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Almost 2 Years After the Financial Deal, Village Hall Site Plan Approved by South Orange Planning Board

The site plan for the Village Hall Restaurant and Pump House beer garden — an adaptive re-use of South Orange’s former municipal office and historic landmark — was approved by unanimous vote last night at the South Orange Planning Board meeting.

The resolution to approve the site plan came with many amendments — related to sound, landscaping, parking and more (the finalized resolution will be posted a few days before the Planning Board’s September meeting when the board will vote to memorialize it).

The vote came after months of hearings (the July meeting went well past midnight) and concessions from the developer, Landmark Hospitality, to free up its dedicated 38 parking spots for other nearby businesses for more hours. The project’s traffic engineer and valet parking vendor also testified multiple times. The use of the building for a restaurant (including 125 seats upstairs for catering) necessitated a variance on the parking requirement — a major bone of contention with Stuart Wainberg who owns 75 South Orange Avenue across the street. Wainberg is also looking to develop his property further and would need a parking variance to do so.

The redevelopment plan and financial agreement for the project were approved in late 2015. Now it is hoped that the project can get moving quickly. Bob Zuckerman, Executive Director of the South Orange Village Center Alliance, spoke at the meeting last night in support of the project. While Zuckerman did challenge Landmark to continue to mitigate parking issues (“We’re confident they will,” he said), he also asked that “planning should begin now for new parking garage” in the library lot. Zuckerman also talked about improvements to turning lanes and lights at the intersection of South Orange Avenue, Scotland Road and Valley Street. “Thoughtful pre-planning is essential to” downtown South Orange’s success, said Zuckerman.

Members of the Planning Board seemed to grow frustrated with Daniel Bernstein, a lawyer for Wainco (owned by Stuart Wainberg) as Bernstein started cross examining witnesses on materials that he had submitted rather than their own testimony. Bernstein insisted that he could do so as the witnesses had addressed his submissions in rebutting them.

Ultimately, South Orange Village Planner Phil Abramson said that the conversation was a discussion of the difference between “what is required and what is needed…. We’ve been very conservative in our zoning analysis from a parking perspective.” Abramson said that the town didn’t credit Landmark for their shared parking spaces or their valet spaces.

The town’s engineering consultant Eric Keller said that Bernstein’s numbers didn’t take into account the “trip chain.”

“People aren’t coming just to this restaurant,” said Keller. He noted that those who were going to SOPAC and eating at the restaurant or getting drinks at the beer garden would park once, thereby not creating new demand. “This is a permitted use,” said Keller, that was “contemplated in the redevelopment plan for the downtown area. Whether it’s 100 trips or 120 trips, it’s irrelevant because it’s permitted.”

Keller also challenged Bernstein’s claim that standard walking distance from parking is 300 ft, noting that parking spaces in the Stop n Shop are more than 300 ft from the store. Keller said that the Urban Land Institute put parking distance for the level of service generated by the proposed development at 1,2oo ft, not 300 ft.

Bernstein conceded, “We all agree its a good thing to adaptively reuse the building,” but he questioned the scope of the project. “What special reason .. wouldn’t be promoted by a smaller building? Nothing.”

When the representative for Landmark replied to Bernstein’s long line of questioning, he countered that “the only way to produce the parking requirement would be to demolish” the building. He noted that applicant performed a parking study and argued that “these users [Wainberg and other building owners] do not have a paramount right to these spaces. They may have benefited from the temporary vacancy of Village Hall but that does not give them a right to expect” a continued monopoly on public spaces. “Are Village Hall and these [empty store] spaces to remain shuttered until a parking garage is built?” he asked.

Regarding the scope/scale of the project, he said, “If this application is denied or the scale of the use reduced, the opportunity will be squandered. Any redeveloper will need to meet these [financial standards]” and added that the building would fall into further disrepair.

The Landmark representative cautioned the Planning Board, “Do not hold Village Hall hostage to his [Wainberg’s] desire to develop his own property.”

In answer to concerns by members of nearby JESPY House about potential noise from the development, the Landmark representative said, “We are bound by noise standards. But the Village seeks to encourage downtown activities. This will not be as quiet as an empty building.”

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