South Orange Hears Proposals for Hotel, Restaurant in Village Hall

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South Orange residents heard about two different proposals for the adaptive reuse of historic Village Hall at a special Board of Trustees community forum at SOPAC on Tuesday.

In 2014, the BOT agreed to explore the sale of Village Hall — built in 1894 — for adaptive reuse simultaneously to pursuing renovation for municipal purposes. As a part of the requirements for adaptive reuse, it was required that the building’s exterior be preserved to historic standards.

Bids for the renovation costs have been received along with two offers for adaptive reuse of the building — one for a 28-room boutique hotel and the other a restaurant group that restores historic buildings.

The Board of Trustees is currently in negotiations with both and by the end of the month will decide whether to sell Village Hall to one of them, or to keep the building and continue renovating it for village use, said Village President Sheena Collum.

The proposals and preliminary plans can be found on the South Orange website.

The video of the meeting can be found here.

Roughly 50 people attended the meeting, and nearly a dozen spoke, the majority in favor of either or both of the proposals. Several people expressed concern about a lack of concrete financial projections, and whether parking capacity would be an issue.

Collum said the BOT had all the financial information from each bidder but was not able to share the details while in negotiation. The Village has also been running feasibility and financial analyses on the various options, including how much it will cost to continue leasing municipal office space, as well as on the total projected costs the town will be incurring to implement much needed renovations on several other municipal buildings.

South Orange Hotel Group presenting to the BOT

South Orange Hotel Group presenting to the BOT

The South Orange Hotel Group presented first. They are a group of private investors (including James Cramer of “Mad Money” as well as Stony Johnson, owner of Ricalton’s and Stony’s in South Orange), some of whom purchased and renovated the historic DeBary Inn in Summit several years ago.

For South Orange, the group proposes a similar, but larger, hotel, with 28 rooms (the DeBary has 16). “There is a need for another hotel in [the area],” said principal Joseph Riela, whose family has been in the hotel business since the 1950s. The DeBary generally has around an 80% annual occupancy rate and at some times of the year has to turn guests away for lack of space.

A hotel would bring more visitors to patronize other local businesses, and would make South Orange more of a “destination,” said Riela. Clientele would include business travelers, out-of-towners visiting family, and people staying for the proximity to Seton Hall University, local hospitals and country clubs.

Room rates would be somewhat higher than the DeBary’s, which average $160 a night.

Riela said the Village Hall’s current 35-space parking lot would provide enough parking for hotel guests and that the parking impact on the town would be “minimal.” Most hotel guests arrive by car service or train or do not generally take up parking spaces during the day.

“There so much going on here; I want to be part of it very much,” said Riela, who grew up in West Orange and lives in Summit.

Riela’s architect, David Rosen (who renovated the DeBary), said Village Hall was “iconic” and that a hotel would be a missing puzzle piece to the town. “It will breathe new life into the building” and complement, rather than compete with, existing businesses.

Rosen said he would take pains to restore the building while keeping the original character. “South Orange would really benefit from having this.”

The second group presenting, Landmark Hospitality Group, is a family-owned business with over 600 employees, said principal Frank Cretella. They have restored and operate other historic properties including The Ryland Inn, Liberty House and Snug Harbor Cultural Center.

In Village Hall, Cretella envisions an upscale tavern-style restaurant featuring a menu including steaks and burgers and a raw bar, as well as a large event space upstairs. The restaurant would have indoor-outdoor spaces (including outdoor seating to “add vibrancy to a dormant corner of town”), a restored exterior and an open kitchen. There would be valet parking, and they are negotiating with owners of local private parking lots to use their lots at night.

Frank Crestella of Landmark Hospitality Group

Frank Crestella of Landmark Hospitality Group

The group is currently under contract to purchase a liquor license, contingent upon them purchasing Village Hall, at a cost of $500,000.

All of Landmark’s properties are unique and many are landmarks, and “Village Hall obviously fits that model.” He also emphasized the company’s experience with the process required to get state approval to renovate historic buildings.

“We’re very passionate about it, we love what we do,” said Crestella. “Rest assured the end result would be something that everybody would be proud of.”

“I believe that adaptive reuse is historic preservation,” said Karen Marlowe, who is President of the South Orange Historic Preservation Commission but was speaking on her own.

Maureen Gammon, president of the Montrose Park Historic District Association said the organization supported selling the building as long as it was preserved.

Amy Dahn disagreed, saying Village Hall should remain Village Hall and suggesting that the redevelopers think about using Marylawn instead.

Leslie Pogany, owner of Bunny’s restaurant, urged the BOT to consider retaining ownership of Village Hall parking spaces, perhaps by working out a lease arrangement with the potential owner. Collum said they were negotiating with both groups now regarding parking.

Robert Chandross commended Collum for being the only trustee to suggest selling Village Hall a year ago, when the township was focused on renovation. He also urged the BOT to provide the public with specific information on how the proposals would impact tax revenues.

Ben Salmon, owner of Kitchen a la Mode and vice chair of the South Orange Village Center Alliance, said he was “astounded” by the high quality of both proposals and praised the solid track records of the groups.

“Village Hall is ready for a new story and I can’t wait to find out more about which one it’s going to be,” he said.

Collum said residents with comments or questions should email her at, and she would share them with the rest of the board as they made their decision.




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