South Orange formed an advisory Redevelopment Committee some years ago to help the Board of Trustees draft agreements with developers for the large projects that have transformed our downtown. This committee was originally the Redevelopment Committee because it was advising the BOT specifically on projects in the Redevelopment Zone downtown. In the past few years, partly with the designation of all of South Orange as an Area in Need of Rehabilitation, fast-tracking development projects in any area of South Orange, this committee has been renamed as the Development Committee and has taken on a much more prominent role in the future of South Orange.
For example, on the proposed redevelopment project at 4th & Valley, the Development Committee will have held 10 or more public hearings, many including the developer and their architects as well as South Orange professional staff and a number of elected officials, plus a number of semi-public meetings with the Academy Heights Neighborhood Association, as well as numerous private executive sessions, before the project is presented to the BOT or the Planning Board for formal public review. This project will arrive at the Planning Board with the presumption of already having had an extensive public vetting and already incorporating feedback from the public, making it more difficult for the Planning Board or members of the public to raise new concerns, reexamine issues the developer may think have already been settled, or request all but minor cosmetic changes to the proposal.
In many ways this process has been turned on its head. What began as a planning driven process, with the redevelopment committee coming in at the end to help shape a final agreement with a developer, is now a project driven process that starts with a developer proposing a project that often bears no resemblance to existing zoning, which then goes directly to the Development Committee before any planning or zoning reviews. The Development Committee works diligently to review and improve the project, but never asks the broader planning questions that should underpin the entire process.
As you will see from the agenda and notes on the January Development Committee meeting, the projects this committee is helping to shape will in many ways determine the future of South Orange. Our goal now is to bring additional public attention to this new part of the development process, and to ensure that we don’t miss the opportunity to shape the projects themselves and, more importantly, to inject planning and zoning considerations into the process up front before it’s too late.