Business South Orange

Wainco Says South Orange Has Not Responded to Village Hall Appeal; Collum Responds, ‘We Don’t Negotiate Under These Circumstances’

An attorney representing South Orange property owner Stuart Wainberg says that South Orange leaders have not responded to requests to meet regarding an appeal of the South Orange Planning Board’s site plan approval for the redevelopment of Village Hall.

However, South Orange Village President Sheena Collum says that she and other Village officials have met with Wainberg numerous times in the past, that they “don’t negotiate under those circumstances,” and that they are “fully prepared with our very capable team of attorneys to defend” the South Orange Planning Board’s approval of the site plan.

In other words, “See you in court.”

The attorney for Wainco stated that he did not think it appropriate to “fight the case in the press.”

“I represented Wainco South Orange, L.L.C. (“Wainco”) in opposition to the Landmark Developers (101 South Orange Avenue Urban Renewal LLC) application before the South Orange Planning Board which was for a restaurant, catering facility, and beer garden in the former Village Hall,” wrote Dan Bernstein in an email to Village Green, in response to a request for comment on earlier coverage of the appeal. “Wainco owns the South Orange Square retail and office building which is located directly across the street from the Village Hall and will be detrimentally impacted by the project as proposed. Both Wainco and I made numerous recommendations to the Planning Board which have been ignored, as have the concerns of residents and supporters of Jespy House and other property owners.”

Village Green reached out to JESPY House and neighboring property owners for comment.

JESPY House Director Audrey Winkler responded, “JESPY House has not spoken with Dan Bernstein and is not involved in his client’s legal action against, among others, the Planning Board of the Village of South Orange.  Mr. Bernstein has drawn his own conclusions about JESPY House and the proposed Landmark project, presumably based on public comments made at Planning Board meetings. The words in the below statement belong to Mr. Bernstein and do not represent JESPY House’s opinions about the proposed beer garden, Landmark, or the legal action against the Planning Board.”

Bernstein continued, “A complaint has been filed with the Superior Court challenging the Planning Board decision. A copy of the complaint is attached. The last time I checked, the Sheriff’s Offices’ had not served the Planning Board and 101 South Orange Avenue Urban Renewal LLC with a summons and complaint. At the request of the Village Attorney [Steve Rother], a copy of the complaint has been E-mailed to him. Wainco has offered to meet with Village representatives and Landmark Developers in an effort to settle the litigation. No response has been made.”

Village President Sheena Collum countered Bernstein’s email, in a request for comment by Village Green.

“I, along with the administration, have met in good faith with Mr. Wainberg on several occasions and have accommodated reasonable requests,” wrote Collum. “When the Village opted to do a competitive Request For Proposals for an adaptive reuse of this historic building, dozens of community meetings and public hearings were held with stakeholders before the decision was made to sell.  Selling the building will save our taxpayers over $8M in the immediate future, bring a new ratable and anchor to our downtown, rehabilitate a Village icon to historic preservation standards, and create a new and exciting active use for the site.”

Collum contends that “Mr. Wainberg did not participate in any of those conversations or meetings and, in fact, the first I learned of Mr. Wainberg’s interest in this redevelopment project was when he was making proposals to the Village to redevelop his own property at 75 South Orange Avenue. Specifically, he wished to eliminate and convert the second floor of the Investors Bank building to apartments and add an additional floor of apartments to that building and add two floors of apartments to the adjacent building that houses the pharmacy and other retail stores.”

Collum continued, “The somewhat ironic problem that he faced was the lack of parking for this proposal, particularly since his buildings have zero parking spaces. He tried to work with the adjacent property owner, Hub Realty, who is currently the conditional redeveloper for South Orange and Vose Avenue. The additional private parking needed by Mr. Wainberg would have driven the scale of the proposed Hub Realty building to a size that the Village was not comfortable with.”

Collum said that the Village still does not have an agreement with Hub Realty/the Lustbader family for the development of their properties on South Orange Avenue, but that the township is still in negotiations.

“Next, Mr. Wainberg inquired about the ability of the Village to bond at taxpayer’s expense for a parking garage on the current library lot which could also potentially serve his interest through a lease option,” wrote Collum. “However, the Village is not prepared to make that commitment yet as we are still studying the feasibility of merging municipal offices into the renovations of the library and the Connett building and it would be wildly premature for us to engage in that conversation.”

“The point of this back story is that Mr. Wainberg has his own private financial interests vested in identifying ways to support his proposed development and his objections to the Village Hall project moving forward came at the same time.  Coincidence?  I think not.  My personal feeling is that Mr. Wainberg has identified an important project to our town and is holding it hostage at taxpayers’ expense to gain leverage with me and the governing body.  So to be very clear, I don’t negotiate under those circumstances and nor will I sacrifice principled leadership to accommodate a politically calculated move. There will be no quid pro quo. The Board of Trustees and Planning Board deny the allegations set forth in the civil action suit and are fully prepared with our very capable team of attorneys to defend that the Planning Board’s approval was not arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable and that the decision should not be reversed.”

In his email, Bernstein had noted, “I do not believe it is appropriate to fight the case in the press. Therefore, I reluctantly can’t answer specific questions about the litigation.”

In late October, Village President Sheena Collum informed the public that the appeal had been filed via her Facebook page. Collum wrote, “Integrity means something – it actually means a lot. Working in ‘good faith’ to identify collaborative solutions isn’t easy work but it should and must be done. And if I ever feel that someone is trying to take advantage of the governing body or this community, I fight back.”

Residents responding on Collum’s Facebook post were predominantly in support of the redevelopment of Village Hall and several said that Wainberg ran “frat houses” in residential neighborhoods that are a nuisance to neighbors. One commenter wrote, “He has 11 students renting the house behind us. And about 11 cars. ”

Collum responded, “He’s appeared before land use boards in town previously to seek variances on parking for converting homes into student housing and was denied.”

Asked to respond, Bernstein wrote, “I have no knowledge about complaints concerning Wainco’s student tenants. However, Wainco has the right to rent properties to Seton Hall students who have the right to live in South Orange.”

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