Two public commenters at the Feb. 17 Maplewood Township Committee cautioned the town against dealing with Avalon Bay Communities, Inc., a national, publicly traded company, that plans to develop a large apartment project at the former PSE&G site at Boyden and Springfield avenues.
Meanwhile, Avalon Bay announced yesterday that it would install more sprinklers and masonry firewalls in the Maplewood project — as well as a project it is undertaking in Princeton.
Avalon Bay took over the PSE&G project and property in October when Parke Place LLC decided to sell the site, which it purchased from PSE&G. The site has been approved for a 235 market-rate rental unit development with an attached multi-level parking garage for residents.
Avalon Bay is also the developer, owner and operator of the Edgewater apartment complex that suffered a devastating fire in January. The five-alarm fire destroyed 240 units of the 408-unit luxury complex, shut down schools and streets in Edgewater, and left hundreds of residents homeless. Residents have filed a class action suit, alleging negligence in construction, maintenance and operation.
Alex Hecht, a researcher from SEIU 32BJ, a large property service workers union with more than 10,000 members in New Jersey, read a statement to the Township Committee during public comments on Feb. 17, asking Maplewood officials to “demand better than Avalon Bay’s usual practices should you allow the company to build here.”
Hecht said that “Avalon Bay’s fire safety and environmental record raises concerns about whether it is a good neighbor.” Besides the Edgewater fire, Hecht cited a 2011 fire in Quincy, Massachusetts that destroyed an Avalon Bay apartment complex. Fire officials blamed the spread and destructiveness of the fire on faulty construction and a lack of fire barriers. Hecht also noted an earlier fire at the Edgewater site, as well as a fire that damaged an Avalon Bay complex under construction in Garden City, NY in 2012, among others.
Hecht also said that Avalon Bay had a history of “environmental irresponsibility” and as well as a “rush to courthouse” mentality. (He noted that Avalon Bay had sued Princeton after the council there voted down a proposed project in 2013 and then sued the town again in 2014 after it required soil testing.) Finally, Hecht said that Avalon Bay had a history of using “bottom-feeder contractors” such as Planned Companies “which has a long record of violating wage payment and labor laws.”
Princeton resident Mary Clurman also took to the microphone to caution Maplewood about Avalon Bay. Clurman said that she lives within two blocks of the Avalon Bay site in Princeton and had brought a letter signed by a number of neighbors. Clurman said that neighbors had been frustrated with Avalon Bay’s lack of response to their concerns about environmental contaminants as well as its plan to use untreated rubble from the hospital walls for project infill without the standard amount of topsoil or considering the optimum solution of removal.
“It’s amazing to me that this developer is able to continue to develop sites anywhere in this country given their record on fire and contaminants,” said Clurmen. “Given Avalon Bay’s disregard for environmental problems and residents’ concerns in Princeton, the Maplewood Township Committee should not assume that Avalon Bay will responsibly remediate the significant contamination at the PSE&G site. The company has made clear through close to two years of community protest that it will do no more than the minimum and will find ways to do less if it can. I urge you not to accept them.”
In an announcement Wednesday, Avalon Bay representatives said that the company is addressing fire safety concerns. In a report published by The Record on northjersey.com, Avalon Bay representatives said that they voluntarily “will install more sprinklers throughout the proposed buildings, including in the attics and closets and between ceilings and floors” and “also will install masonry firewalls, which aren’t currently required by state law for high density, wood-frame buildings.”
Ronald S. Ladell, Avalon Bay senior vice president, told The Record, “By continuing to work with local governmental and community leaders throughout New Jersey, we will continue to build distinctive, welcoming and safe communities.”
(The Village Green contacted Avalon Bay for comment on Feb. 5 and was told that the person who handles press inquiries was on medical leave but that someone would get back to us by close of business on Friday, Feb. 6. Thus far, the call has not been returned. The Village Green also left a message on Ladell’s voicemail on the morning of Feb. 19 but has not yet heard back from Ladell.)
On Feb. 3, Maplewood officials reported that the Avalon Bay project was moving forward rapidly and that a financial agreement was “on track” to be presented as an ordinance for first reading on Feb. 17, and a redevelopment agreement for approval as a resolution on March 3. However, no ordinance related to Avalon Bay was introduced at the Feb. 17 meeting.
When asked to comment on Feb. 4 about the Edgewater fire’s impact on the project, Maplewood Mayor Vic DeLuca said, “With any multi-family dwelling under consideration in Maplewood, including the post office site, PSE&G site and Maplewood Commons, we all have discussions with the developers about fire safety. We intend to monitor any regulatory changes to state fire codes and add our input. Lastly, our Code Enforcement Committee will discuss fire and building safety issues and propose any local or state changes we think make sense.”