I would like assurances built in to guarantee” that design requirements are carried out (Minno was also the architect of the Station House).

Branigan replied that the current redevelopment plan for the Post House site was a “response to the way that the Station House went ahead.” He said that “for the last two years, we’ve been working to ensure what was not satisfactory on that building” would not happen again. “We did not have the authority and enforcement on that building that we have with this one.”

Adaptive re-use was also a sticking point. Architect Inda Sechzer asked why the town would demolish the building only to build another with a similar amount of square footage. She questioned why the town would demolish and cart away materials only to bring in new materials. (Proponents noted that the footprint of the current building does not allow for traffic circulation behind the building.)

Many felt that the building would be detrimental to the character of the town, which one person called “magical.”A resident of Brook Lane said she felt the building looked like a “loft building that belongs in downtown Manhattan” and likened the awnings at the entrances to a CVS or Walgreens. “This is not in keeping with the spirit of the Village,” she said.

Dirk Olin noted that there was widespread opposition to the project, citing the 400 lawn signs that his organization Village Keepers had distributed (the signs read “Keep the Village a Village. Get It Right at the P.O. Site”). He called the building a “slippery slope to mediocrity.”

Some comments were particular and potentially resolvable: Architect Marvin Clawson asked for a shadow study to measure the impact of shadows cast by the building on nearby structures.

Clawson also said that he felt the two-level sidewalk that was proposed to deal with slope of the elevation would be detrimental to retail success — a concern echoed by another public commenter. (Later, Branigan said that the upper sidewalk was only a “knee wall” starting at 0′ at one end and progressing slowly to 6′ and that it was a superior solution to other proposals to put the building on a “huge” pedestal.)

A dramatic moment came when an attorney for Kings Super Market said that the development as proposed would not allow for the store to angle its trucks into the loading dock across the street. Mayor DeLuca assured the representative that the issue would be resolved as Kings is a major anchor of the Village and the priority of its retention is stated in the town’s Master Plan. When the attorney returned to the microphone to ask that the Alliance not vote on the recommendation because he worried that the issue would get “kicked down the road,” DeLuca was noticeably agitated and called that characterization “inaccurate, ” saying “we’re going to work this out.” Later, DeLuca noted that the area in question was still public land and that it was the township’s responsibility to work out a solution, not the developer’s.

Alliance board member Fred Profeta, who has become a leading and vocal opponent of the project, made a move to table the vote on the recommendation from the get-go. Profeta said that the redevelopment plan stated that the Alliance must vote on the site plan prior to submission to the Planning Board, but that the Alliance could not do so because the site plan was not yet complete. Other board members disagreed; later, the redevelopment plan was pulled out and the passage in question was read. MVA board members voted down a motion by Profeta to table the vote. Additionally, MVA Chair John James said that the site plan “was certainly a part of what PODRS is dealing with. I fully expect to discuss the site plan in totality tonight.” He noted that the PODRS review of the site plan is not the same of the Planning Board’s review.

Proponents of the plan also had their say.

MVA board member Paul Sotrop questioned the sudden “love for this old building that was inappropriate for that location 50 years ago. A bunch of us are sitting around scratching our heads. We’re really excited,” he said, because they feel that the building is green, improves the flow of traffic, improves the Village’s connection to Memorial Park, is made of appropriate materials, has a footprint that is not significantly larger than the current building, and is three stories “like so many other buildings in the Village. Sounds like a win-win.”

Alan Weiser, former owner of the Village Wine Shop and a PODRS member, said that it was important to remember that the Village is a business district. “We struggle. The rents are high. It’s a tough town, but it’s a great town,” said Weiser. He called the post office and Ricalton Square area a “dead zone” that sapped business activity and said the proposed development was a needed “shot in the arm.”

MVA Chair John James noted that the age and poor condition of many Village properties was a noted drawback to economic development and that this new construction would “really raise the bar” in the Village. MVA member Allison Ziefert said she felt that the level of community input with the project was unprecedented — 12 local architects and design professionals volunteered their time on PODRS — and that it had “led to a better outcome.” She said she was “puzzled” by the opposition to the project and was not sure “what would satisfy them” outside of “leaving the building there as a museum.”

Later, Profeta and Sotrop had a testy exchange when Profeta said that one PODRS member told him the process was like trying to make “a sow’s ear into a silk purse.”

“What would be a silk purse?” asked Sotrop.

“Not this,” said Profeta.

Sotrop asked Profeta to be more specific and noted that one person he asked said that a better use would be a parking lot.

“A silk purse is a better design,” said Profeta.

Ultimately the board voted to accept the recommendation with four conditions: (1) that the issue with Kings truck loading be resolved; (2) that any resulting design changes come back to PODRS for review; (3) that the Planning Board request a shadow study; and (4) that the Planning Board receive a close-up view of the Maplewood Avenue elevation in order to clearly view the sidewalk and “knee wall” treatment. The motion passed by a vote of 12 in favor, 2 against (Fred Profeta and Joe DePlasco) and one abstaining (Ziefert).

Corrections: This article was amended to change John Branigan’s reference from “small wall” to “knee wall.” Also, the third and fourth conditions of the recommendation were previously listed as a single third recommendation; they are now listed as two separate recommendations.

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