UPDATE: The number of affordable houses to be created in South Orange through redevelopment by the year 2025 has been corrected.
Two major concerns of South Orange residents intermingled last night as many came to the Board of Trustees meeting to express their concerns about development on Valley Street as well as affordable housing.
Many of the Valley Street development concerns were voiced by Academy Heights neighborhood residents, and many of the affordable housing concerns were conveyed by members, staff and supporters of JESPY House. However, sometimes remarks from residents strayed into both subjects.
It made perfect sense, said Village President Sheena Collum, since “affordable housing and the master plan are interconnected.”
Collum made lengthy and nuanced remarks on both topics, but ultimately she clearly objected to any blanket moratorium on Valley Street development and she had specific information on how many affordable units could be developed and how they could be supported through the year 2025.
But first, residents expressed their views during public comments.
One Academy Heights resident urged the Township “to push pause on the All Star Motors proposal until the master plan update is completed.”
The All Star Motors owner and a developer are currently partnering on a proposed four-story project near Third & Valley that could bring 175 Seton Hall students to a new four-story dormitory building. A previous proposal at a larger scale by the same developer was rejected by the Development Committee of the Board of Trustees last year. The Township has not yet entered into any agreement with the property owner and developer and the project would face Planning Board approval due to a need for variances; the Development Committee, which has no fiduciary power, discussed the proposal at its April 19 meeting and will write a letter to the Board of Trustees with a recommendation for the project but also expressing “some concerns.”
Many neighbors who attended the Development Committee meeting were not happy with the proposal.
“Don’t get lost in legalese but please listen to what our community is expressing,” said an Academy Heights resident. “We do not want piecemeal projects by developers who do not live in our neighborhood.”
Tara Roberts of JESPY House, which works with special needs adults, spoke on the topic of affordable housing: “One of my jobs is to find apartments for clients who are graduating and need to be placed,” said Roberts. “This is the longest drought we’ve had for placing clients.” Roberts said the problem was the cost of apartments. “It’s hard to find apartments for under $1,000 a month.” She said that already one client “had to leave town.”
“They are great neighbors and good consumers and this is their home,” said Roberts of her JESPY House clients.
Ahadi Bugg Levine talked about a 30-year South Orange resident and JESPY House client whom she said may have to leave town due to the cost of housing. “They lose their job, connections, friendships,” said Bugg Levine. “We are a very diverse community. Not just wealthy people. We have clients who would love to transition into the community but they cannot afford the rents.”
After public comments, Trustees and the Village President spoke.
Trustee Mark Rosner explained to the residents that the Development Committee had no legal power to approve a project but was solely an advisory board made up of local residents who were industry specialists in development. “We don’t vote on the Development Committee,” said Rosner. “[We] say ‘yay’ or ‘nay’ and it moves forward. That’s all that happened.”
Rosner said that the in executive session, the committee members were “mostly in support” of the proposed dormitory project but had “some concerns.”
“We’re going to draft a letter to the Board of Trustees,” said Rosner. He added, “In no way, can [the project] be approved without going to the Planning Board.”
Trustee Steve Schnall, who is also a Development Committee member, said that the dormitory presentation was thorough. He noted that if no variances are required on a project, “there’s no position for any of our boards,” meaning a developer would have an as-of-right ability to develop a project that complied with current zoning. However, Schnall indicated that this project would require variances: “We’ll make sure of the appropriate checks and balances,” said Schnall. “They’ll have to get it right.”
Collum then responded at length to the residents’ comments and apologized for not being at the April 19 Development Committee meeting due to traveling for work. The Village President said “it would be easy and politically expedient to tell the public, ‘Stop all development projects!’ but there are many things that are intertwined.” Collum noted that, despite the fact that the governing body appeared to be pro-development, the Township had turned away a number of projects such as one by HUB Realty at South Orange and Vose avenues and at least two other projects in the Academy Heights/Valley Street neighborhood.
Collum assured residents, “There is a very, very thoughtful process, thousands of hours, many professionals.”
Regarding the town’s affordable housing obligation, Collum noted that South Orange is “growing. Not by choice. We are in an area highlighted for growth because of the amenities we offer.” Collum cited market trends, public transportation, walkability, shopping, dining and investment.
“Every community has a responsibility to provide housing for low and moderate residents,” said Collum. She said that through 2025 South Orange needed to “bring close to 600 units online.” Collum said that “new developers can partner with JESPY and others.”
[In a text message, Collum clarified that the town could bring 150 affordable units online, “meaning 750 new units through redevelopment with a 20% requirement for units to be affordable.”]
“We have more room for special needs housing” in the town’s housing requirements, said Collum. She said that the town’s affordable housing trust fund, to which developers contribute, could be used to partner with organizations like JESPY House on a project.
Collum said putting a stop to development while the master plan was underway was not the answer. “We have to get there somehow and a moratorium on all development will only ensure that all development happens at once, which I don’t think is good.”
Collum said she also wanted to ensure that affordable housing was integrated into other housing, otherwise South Orange would create “exclusionary development” which she said “carries a stigma.” Collum defended potential dormitory projects noting that such student housing projects would pay into the affordable housing trust fund.
After Collum completed an exhaustive explanation of affordable housing requirements, Trustee Rosner commented, “We could do a five-hour meeting on this.”