Clare Silvestri’s comments to the Town Council meeting of 2/21/12—TEXT

Good Evening.  Clare Silvestri, 20 Grand View Avenue

In the summer of 2009, I addressed the Council with my concerns about the Edison project.  At the time, I said that I shared their strong desire to redevelop the property and make it something special, because my grandparents used to live on Main St., and my grandfather worked at the battery factory until it closed.  I still remember peering through a basement window on Lakeside Ave., watching my grandfather working in a machine shop.

Back in ‘09, I said that as much as I desired to see the building restored and returned to the community, I didn’t think the project as proposed was the right one for West Orange. We were all assured by then-Mayor McKeon “the experts” knew the market better, and we should trust them and support putting 29 million of our tax dollars at risk in recourse bonds.

I was very pleased that proposal didn’t go through, and in hindsight, it’s fortuitous for all concerned, because the condo units would have begun hitting the market in late 2010, and certainly not have met their ambitious projections.

So here we are again, two and a half years later, with basically the same plan. Except instead of owner-occupied units, they’re rentals.  And we’re being asked to give the redeveloper all kinds of concessions for things that under normal circumstances a property owner would be paying for.

First, there’s the $6.3 million taxpayer-guaranteed bonds for infrastructure improvements.  Isn’t it true the property owner usually pays for things like sidewalks and sewer lines? When I moved into my home, and the insurance company said my sidewalks were unsafe, I had to pay to replace them.

If this project fails, we, the taxpayers are on the hook to pay back all of that $6.3 million.  But even if the project is successful, under the contract up for approval, Prism will only be required to pay back half of that.

Then, there’s the deferral of the affordable housing obligation.  Everyone seems to be pooh-poohing that because they say state law will change before the obligation comes due.  This is millions of dollars that citizens of West Orange could be on the hook for. A recent Star Ledger article reported less than 10 percent of proposed legislation ever becomes law.  So to me, this appears to be taking on significant risk.

And there’s the PILOT – payment in lieu of taxes – which, given the way it’s structured, may not be bringing the town the windfall of money some would like us to believe, because repayment of debt service and school tuitions will be coming out of it.

Okay, so one could argue, as the mayor did here last week:  this is our only option — if not this project, then nothing for a long time.

  • Our mayor wants us to spend tens of thousands of dollars on marketing the town, and yet given the opportunity to develop a ‘destination West Orange’ site right next door to the Edison Museum, he’s pushing to build 330 units of housing?
  • As proposed, this is not a “destination site” at all.  The 18,000 square feet of retail space is designed for a handful of small shops on the far side of the property to serve building residents – according to Mr. Diaz, things like a coffee shop, convenience store, dry cleaners.
  • And if successful, what with the vastly different nature of the building and its residents to the surrounding area, the site could likely become a “walled city” similar to Llewellyn Park – which is a wonderful place – but totally inaccessible to most of us.
  • But what if the “experts” are wrong and the project doesn’t attract sufficient high-end rentals?  Hopefully, they’ll still rent, but probably to lower-income people who are more likely to have children entering our schools.  And the project wouldn’t produce the same amount of revenue, making it more likely to fail.
  • I’m not dismissing a residential component – I agree that some residential is necessary.  But I think it’s a bit disingenuous to claim this project is “mixed use” when the commercial component is so small and the overall plan – all three phases – comprise over 600 units of housing.
  • In closing, I’d like to advise that a “no” vote tonight would not be a vote against redevelopment.  I believe it would actually be a “yes” to a commitment to bringing the best possible project to this site — a “yes” to making the Edison Battery Factory truly a “Destination West Orange”.

Thank you.