Original Article

WEST ORANGE, NJ — Representatives from the township, school district and Prism Capital Partners are saying the first phase of the Edison Village project will not have a major impact on local schools when people move into the mixed-use project’s residential units.

Though the first phase of the project includes a total of 333 apartments, Mayor Robert Parisi said many will only have one bedroom, so are likely to attract primarily single people and empty nesters. Therefore, he said an influx of large families should not be a problem.

“There will of course be children, but it was never designed to be a lot of children,” Parisi told the West Orange Chronicle in a phone interview last month. “We’re not expecting a significant number of children.”

According to Jack Sayers, the township business administrator, West Orange was told that the first phase of Edison Village will only generate 14 to 22 school-age children. Prism Principal partner Eugene Diaz said the number is a professional estimate based upon a 2006 study of residential demographic multipliers completed by Rutgers University’s Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy. And considering the rising number of empty nesters entering the apartment market, Diaz said he believes the development will actually end up being under the calculated impact.

Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Rutzky said he is not so sure that such low numbers are realistic, telling the Chronicle that the actual number of children who enter the district might be higher. But Rutzky added that, if the estimate of 14 to 22 turns out to be accurate, the West Orange School District will have no problem accommodating them. In fact, he said the district averages twice that number each year as students move into the township.

Even if more children arrive than expected, Rutzky said he is not concerned about being overwhelmed.

“Our job is to educate students in West Orange,” Rutzky said in an Oct. 2 phone interview. “We will do that and continue to do it well.”

Board of Education President Laura Lab agreed 14 to 22 students will not be a challenge, pointing out that there is no guarantee they will all be reporting to the more crowded elementary schools. Lab said many could be of middle and high school age, making the total number of new students easier to absorb since they will be spread out among the schools. And she said some of the children might go to private or parochial schools rather than enter the town’s public school system.

Meanwhile, Lab said the board plans to conduct a comprehensive demographic survey taking into account all scheduled and proposed developments throughout the township. Once those results are known, she said board members will have a better understanding of just how many incoming students can be expected and what can be done to handle them all.

But not everyone believes Edison Village will have an insignificant impact on the school system. Board of Education Vice President Mark Robertson, speaking on behalf of himself and not the board, said he is concerned about a possible influx of students considering that some WOSD schools are already using trailers to compensate for overflow. He said the estimate given “defies existing data and logic.”

Referring to the 2010 U.S. Census, Robertson said that roughly 33 percent of West Orange households have children under the age of 18. He said the WOSD’s own data shows that the average township family has 1.7 children in the district. So, if 33 percent of the apartments hold one to 1.7 children, he said phase one of the development will contribute 110 to 187 students to the district. And that’s the minimum estimate, he said.

When the nearly 300 single-family townhouses are built in the second phase of the project, Robertson said an additional 300 to 500 students could begin attending school in West Orange. And even more could come, depending on whether the developments and luxury homes being discussed in the Mt. Pleasant/Prospect and Eagle Rock areas come to fruition. During the next five to 10 years, he estimated that the combined projects could swell the district by more than 1,000 children. It could be even more, he said, considering all that West Orange has to offer.

“Our good quality schools, diversity and family culture are a major draw,” Robertson told the Chronicle in a Sept. 30 phone interview. He added that the majority of students who enter the district are elementary school age.

Robertson had several ideas to address such possible overcrowding. First, he said he would like to see the board develop both a three-to-five-year plan and a 10-year plan to address all potential developments in conjunction with the demographic study it is doing. He is also interested in converting Edison Central Six School into an elementary school while making Liberty Middle School and Roosevelt Middle School into buildings for grades six to eight, making room for elementary students and creating less need to expand class sizes to the 25-student maximum, which he said would not help individual academic performance.

The board vice president also said he wants to secure corporate and foundation sponsors to pay for science, technology, engineering, art and math building extensions. Additionally, he said he favors exploring a bond to build additions or a new school — but only if taxes do not have to be raised as a result.

Councilman Joe Krakoviak is also concerned about Edison Village’s financial impact on the school district, saying the 30-year payment in lieu of taxes program in place for the first phase of the project does not result in any revenue going to the WOSD — 95 percent will go to the township and 5 percent will go to Essex County. And while the district will collect property tax dollars generated from the development, the councilman said he has yet to hear a definite plan regarding how the schools will be further compensated for educating any additional students Edison Village produces.

Parisi said the township will pay the school district through the PILOT funds on a per head basis.

Krakoviak also pointed out that the township is not guaranteed to make a huge profit through the PILOT. If the project fails to attract many renters, he said much of the financial benefit the township expects to receive could be cut.

Yet the township is at least likely to see an increase in property tax revenue. Sayers said West Orange currently collects approximately $465,000 in taxes from the Edison development, but a projection done in 2015 showed that the town could receive between $800,000 and $850,000 once Phase 1 of the project is complete. The business administrator said the township will eventually have to pay back $3.15 million in debt for the $6.3 million in bonds it issued for the project. But if the development proves to be a success, the township could see substantial gains.

Overall, Parisi said he believes Edison Village will be a net positive for West Orange. Though the township will have to address the extra students, he said the issue is not enough to justify objecting to a $200 million project that will put a “new face on an old part of the town.” And even if many families move to the town, he said he does not view that as a negative. Rather, he said young parents and children will breathe a new life into West Orange by frequenting local businesses and becoming involved in the community.

“The intangible benefits to the community far outweigh the cost that we are going to have to incur to educate the children who might live there,” Parisi said.

Phase 1 of Edison Village is expected to be finished in roughly 18 months, according to Parisi. It is planned to contain nine three-bedroom apartments in addition to mostly one- and two-bedroom units. It will also include retail space.