Merchants, Mayor Discuss How to Preserve Maplewood Village While Improving It

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Merchant Meeting Post Office

In what was billed as a discussion about potential tenants for the new development at the former Maplewood Village Post Office site (now called the “Clarus”), town leaders and Village merchants and landlords wound up having a wide-ranging conversation this morning at The Woodland about how to maintain the character of the Village while not limiting the ability for property and business owners to thrive.

Mayor Vic DeLuca was joined by Deputy Mayor Nancy Adams and Committeeman Greg Lembrich as well as Maplewood Village Alliance Chair John James and Executive Director Julie Doran to “answer questions and hear what you have to say.”

The meeting was called by the MVA in response to outcry from merchants to revelations by post office developer Joe Forgione that he was working to sign Starbucks, a bank, and a dry cleaner as three of his five tenants.

DeLuca noted that Forgione had declined to attend the meeting, but that the town leaders “are committed to share with him anything coming out of this meeting.” Doran noted later in the meeting that Forgione said he was happy to take phone calls from potential tenants and Village merchants.

DeLuca said that demolition on the current post office building would start as soon as the Maplewood Building Department approved the site plan and that it would be 8-10 months before commercial tenants could take occupancy and 12 months for residential tenants. The proposed development plans to bring in five groundfloor commercial tenants and lease 20 residential units above.

DeLuca noted that the developers “owns the property and can rent to whom they see fit.” He said that as of this morning they had a letter of intent from Starbucks for the corner of the property bordering on Ricalton Square and a letter of intent for a bank on the corner of the property facing Village Coffee.

DeLuca said that there were no letters of intent yet for three other potential businesses including a dry cleaner and a farm-to-table restaurant, and that, letters of intent notwithstanding, there are no signed leases for any tenants at the Clarus.

In response to several questions throughout the meeting, DeLuca clarified that the town set parameters for retail uses in negotiating the redevelopment agreement (e.g., food, financial), but did not get more specific than that.

Former Executive Director of the MVA Virginia Falconer spoke passionately about preserving the “uniqueness of Maplewood.”

“That’s what we risk losing with chains,” said Falconer, alluding to Starbucks.

Former Mayor Fred Profeta, like Falconer, noted that there was no ordinance prohibiting chains but cited a 2003 ordinance outlawing fast food. He asked Mayor DeLuca what he would do if the town attorney found that Starbucks fit the definition of fast food.

“If it’s determined to be fast food, it will not be allowed,” said DeLuca.

Amy Hughes of Salvage Style on Baker Street spoke of a man coming into her business claiming to be a friend of the post office developer and stating he was going to buy her building (she is a tenant, not the property owner) and tear it down to build condos.

“There is a sentiment that everything is up for sale in the business community,” said Hughes. “It’s scary as hell,” noted Hughes, who said she may not be able to renew her lease.

DeLuca, who spent considerable time talking with Hughes after the meeting, assured her during the meeting, “There is no plan on the town’s side to promote anything like what you’re talking about.” But Hughes pointed to the Drake building on Baker Street which is currently adding a second story for 2 to 3 apartments. “It is happening.”

DeLuca noted that anyone who wanted to demolish a building would have to show economic hardship. Also, the Mayor said that any plans for such a project would need to go through Planning Board approval. Opponents of the post office project noted that it did not need to meet the hardship criteria for demolition; DeLuca said that the post office was a special case and that the redevelopment plan for the post office property super-ceded other ordinances.

Town leaders spent some time throughout the meeting explaining to the gathering what is or isn’t allowed by current zoning. A suggestion by one business owner that one-story buildings not be allowed to grow to two or three stories provoked a strong response from a property owner of a single-story building: “So I can’t compete with other buildings?” the man asked. The Mayor noted that there exists a 50-foot height limit on buildings in the Village already, and that property owners had the right to develop within the parameters of existing zoning.

Back to the question of tenancy, Committeeman Greg Lembrich said: “There’s only so much a town can do to alter the market, so long as the landlord complies with existing codes and ordinance…. We cannot tell a landlord who to bring in as a tenant.”

But some merchants cited the ordinance not allowing nail salons within 500 feet of one another and asked if the town might not create similar ordinances for, say, bank branches.

Resident Dave Helmkamp said that the town could declare the entire Village a redevelopment zone, but Lembrich responded, “With all due respect, you don’t understand the law.”

A South Orange resident spoke of what he felt was overdevelopment in that town, including the 215-unit Third & Valley project, SOPAC and The Gateway, saying, “We’re becoming cities, not towns.”

DeLuca replied, “We’re building 20 apartments in the Village. That’s the extent of it.”

DeLuca did concede that the 235-unit project on the eastern border of Springfield Avenue, near Irvington was a large-scale project. “We made a judgment call with PSE&G,” said DeLuca. “We think we are going to solidify that area… Sometimes you say you’re overdeveloping but we’re trying to keep it one community that is viable east and west.”

At another point in the meeting, it was suggested that the town use historic designation of the Village to protect the buildings. DeLuca responded, “Honestly I don’t know where that is, but we need to figure out the pros and cons.” At the meeting’s close, DeLuca promised, “We’ll revive those conversations.”

After stating, “The fact that Joe Forgione did not attend today speaks volumes,” former Mayor Fred Profeta expressed confidence in DeLuca’s ability to use his “bully pulpit” (DeLuca’s words) to convey merchants’ wishes to Forgione, but suggested that the MVA and town had more power than it thought. “We should start acknowledging that you have powers that haven’t been used.” Profeta added, “Maplewood Village is already a gem and it attracts people to this town.”

Able Baker co-owner Thomas Pauly noted that he had to spend considerable sums to expand his business without any tax incentives (the post office development received a five-year tax abatement in which it pays tax on the improvements at a graduated rate of 20%, 40%, 60%, 80% and 100% over five years).

James acknowledged, “It is hard running a business in town. We want to try to improve it,” but noted, “the corollary is that new construction will put pressure on existing landlords to bring their buildings up to code.”

James noted that the MVA could resend a survey to merchants that was sent two years ago asking what tenants they’d like to see in the new development. “We got a 20% response rate,” said James.

Near the meeting’s end, a co-owner of Village Coffee spoke movingly of the difficulties of running a small, family-owned business: “We’ve been in town for almost 18 years…. A Starbucks next door won’t help us. I think the Alliance should preserve and protect businesses that have been here.”

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