Town officials asked the community for its opinions at last night’s "Future Redevelopment of the Maplewood Post Office Site" meeting at the Burgdorff Center for the Performing Arts — and the community did not hold back.
The meeting was billed as a forum for the public to discuss ideas for replacing the post office, which will be vacating its current location in November 2013. “This is a real opportunity to make an investment in Maplewood Village to get something bigger and better … but to keep the town’s important anchors,” said Mayor Vic DeLuca in his introduction.
In 2010, the U.S. Post Office was notified by the Township of Maplewood that its lease would be ending in 2013 and would not be renewed (the town owns the land). Additionally, the Town declared the property as an area in need of rehabilitation in July 2011. DeLuca has discussed his vision of redeveloping the site as ground-floor retail with upper-floor apartments.
In addition to town representatives including DeLuca, Township Committeeman Jerry Ryan and Deputy Mayor Kathy Leventhal, and two members of the planning firm Phillips Preiss Grygiel were in attendance. Approximately 50 people were in the audience.
The Mayor said that, whatever happened with the space, the town would make money from the sale of the property and gain more in tax revenue. “It will be something similar to [when the town sold] the police department,” he said. The town received $1.75 million on that sale — with a $140 credit from the town to the developer for affordable housing and up to $500,000 for asbestos removal and environmental remediation.
DeLuca said the site was a “gem” of a property, as it is located at the gateway to the Village. “The question is how do you get value?” said DeLuca. The town’s goals for the property include a development that is well-designed, sustainable and improves the Village’s parking situation.
DeLuca said the town has been talking with the ownership of Kings Super Market about relocating the Kings to a new location on the site. “Has anyone approached Kings?” asked Angelo Vayas, who owns Village Trattoria and Village Burger. “They are the real anchor in the Village and they have to be kept happy.”
DeLuca said that the store wants to stay in Maplewood but needs a larger space, one that is more compatible with the current business model (which includes adding a larger prepared foods section). The Post Office space would represent a net gain of around 5,000 square feet for Kings. They would work with a developer to build a new store, which would include ample parking, and would sublease the current location to a tenant that is “compatible,” such as a drugstore or restaurant.
“That is our hook,” said DeLuca, that it would represent a “package deal” for Kings.
Planner Paul Grygiel brought up the question of adding a parking deck. A number of people in the audience indicated their approval; however, the planners explained that parking decks “only work when you have a captive audience” – that is, parking would need to be not for shoppers alone but for commuters or employees as well. DeLuca confirmed that the town is currently in the process of performing a parking study to determine how much overall additional parking is needed.
As for height requirements, an audience member said the current limit of 50’ was “absurd.” DeLuca was blunt: “The town council doesn’t want to go higher.” Other audience members agreed, noting that many people moved to Maplewood in part because of the cozy, small scale of the downtown.
Township officials have been in conversations with NJ Transit about the development and the agency is “intrigued” and “wants to help out.” However, Grygiel said there was not any capital funding in the NJ Transit pipeline for Maplewood.
Several people asked if the U.S. Post Office would maintain a retail presence of some sort in town. Officials and planners confirmed they were in discussions with the U.S. Post Office but that nothing definite had been determined. It was also stated that a South Orange resident had plans to open a UPS Store in the former Edith’s Café space.
One man brought up the possibility of adding some sort of community, not-for-profit space to the plan. Mayor DeLuca noted that the town wants to “guarantee revenue” from the development of the space but “we would forgo some revenue if we can get something to improve the whole town.”
Rene Clawson, an architect and Maplewood resident, asked about the feasibility of “taking it all the way to Ricalton Square” — in other words, including the square in the planning area and reconfiguring the space to include a redesigned public park. The crowd seemed to like the idea. The Mayor would only say, “It’s doable.” However, after the meeting he acknowledged that the proposal would likely meet with strong opposition from residents who are loathe to see any changes to the square, which holds much sentimental and historical value.
The topic of residential space was a heated one. The planners said it was a “terrific residential site because of where it’s located” and confirmed the target market would not be families with children but empty nesters.
One woman pleaded with the council not to add a lot of “transient people who would make the town not Maplewood anymore.”
Beth Daugherty, who is president of the school board but was there as a private citizen, said she didn’t think that was an issue, but that the town should understand its threshold and what the strain on the school system would be.
Several people questioned if the town had looked at the “bigger picture” in the plan, in terms of what the future holds for the Village’s overall economic and development status. Diana Leo, a resident, said she thought there was an audience mandate for the town to perform an independent economic feasibility study before going forward. “I don’t agree,” said the Mayor.
A second meeting on the future of the Post Office site will be held on February 29 at 7 p.m.; it will be followed by a third meeting in March. After public hearings, the redevelopment plan for the site would be firmed up by late spring and voted on by the town council in the fall.
DeLuca said he expected the plan to be finalized by the end of 2012 and to issue a request for proposals by the end of 2013 — just in time for the Post Office to vacate Maplewood after more than 50 years of business.