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Public comments at Planning Board hearing on Post House

Below are the remarks that I delivered during the public comment/testimony period at the Planning Board's September 29, 2015 meeting regarding JMF's application for site plan approval for the Post House:

I’d like to start with something on which we can all agree: today was a great day for Maplewood. We all deserve congratulations because, as many of you know, today Maplewood Village was named as the best downtown in New Jersey by NJ Monthly. Not only was this recognition well deserved, but it was the hard work of many town businesspeople, employees, and volunteers, including specifically several members of the Planning Board. I’d like to specifically thank and congratulate Mayor DeLuca, who personally lobbied, begged, coaxed, and cajoled seemingly everyone in town to log on to the website and vote.

This honor celebrates what all of us who live here already know: Maplewood’s Village is a unique and very special place. It makes us one of a kind, and our residents reflect that. This community attracts dynamic, creative, wonderful people. Kids that grow up here are different, in a good way. And that is why my wife and I are so glad to be raising our daughter here; like Maplewood, she is also one of a kind.

The Village is the centerpiece of our community, and a major reason why people want to live, work, eat, and shop here. It’s a part of our Maplewood’s soul, and its charm and character are among our most valuable and lasting assets.

This is why so many of us are deeply concerned about the application currently before this Board. The application before you proposes to place a large, charmless, cookie cutter building in the center of our Village. The Post House looks like a multi-use McMansion that might be found in any anonymous suburb. But what it does not resemble at all is anything worth of our Village.

Before I go into more detail about why I oppose this application, I’d also like to thank the members of the Planning Board for your dedication and patience. As someone who will soon be attending my own fair share of public meetings, sitting up in one of those very chairs, I have an understanding of the time, effort, and sacrifice required in serving. As we gather here tonight for Round 4 of these hearings, it’s probably fair to say that this has gone a bit beyond what you thought you signed up for. It may also be true that many of you would prefer not to have to make decisions on an issue that has provoked so much controversy, debate, and division in our town.

But the issue is before you nonetheless. And as you continue to go through this process, I ask that each of you take a fresh, independent look at this proposal. Evaluate it not only within your statutory duties as Planning Board members, but also in your higher responsibility as representatives of our community. If you truly believe that this building is in the long-term best interests of Maplewood, I can respect that, even if I disagree with your decision. But make that decisions on the merits of the proposal, not just because it is what we are left with at the end of a very long process and we want this to just be over. We must not fear taking the time to explore possibilities for something better.

I will not repeat at any length tonight what others before me have said over the course of multiple meetings. You’ve already heard about everything from the figurative forest to the literal trees. While I am obviously here tonight to testify only on my own behalf, I can state truthfully that I have discussed the proposal for the post office site with literally hundreds of fellow residents from all parts of Maplewood. In fact, there were times when it seemed like no one wanted to talk to me about anything else. People have even spoken to me about the post office at times and in places that seemed inappropriate. Some of you have probably had similar experiences.

My clear observation is that the overwhelming majority of citizens in our community are opposed to the Post House proposal. As I stood at the train station and walked door to door in neighborhoods all over town, I heard VERY little support for the proposal. In fact, many people asked me where I stood on the issue and when I said that I was opposed they shook my hand and told me that I had their vote on that basis alone. While often derided as just a vocal minority, I believe that those opposed to this proposal are a voting majority. I urge you to consider the views of your neighbors as you weigh your decision.

It has been frustrating to me in these hearings to hear the redevelopment plan referenced as though it had been burned onto stone tablets and handed down from a mountain. After all, we’ve also heard about more than 20 requests for deviations from that redevelopment in this application that are being requested by the developer. Under these circumstances, you need not regard the terms of the redevelopment agreement as sacrosanct. Both the redevelopment plan itself and your authority are broad enough that you may employ your judgment to decide whether this proposal, in its totality, is what is best for Maplewood.

As noted by several of you, it is true that this proposal has been reviewed and approved by the Maplewood Village Alliance and the Post Office Design Review Subcommittee. Those groups, however, were given very limited ability, if any, to change the essential elements of the proposal. Instead, they did their best to improve what they were given. These dedicated public servants and volunteers helped to improve the design and proposal, but let us not mistake their role as having co-designed the building or made big-picture decisions regarding the project.

While the process before the Maplewood Village Alliance and now before the Planning Board has answered many questions about this project and resolved many issues, others remain in a state of through the looking glass. There are serious concerns about parking, including how the addition of only a handful of public and merchant parking spots will be sufficient to accommodate employees and customers for 5 large new retail stores, much less visitors and second vehicles for those living in the apartments. And that’s before we even consider what kind of new math is required to conclude that parking spots that already exist blocks away from this site are somehow attributable to this project.

This makes about as much sense as the proposal for an Art Deco building, supposedly to help the new structure blend into the Village, despite the fact that there are no other Art Deco buildings in the Village. The explanation from Mr. Minno was that because Art Deco was an architectural style common at the time that much of Maplewood Village was built, it “could have” been built in Maplewood. This does nothing to persuade me that the Post House belongs in our downtown.

I also have serious concerns about the fact that we have no idea who the tenants of the retail stores will be, nor whether those businesses will be consistent with the spirit of our downtown. What impact might these businesses have on the unique retail character of the Village and on existing local business? The developer is unable to provide any answers to these important questions.

Even if you are inclined to approve the application, I would urge you to wait until after the many issues still to be negotiated between the developer and the town are resolved. There is no reason to weaken the negotiating position of our town officials in these discussions by prematurely granting site approval.

You’ve been presented with detailed evidence, testimony, and concerns on several fronts, each of which would justify denying this application. From the sewer system issues (which were the basis for which this property was deemed an area in need of redevelopment in the first place), to the parking, to the truck delivery and traffic flow issues.

This is an important and difficult decision before you. What we do with this site will have a profound impact on Maplewood for the next 50 or 100 years. I understand that this process has been ongoing for years, but a bad idea doesn’t get better just because it gets older. We should take the time necessary to get this right, stepping back and taking a second look at what should happen at this site.

I’m not up here to campaign for votes. I don’t want another lawsuit and I don’t want a town divided. But I do sincerely want what is best for Maplewood and believe that this project is not in the best interests of our Village or the people in our community. You’ve been presented throughout these hearings with numerous reasons to vote No, at least at this time. I urge all of you to choose one of them and vote against this application.

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