South Orange

OPINION: Student Housing Project Is in Best Interest of South Orange

All Star Motors at 164 Valley Street in South Orange, the site of a proposed dormitory development for Seton Hall University students

My name is Russell Lord, more commonly known as Ricky. I am the owner of Mil Val Motors (aka All Star Motors) situated at 164 Valley Street in South Orange, NJ. Originating at the corner of Milburn Avenue and Valley Street in Maplewood, we then moved to South Orange 30 years ago, initially occupying property on Lackawanna Place. After Lackawanna, we were briefly located at 165 Valley Street before occupying our current address for approximately 25 years. As a minority owned company in South Orange, we faced many challenges upon our arrival which we overcame through hard work, persistence and service to the community.

Personally, I feel that it is important to give back to the community that has given so much to my family and me. Over the years, our company has donated vehicles to the Fire & Rescue Department that assisted in training exercises. These vehicles were critical in drilling them on Jaws of Life equipment, thus better preparing them for actual emergencies.

Another segment of the community that we have also supported was the local Police Department. We assisted in their drive to acquire bullet proof vests for officers. Our donation of a Toyota Land Cruiser has been helpful in assisting with undercover operations and other official police business of that nature. In 2006, these acts of service were recognized in a letter of commendation.

Several years ago, we were awarded a Spirit of Excellence award by St. Barnabas Health for the maintenance of their emergency fleet. We were also recognized by the Arc of Essex for vehicle maintenance and roadside assistance for excellence service. We have also established ongoing relationships with JESPY House along the same lines. These relationships have allowed us to form strong ties to the people of South Orange and its surrounding communities.

With the passing of time, we have seen many changes in the community. Valley Street is no longer the industrial-type street that it once was, housing 11 auto repair shops, spanning from South Orange Avenue to Milburn Avenue. These shops have long given way to many a mixed use or residential building. In trying to adapt to the changing environment, we attempted to modify the use of our property from an auto repair center to a mixed use building. However, because of the unique layout of the property which includes a 30 foot incline that extends from the front to the back, no developer was willing to invest in a project of that nature. Excavating such a layout would prove substantially costly and as such, was a major deterrent. Over the last decade, we have seen many developers come and go at the expense of tens of thousands of dollars as they toyed with the idea of developing a mixed use building.

From the view of my shop window, I have watched this area change. New people moved in, as old shops closed. New projects are going up or plan to go up shortly, including our former home at 165 Valley. It was with mixed feelings that I learned about Third & Valley. Sad to see our former location erased from history, I also understood that new real estate improved the value of my current property. A new apartment building meant more foot traffic and hopefully, more customers to service.

Roughly two years ago, I was approached by a new group of developers. This time, their proposition was different – a student housing facility with retail space on the ground floor. This concept offered more adaptability and would better fit with the unique shape of our property. It would require less parking than an apartment would have. The target demographic would be graduate students. The location would prove ideal for Seton Hall students to walk, bike or shuttle to campus. This student housing would be an ideal fit for the ongoing changes in the community.

The student housing concept was presented to the town, who subsequently appointed a development committee to vet the project. After due diligence, the committee responded with an overwhelmingly positive response. They determined that this private developer had not requested a tax abatement. As such, the project would represent a new tax base for South Orange. Student housing for graduate students meant that there would be no added burden on the school system of South Orange or Maplewood. Additionally, the project would not have any adverse effects on the already congested train station during rush hour. In fact, it would relocate students closer to down town during regular work hours, which translated into higher foot traffic for local businesses. Overall, it would continue to improve the entire Valley Street corridor.

The project appeared to be advancing until a small group of neighbors voiced their objections, thereby, hindering all progress. They were opposed to the idea of student housing. They stated that they were not open to the idea of temporary neighbors and desired to build a more inclusive community. My partners and I have listened to the concerns posed by the neighbors and have made significant concessions to the proposals in order to directly address their concerns. I am puzzled that a project well received by the development committee and which also benefits many residents on a large scale, is being hindered by such a small group.

Over the past few months, I have hosted several meetings at my shop as a platform to share information about the project. My partners presented all aspects of the venture along with the benefits and opportunities that it would provide for the community. Each person in attendance thought that the project made sense and endorsed the idea. I decided to write this article because I feel that many residents may be misinformed or may not have all the facts on what we are trying to accomplish on my property. The greater part of my life has been invested here and I am a part of this community. I want what is best for this town and care deeply about what happens to it. This new project does not represent me selling out to developers to do as they please but rather a partnership in which I will be actively engaged in ensuring the town’s benefit.

It is my absolute belief that this project is in the best interest of South Orange and its residents. On Monday December 10 at 8 pm at South Orange Performing Arts Center, the South Orange Village Board of Trustees will listen to a presentation on the project and determine what is in the best interest of the village. I hope you will attend and express your opinion, no matter what it is. It is most important that all residents are represented and spoken for. It is best for everyone if more residents have their voice heard and not allow the opinion of a vocal minority to dictate what is best for us all. Looking forward to seeing you on December 10.


Related coverage:

South Orange Creates Escrow Account for Potential All Star Motors Site Developer, August 2018

Collum: No to Moratorium on Valley Street Development, Yes to Affordable Housing Development, April 2018

Letter: South Orange Should Table Review of Valley Street Projects Until Comprehensive Plan Completed, April 2018

Academy Heights Residents Voice Resistance to Potential Seton Hall Housing on Valley, June 2017

OPINION: Valley Street Is Headed in the Right Direction, May 2017

OPINION: Where is Valley Street Going?, May 2017

Collum: SHU Student Renters Could Boost Commercial Areas, Projects, August 2016

South Orange Working With Seton Hall to Create New Housing, October 2015

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