Breaking Ground Where Echoes of Edison Linger in New Jersey
WEST ORANGE, N.J. — The facade of Thomas Edison’s last factory in this town crumbles behind a chain-link fence on Main Street. The dilapidated building sits on several acres of fallow land, a sharp contrast to its state in 1914, when it was just one piece of the American inventor’s formidable manufacturing operation.
In the last few weeks, workers have begun restoring the 400,000-square-foot Edison Storage Battery factory, the first step in a $230 million redevelopment project. Called Edison Village, it is intended to transform 21 acres in this New York City suburb into a neighborhood with shops, parking and housing.
The start of construction brings a decade of setbacks to a close, despite lingering concerns from some residents that the project might not deliver on its promise of renewal.
West Orange, with 46,700 residents spread over 12.5 square miles, is about 20 miles from Manhattan. The first phase of the project will create about 330 rental apartments and bring 18,500 square feet of retail space, as well as parking and streetscape improvements to the complex. The site is opposite Edison’s laboratory, which is now part of the Thomas Edison National Historic Park, where visitors can tour his home in nearby Llewellyn Park and learn about his inventions.
The second phase, with about 230 townhouses and 20,000 square feet of retail, which could include a small grocery store, according to the developer, will replace a CVS pharmacy and a Barton Press factory about a block from the battery factory.
“This is a big opportunity for the downtown to see some rebirth,” said West Orange’s mayor, Robert D. Parisi. “Old downtowns are struggling to survive in a modern world.”
The Edison factory once made batteries for industrial uses like submarines and mining lamps. Credit Thomas Edison National Historical Park
The town adopted a redevelopment plan for the area in 2003, and designated a redeveloper, Prism Capital Partners of Bloomfield, N.J., three years later. The original plan to build condos was derailed by the recession. The project hit another roadblock in 2012, when five West Orange residents filed a lawsuit challenging the town’s decision to issue $6.3 million of municipal bonds to finance infrastructure improvements.
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Last December, the State Supreme Court upheld a lower-court ruling in favor of the town, clearing a path for redevelopment to begin. And in February, Prism secured a $70 million construction loan.
Like many older American suburbs, West Orange struggles to draw visitors to its aging downtown. Its Main Street winds along a mile-and-a-half-long stretch of houses, municipal buildings and offices interspersed with pockets of disconnected retail. It makes for an unwieldy stroll.
The plan’s critics oppose using public money to finance a private development that might not deliver sufficient revenue to a middle-class community burdened with high property taxes. An influx of new residents could strain public schools and worsen traffic on a congested artery, they say.
“I shudder to think about the impact of a failed project,” said Joe Krakoviak, a member of the town council and a critic of the plan.
Edison Village’s detractors argue that the approval process was opaque, leaving questions about the viability of the plan. Among the concerns are that Edison Village is not within walking distance of a train station, unlike similar projects in other New Jersey suburbs, and that the nearest stop for a bus to Manhattan is about a half-mile walk. Prism, though, says it plans to offer shuttle service to a train station.
Developers hope the Edison Village will attract other investors. Credit Pablo Enriquez for The New York Times
In its prime, the area around the factory, at Main Street and Lakeside Avenue, was a center of industry, not retail. At its peak, 10,000 workers toiled in dozens of buildings here. Around 850 of them worked in the four battery factory buildings, which made batteries for industrial uses like submarines and mining lamps.
“Many residents still tell me stories about their grandfathers who worked for Edison,” said Joseph Fagan, a local historian. “Edison helped place West Orange on the map.”
But by the 1960s, many of the American inventor’s businesses had been spun off. The businesses slowly failed, said Leonard DeGraaf, an archivist at the Thomas Edison National Historical Park. “That had an enormous impact on the community,” he said. In the early 1970s, the factories were razed, except for the battery complex, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1996.
Mr. Parisi, who grew up near the factories and still lives in the neighborhood, remembers gathering with neighbors on the street as a young boy to watch the buildings implode. For days afterward, he and his friends climbed through the rubble, scouring for remnants of Edison’s inventions and finding some of the wax cylinders that had been used for phonographs.
Edison Village, with grounds open to the public during the day, is intended to usher into the downtown the new era of the American urban center. New retail will open in about a year and a half, bringing coffee shops and restaurants to a drab block that faces an auto body shop, a bar and some houses.
The Edison factory, which will house nearly all of the apartments, will open in about two and a half years. Planned building renovations include restoring the facade and replacing the roughly 800 windows that wrap around the buildings, offering views of the neighboring brick laboratory and, in the distance, the New York City skyline.
Edison’s West Orange manufacturing complex and laboratory in 1928. Credit Thomas Edison National Historical Park
The complex will have a pool, a fitness center and 20 penthouse duplex apartments. Asking rents for the loftlike apartments could start around $1,600 a month for a studio and $2,600 for a two-bedroom. Streetscape improvements will add lighting, replace sidewalks and move utility poles. Supporters of the project hope that the investment will draw other businesses and developers that might be reluctant to be the first to invest in downtown.
“Redevelopment is a powerful tool,” said Eugene Diaz, a principal at Prism, which is developing the project with Dune Real Estate Partners and Greenfield Partners. “It breeds confidence for people to take chances.”
Still, some residents are skeptical of the deal, particularly the decision to issue municipal bonds to finance the infrastructure work. Under a 30-year tax-alternative agreement, the mayor estimates that the town could receive as much as $1.188 million a year in payments from Prism, but only after the first phase of the development is fully occupied. At a minimum, it would receive $650,000 a year. The town now collects $465,683 in property taxes for the Edison site, Mr. Parisi said. A tax agreement has not yet been reached for the second phase of the project.
Critics argue that the payment arrangement amounts to a substantial tax break for a project that will bring new residents who could strain schools and infrastructure. Property taxes are already high. Last year, the average residential tax bill was roughly $13,000, and the average home value was about $338,000.
“The taxpayers should not be subsidizing these guys,” said Mark Meyerowitz, a plaintiff in the lawsuit against the town. “It’s just a bad deal for the citizens of West Orange.”
Mr. Parisi said he expected that the development would not draw a large number of families with school-age children, arguing that such developments tend to appeal to young professionals and empty nesters. As for traffic, Ashland Avenue, a street that runs parallel to Main Street, will be extended during the second phase of the project, easing congestion.
Ultimately, Mr. Parisi sees the alternative — leaving a hulking eyesore in the middle of town — as the greater risk. “The goal,” he said, “was to revitalize a neighborhood.” Mr. Parisi added that increasing tax rolls was not the main objective.
“We have tried to do everything we can to roll out the red carpet for this type of development,” he said.
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