Where is Valley Street Going? (continued)

In response to my original post about the future of Valley Street, Jon Busch-Vogel, a 14-year resident of South Orange, and a member of both the South Orange Planning Board and the South Orange Development Committee, published a response. One of the core issues I raised about the redevelopment of Valley Street was the lack of a holistic plan guiding the many projects.  Mr. Busch-Vogel claims that the redevelopment Valley Street is following a direction that is consistent with the South Orange 2009 Vision Plan.  

Here is what the 2009 Vision Plan envisions for Valley Street:

Valley Street Vision 1-1

What we see here is a comprehensive vision for Valley Street:  a continuous string of buildings built close to the sidewalk, with no parking in front of the buildings, and with retail on the ground floor and apartments or offices above stretching from 4th Street to the Stop and Shop: areas where old buildings on smaller lots have been combined into larger lots to support larger buildings, either through developers buying several properties or through the town using their powers of eminent domain to acquire properties and combining them (this is especially evident on both sides of the park, where the U-Haul warehouse and the small frame buildings have been replaced); and a continuous run of street trees to enhance the pedestrian experience.  What is striking, especially given the pace of projects on the Eastern side of the street today, is that we see no development envisioned, back in 2009, for that side of Valley which adjoins the residential zone of the Academy Heights neighborhood.

In the following slide we see that there is surface parking envisioned behind the new buildings on 4th Street and that the older frame houses on 4th Street were expected to remain.

Valley Street Vision 2-1

This is a compelling and comprehensive vision for Valley Street.  The plan envisioned a mix of retail tenants and restaurants in these new buildings, and along with investments in shared public parking, improved lighting, crosswalks, and street trees,  I can certainly imagine it being successful in drawing pedestrians to this area and bringing new life to the park.  But I see no evidence that the Board of Trustees is implementing this plan today.  

In Mr. Busch-Vogel’s article he cites the objective from the Vision Plan that “new development [on Valley Street] will be predominantly residential,” as proof that the projects being approved and built today are consistent with that plan.  But that objective could translate into almost any size and shape of buildings, from 10 story apartments buildings to two story garden apartments.   The Vision Plan is much more than a collection of high level objectives, it is a particular vision for Valley Street as can be seen in the slides above.  That vision does not include a mega-development at 4th & Valley and doesn’t include making the other side of Valley that adjoins the Academy Heights neighborhood the primary focus of redevelopment.

If the Board of Trustees still endorses the Vision Plan they should take actions consistent with that plan.  I am calling for an updated plan — for example, maybe we no longer support the wholesale replacement of every existing structure on the west side of the street — and that should be debated.  But in either case, moving forward with a few trophy projects while simultaneously allowing other smaller projects to advance based on outdated zoning requirements, as is currently the case, is a mistake.

I am in favor of redevelopment, both because it can enhance the vitality of South Orange and because it creates new sources of revenue for the Village.   That new revenue is critical to the future of South Orange.  The $700,000 PILOT payment from 3rd & Valley that Mr. Busch-Vogel mentions, is a material addition to our revenue base  (2% of our entire municipal budget and 3% of the total that we raise from property taxes each year).  We need that revenue, and it should be used for tax relief.  But redevelopment is about more than just new sources of revenue, it is first and foremost about enhancing the quality of life for the residents of South Orange.  For this, we need a plan.

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