At its June 23 meeting, the South Orange Board of Trustees decided to move forward with a request for proposals — or RFP — for the sale of Village Hall.
The RFP, however, would stipulate that the historic building’s exterior be preserved and restored.
Village President Alex Torpey opened the discussion of the RFP by asking Township Administrator Barry Lewis what restrictions the Village could place on the sale and if those restrictions would hold.
Lewis said that the RFP had been crafted with mandatory requirements for restoration in compliance with the historic preservation easement that the village itself had agreed to in its renovation of Village Hall.
The easement and attached standards would preclude demolition and require the buyer to renovate the building. “It is crafted to insure it remains and is restored,” said Lewis.
The attached parking lot is not being offered as a separate opportunity, he added. “It must be a coordinated development.”
Village Counsel Steven Rother explained that the buyer would be held accountable by several state agencies that enforce preservation easements. “It’s the same preservation easement we were using.”
Trustee Deborah Davis Ford was satisfied with Lewis and Rother’s explanations, saying she would not support any proposal that did not require exterior restoration. However, she noted that the interior of the building could be gutted and designed for any need.
Rother also assured the Trustees that the “easement is an easement in perpetuity” and that a developer could not demolish the building, say, in 10 years time.
The Trustees decided that the RFP and attachments would be made available online for download in order to reach the maximum audience, but that a $150 would be required to submit in order to ensure the receipt of serious proposals.
The Trustees also agreed to create an ad hoc committee of stakeholders — including historic preservation advocates — to review proposals and report their recommendations to the Board of Trustees.
Earlier in the meeting, a number of residents spoke in favor of historic preservation and voiced their fears that a developer would be able to demolish the building. Former Trustee Janine Bauer urged current Trustees to move forward with renovations.
“We need to fix it first, while looking for proposals,” said Bauer.
South Orange Historical & Preservation Society President Karen Marlowe agreed and voiced skepticism about a developer being made to restore the building: “Let’s not kid ourselves. No developer will want it as it is.”
Marlowe waxed poetic about Village Hall’s tower welcoming residents. “Village Hall has always represented South Orange,” she told the Trustees.
Meanwhile resident Marian Cutler was unmoved by such arguments: “I’m astounded as we continue to take on capital improvement projects. We don’t do them well. Looking backwards is not the way to look forward as a town.”
Resident and business owner Ben Salmon sought a middle ground, musing over whether Village Hall might be converted to a digital library location freeing up the current public library building — which is much in need of repairs — for redevelopment.
“It might not be practical, but we really need to look at our physical infrastructure.”