The South Orange Village Trustees voted 6-0 Tuesday to designate Landmark Hospitality Group as the conditional developer for the adaptive re-use of Village Hall, marking the first step toward the town’s sale of the historic structure to a private entity.
The resolution was passed at the continuation of a special meeting that began Monday night at SOPAC, and again included impassioned comments from the public — some in favor of the designation, and others vehemently opposed.
The decision effectively puts an end to the township’s renovation of Village Hall, and also rejects a bid submitted by a developer that proposed a boutique hotel in the building.
The township now enters into a 60-day negotiation period with Landmark, said redevelopment counsel Joseph Baumann. When negotiations are final, the town will release to the public all three proposals (for renovation and adaptive re-use) as well as detailed financial analyses of all scenarios, Baumann told The Village Green.
Calling the building “a Village icon,” Village President Sheena Collum told the audience that no other single township issue had engendered as much public feedback.
The six trustees — including new member Jeff DuBowy — took pains to note the decision to sell a beloved Village landmark had been wrenching. This was “one of the tougher decisions,” said trustee Mark Rosner; however, he noted that, because the town would include an easement in the deed to ensure the building’s historic facade be preserved, “it will still be an icon.”
“It was a gut-churner,” said Walter Clarke.
Noting the extensive analyses the town had conducted on economic impact as well as what would be the best use for the property, Trustee Steve Schnall said Landmark’s project would be “good for the community financially and will protect the building.”
“This is a great milestone for an icon of the Village,” said Trustee Deborah Davis Ford, who was one of several trustees who had initially opposed the sale when it was first revisited by then-Trustee Collum. (The town had previously sought bidders for adaptive re-use in 2011 but had received no viable proposals.)
Several trustees said the dire need for extensive renovation and rehabilitation from years of deferred maintenance at several other key Village buildings — including the Police Station, the library, the Baird Center and the Connett building — had convinced them it was fiscally prudent to sell Village Hall to a private developer.
“I genuinely feel that a private developer will do it better than us,” Collum said, adding, “Look at our track record.”
Collum emphasized the need to focus dollars on buildings that are “high public value” like the library and the Baird; meanwhile, the need for Village Hall for municipal use has lessened as government has become increasingly digitized.
Also, she said, a new restaurant would serve as a vibrant anchor to that corner of the town center and ignite new life into the eastern stretch of South Orange Avenue.
As to why the restaurant proposal won out over the hotel, Collum said the restaurant will make better use of the second floor meeting room.
Developer Joseph Riela of the South Orange Hotel Group said he was “disappointed” in the decision and would continue to try to find a viable space for a hotel. He also cautioned that parking for a new restaurant would be problematic.
Collum said officials were “deeply considering” the parking issue and would have a resolution before the conclusion of negotiations with Landmark. “We believe there is a viable solution,” said Davis Ford.
The trustees and Village Administrator Barry Lewis told Riela that town officials and the South Orange Village Center Alliance were committed to working with his group to find an alternate location for a hotel.
Regarding the historic preservation easement, members of the South Orange Historic Preservation Commission, led by Amy Dahn, have argued there is no guarantee of preservation in perpetuity if the building is sold.
Ulana Zakalak, a historic preservation/renovation expert, told The Village Green that because Village Hall is town-owned and a state landmark the town would have to apply to the State Historic Preservation Office for permission to sell the building. “Part of the agreement with SHPO to allow the sale will require an easement on the property which will prevent it from being demolished,” wrote Zakalak in an email.
In an email sent to Village Green before the meeting, Dahn disagreed, cautioning that such easements can be “unenforceable in the long run” and new owners might not abide by the original purchase agreement. She also said the HPC had not been included in the process in an open and public manner.
Speaking to the trustees on Tuesday, Dahn called the decision to sell short-sighted and acerbically suggested other adaptive re-use in the Village: “How about a Barnes & Noble at the library…how about McDonalds at the Police Headquarters? How about a Lifetime Gym at the Department of Public Works, or a Holiday Inn at Baird?”
“Historic landmarks make the town what it is,” said Karen Marlowe. If the town continues to sell its assets, “what will you have left?”
Several members of the public said they were “disappointed” in the decision, though many commended the Board of Trustees for its hard work and diligence.
“This is one of the most divisive issues I’ve seen in a long time,” said a resident, but also “one of the best processes I’ve seen in my 16 years here.”
In response to a question from a resident about whether the Board of Trustees had done its due diligence, Collum drew laughter when she said fervently, “Oh yes, yes, we have.” She ticked off numerous meetings, public forums, a working group dedicated to the issue, outreach on social media and news sites, and extensive discussions with the bidders that have taken place over the last months.
“Trust me when I say…we worked really, really hard to evaluate everything that came in,” said Collum.