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HPC questions WO, Prism on redevelopment
essexnewsdaily.com
September 19, 2016
Original Article

WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Historic Preservation Commission told the Township Council during the council's Sept. 6 meeting that Prism Capital Partners, which is currently overseeing development on the construction of the Edison Village complex, has not been using the drawings for the Main Street building facade that the HPC had approved for a Certificate of Appropriateness in April 2015.

HPC Vice Chairman Martin Feitlowitz said that during a recent meeting with Prism officials he and fellow commissioners Brian Feeney and Gerald Gurland noticed the plans that Prism had submitted to the township for a building permit looked nothing like the drawings that were awarded the certificate — a requirement for any designated historic structure to be redeveloped. In fact, Feitlowitz said the commission never would have voted in favor of the new plans had they had been presented to the HPC last year. Specifically, he said the use of fieldstone — which consists of rocks of various shapes and sizes pieced together — as part of the facade was completely unacceptable and that cast stone — smooth, rectangular stone blocks — should be used instead.

Feitlowitz said he alerted officials to this change and, after a long discussion, they agreed to inform the HPC once they resolved the issue with their architect. The vice chairman said Prism had not gotten back to them as of that evening, but stressed that the drawings must be fixed.

"It's critical that they stay with the (plans) they showed to us when applying for a certificate of appropriateness," Feitlowitz said. "Otherwise, it makes a mockery of the system."

But Prism principal partner Eugene Diaz told the Chronicle that the plans currently being used are no different from the ones for which the HPC granted the Certificate of Appropriateness. Diaz further stated that all Prism's approvals are valid and involved the review of the township's building department and sign-off from the Planning Board. If the HPC commissioners saw anything different, he said, they were possibly looking at older plans — not those submitted to the building department or the Planning Board.

Nevertheless, if corrections need to be made, Mayor Robert Parisi said there is plenty of time to figure things out. Parisi, who attended the council meeting, said that the building in question will not be constructed any time soon since Prism has to build the parking deck first. In the meantime, he said the administration is looking into the matter.

"We are aware of the concerns they have," Parisi said. "And we are working with Prism to rectify them and make sure that everyone's on the same page before that aspect of the project would commence."

Even Feitlowitz agreed that there is "plenty of time" to correct this issue, saying it is just a case of changing facade materials.

If the plans turn out to be different, fellow HPC Commissioner Gerald Gurland said the township should be viewed as partly responsible for allowing this situation to occur, calling it "remiss" for not following both the project guidelines and the U.S. Department of the Interior's rules for historic preservation. Gurland also questioned how Prism could have gotten to this point with what he believes to be the wrong set of plans, pointing out that the administration was either unaware of its responsibilities or that some steps were deliberately skipped in order to stay on schedule.

Regardless, Gurland said there is now a fair possibility that Prism could be denied the ability to continue with the project, which in turn could lead to more delays and financial remunerations. He asked that the council make clear what actions it is planning to take in order to handle the situation and, if any, when they will take place.

Feitlowitz also stressed that the township should be holding progress meetings with Prism representatives every two weeks, which is allowed by the redevelopment agreement. That way, the vice chairman said, the administration can express concerns and have issues addressed before any work is done. If the council waits to read quarterly progress reports, he said it will likely be too late to fix any issues with construction completed months beforehand.

That is not a risk West Orange should be taking on a project of Edison Village's significance, Feitlowitz said.

"I urge that there be some change" in the way the administration is overseeing the work, Feitlowitz said. "Let's face it folks, this is the biggest project ever done in the township of West Orange. Other than Edison's original building, never before has there been a project of this magnitude."

Feitlowitz's comments echo a case Councilman Joe Krakoviak made during the Aug. 9 council meeting, during which he argued that the township should be demanding that Prism provide frequent progress reports and attend regular progress meetings. Krakoviak said doing so would be an enforcement of the redevelopment agreement, which states that the redeveloper shall submit reports "in such detail and at such times as may reasonably be requested by the township" and attend meetings "as reasonably called by the township."

But Jack Sayers, the township's business administrator, responded that the contract's language allows for the township to decide when such reports and meetings are necessary. And since Prism has been updating the administration on its progress, Sayers said the administration does not feel the need to request them.

At the Sept. 6 meeting, Parisi said that the administration meets regularly with Prism. Diaz also told the Chronicle that Prism provides "regular reports" to the township and has extended an open invitation for any council member to tour the site. So far, he said, only one member has accepted that offer.

Aside from the Main Street facade issue, Feitlowitz also informed the council that Feeney, Gurland and he had selected a historically appropriate green color for the development's shop windows. He said Feeney and Gurland had also picked a color for the concrete, though Prism has yet to confirm it. Gurland also said that the HPC requested that Prism leave at least one concrete column exposed so that there will be a record of what the original concrete looked like. He said the idea was not met with enthusiasm, but the Prism officials agreed to look into it.

According to Diaz, however, this is not likely to happen.

"Leaving a concrete column exposed is tantamount to changing three bald tires on a car and not the fourth," Diaz said in a Sept. 12 email. "The concrete needs to be resurfaced to prevent water infiltration and continued degradation. Leaving it untouched would cause future maintenance problems and it would continue to degrade."

Meanwhile, Diaz said that Prism has finished pouring all the foundations and footings for the project. It is now working on facade restoration while preparing to install the garage, which he said should occur shortly.