NJBIZ – Making it easy: South Orange, eager to develop, rewards those with shared vision

AR-140309849.jpg&maxW=430&maxH=430By Joshua Burd · March 17, 2014 at 3:00 AM

If there’s one thing that can derail a development project in a hurry — especially in New Jersey — it’s when consulting fees stack up before it even gets before a planning board.

That’s why Edward Ayuso is drawn to South Orange, where developers have a forum to brainstorm, negotiate and tailor a plan with village officials before they have to break the bank.

“It’s all about the bottom line,” Ayuso said. “So if you’re going to go in and know that you can reduce your due diligence costs, it certainly makes it much more attractive.”

The developer, whose firm EEA Industries LLC is based in the village, is more than halfway into a project that will add 57 luxury apartments and 9,000 square feet of retail to the former site of an auto dealership. He said he expects the so-called Gateway building, a joint venture with SWH Residential Properties, to open by the fall.

It’s the latest project for the 2.9-square-mile town, which has sought to revitalize its main business district for nearly 20 years. That has meant major streetscape improvements and the addition of amenities such as a performing arts center, paving the way for the type of mixed-use development that feeds off its downtown train station.

Local officials say their motivation has been to ease the property tax burden on its single-family homeowners while bringing new foot traffic to its downtown businesses. That has led them to open their doors to developers who are willing to help South Orange achieve its vision.

“I think there’s a lot of people out there looking to invest in towns like South Orange,” Village President Alex Torpey said. “And we definitely like to make it as accessible as possible for people to come here. We think we have a lot to offer.”

The village seeks to extend that mentality to every department involved with a development project — from building inspectors to engineers — while integrating resources such as the South Orange Village Center Alliance, Torpey said. The nonprofit business-improvement district group takes a role in helping property owners fill new or vacant retail spaces, he said.

“I’d like to think that we try and offer as much support as possible throughout the whole process,” said Torpey, the village president since 2011.

Cooperation with the private sector has helped foster projects such as the Marketplace at Eden and the Avenue at South Orange, a gourmet grocery store and a 79-unit condominium building developed by Sterling Properties. The projects opened in 2008 and 2010, respectively, reviving the former site of a supermarket near the train station.

But new development is viable only with a clean, safe and walkable downtown, stakeholders say. That’s where the South Orange Village Center Alliance comes in with another key resource: a small but active cleaning staff that patrols the business district.

Ayuso’s mixed-use project, which has River Drive Construction as its general contractor, broke ground in May after the site sat dormant for years. The former Beifus Mercedes dealership was demolished in 2003 in anticipation of development, but the financial woes of its prior owner kept that from happening.

Once Ayuso’s firm acquired the land in 2011, the improvements around the downtown had added to the appeal of an already-coveted site on West South Orange Avenue.

“Everything fell into place,” he said. “It made it a much smoother transition for everything.”

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