(excerpted and updated based on News-Record article, July 3, 2013)
Maplewood Township has scheduled approval of the Post Office Redevelopment Plan in just two weeks, on Tuesday, July 16th, following a Planning Board review this coming Tuesday, July 9th. These meetings may be the last opportunity for the public to have an impact on the site zoning.
Mayor DeLuca has indicated his thoughts on the process after the Plan is approved. At the June 18th Township Committee (TC) meeting he said that a Request for Proposals would draw many interested parties and indicated that their proposals would be reviewed by the TC, and a developer selected, by year’s end. After that, the selected plan could be reviewed by the public at Planning Board meetings. That would likely be in the first half of 2014.
It is essential, however, that the public is informed and involved throughout this process, rather than only a year from now. There are important issues in the coming months, some rooted in the NJ Land Use Law and others in the Redevelopment Plan itself.
The Planning Board meetings will be for verifying that the selected proposal meets the legal requirements in the zoning. To the extent that the zoning allows options, the Planning Board can make requests of an applicant, but cannot enforce any specific outcome. Therefore, influencing a developer’s proposal prior to review at the Planning Board meeting through public involvement will be important.
The Local Redevelopment and Housing Law (NJ 40A:12A) under which the Plan is being prepared gives substantial powers to the Township Committee. Yet these special powers have practical limits as negotiations with developers begin. Changes made to the zoning after developers are negotiating may be seen as favoring one party to the detriment of another. Public awareness and comment on proposals substantially reduces this risk, providing justification for decisions made before a developer is selected.
The Redevelopment document includes risks and opportunities that we must remain mindful of in the coming months. A variety of approaches to parking, housing, size of stores, number of stores, types of stores and/or offices, design of facades, types of public space, and improvement of Village commerce in general will be possible. We, as a community and Township, have not prioritized or rated these aspects.
Most significantly, our leadership will not have a clear sense of community priorities until the community can respond to specific design proposals. In the absence of this dialog, they will be left selecting a developer based on their individual sensibilities and any economic analysis that they may have available to them. A green-shades analysis, while important, will play directly into the developer’s hands—in that conversation sales price and future tax revenue are largely determined by what the developer will find most profitable to build. The optimum decisions for this site and Maplewood overall can not be made based only on maximizing the sale price of this public land, and the balancing of the choices available is best done with public involvement. As discussed above, Planning Board meetings—the 2014 opportunity for the public to comment—are the wrong place to establish and balance priorities.
The Station House, the new development at the former Police Station site, provides an insightful example. The developer of that building took full advantage of zoning regulations and was unwilling to alter those design parameters which they knew they were legally entitled to, while at the same time making limited concessions on aspects such as aesthetics that the zoning did not clearly specify.
It is important that we continue to move forward and make the right choices. The document we are reviewing allows a variety of options, yet balancing these is the critical task that still lies ahead. This process must include strong community participation so that the result is known to have broad support and reaches the right balance of benefits for the Village, the Community, and the Township. Please express your support of this goal by contacting Committee members and attending the meetings on July 9th and 16th.Kurt Kiley is a resident of Maplewood and member of Engage-Maplewood.org. He is a management consultant with strong interests in Township planning activities.