Thursday, October 13, 2005

Mall developer looking to amend its store building plan

By Chris Neidenberg

The Planning/Zoning Board has granted Vornado Realty Trust's request to indefinitely delay introducing before the public its big shopping center project - slated for Maywood's part of the Bergen Mall.

At a special meeting convened Oct. 4, planners voted 9-0 to let the Paramus-based company work on altering its "Maywood Town Center" proposal by merging two separate buildings into one structure.

This redesign will also entail adding a courtyard in trying to offer a more attractive atmosphere for shoppers and merchants. Voting members included Mayor Thomas Richards and Councilman Dr. Tim Eustace.

Also, the board plans on appointing its own traffic consultant to analyze this major proposal, and seems headed toward hiring the same company now reviewing Vornado's much larger plan to completely change the face of the Bergen Mall, most of which sits in neighboring Paramus.

The board's decision seemed to test the patience of some Maywood residents who would be impacted by any new retail project on the northern edge of the borough. It would be situated in the vicinity of Spring Valley and Maywood avenues, in the current Bergen Mall parking lot.

The Maywood project is only one part of a massive effort of Vornado's to re-develop the entire property. It is also proposing replacing the 903,000 square-foot mall complex and adding multi-family housing in an application now under review in Paramus. The housing element - if built - is certain to assure Vornado of a large pool of potential customers who will have convenient access to any re-developed mall, and any new shopping center next door in Maywood.

Since the Bergen Mall was established in 1957, Maywood's share has only consisted of a major portion of the southside rear parking lot, just off Spring Valley Avenue.

Antsy residents seeking to make their feelings known about the controversial application were prepared to speak out, but will now have to wait for an unspecified period.

Vornado's attorney, Thomas Wells, assured that the developer will "re-notice" residents living within a certain distance of the application, as state land use law requires.

Wells, however, gave no specific indication on when that will occur.

"We will be ready with this change in several weeks," he told planners, noting that the new application will offer renderings depicting one retail shopping building spanning over 24,000 square feet.

The prior application called for construction of two distinct buildings in the current commercial zone, each encompassing about 12,200 square feet. Under the original application, Vornado estimated that the square footage requires 1,056 parking spaces

"We felt the changes were so material, we did not want to come before the board this evening," the lawyer said, describing the alterations as "last minute."

Vornado, a major real estate conglomerate, formed upon launching the long-defunct Two Guys retail store chain throughout Northern New Jersey. It now operates major shopping malls in areas including the New York metropolitan region and Northern Virginia, as well as the national Toys 'R Us store chain.

In December 2003, it bought the Bergen Mall from the Simon Properties Group. According to its online financial statement, Vornado paid $145 million for the property with the aim of "expanding, re-developing and re-tenanting" the site. Vornado describes its objective as "repositioning this asset" through modernizing the location.

Vornado is no stranger to controversy. Earlier this year, it took ownership of financially ailing Toys 'R Us and instituted dramatic changes at its Wayne corporate office, including major layoffs.

As for its Maywood plans, Wells explained that Vornado concluded combining the two buildings into one structure and further altering the site's design would ensure a better experience for shoppers. He maintained that the change would be more "fortuitous" for both customers and merchant tenants occupying any shopping complex.

"The master plan of this whole building has kind of evolved into a community center concept," he told planners. "We will be adding an open courtyard."

Since, Wells claimed, the alterations will not significantly alter vehicle circulation into and out of the proposed new mall, the lawyer said he did not anticipate making any changes to Vornado's existing traffic study.

Yet Wells encouraged the Maywood board to take advantage of the delay by recruiting the services of Vollmer Associates, the same traffic consultant advising Paramus officials on that municipality's part of the development. Vollmer, based in New York, operates a regional office on Passaic Street in Rochelle Park.

Board Attorney Gregg Padovano said he saw no conflict in retaining Paramus' expert and a board consulting engineer concurred. Padovano recommended that planners move on hiring some consultant. He later told residents that Vornado will be required to compensate Maywood for any costs.

Given that it is already studying the potential traffic impact around the bigger part of the residential/commercial development next door in Paramus, Padovano said Vollmer might be able to offer useful opinions on vehicle flow from "a Maywood point of view."

Resident Richard Duffy of Edel Avenue questioned Vornado's need for delaying the entire presentation.

Duffy suggested that it would be fairer to those patient residents, who have long awaited the start of the proceedings, if Vornado got moving on discussing elements unrelated to the structural revisions.

"In listening to the conversation," he said, "if they (Vornado) are going to make changes regarding the consolidation of the buildings, why shouldn't they hear our feelings in regards to certain elements of the plan that will not be changed?"

"We have to hear their presentation in its entirety first," responded Board Vice Chairwoman Charlotte Panny, presiding in Chairman George Brush's absence.

"And then we can hold a hearing and take comments on the plan they are presenting."

Padovano assured residents that "any revised plans and reports," including the borough's pending traffic study, will be placed on file for public inspection at least 10 days before the next advertised public hearing on the revised application. He noted that Vornado's own traffic report is already available.

The large Vornado proposal comes as Richards has made clear he is hungry for more commercial ratables to try and lower the overall tax burden on residents. Richards, who has met with Vornado representatives regarding the plan, previously wanted - along with Eustace and others on the Borough Council - to try limiting the height of a proposed Sears Great Indoors Store that company wanted to build on the easterly side of the same mall - but which would have entirely been in Paramus.

They had joined residents in the area of Cedar Avenue, just across the border, who wanted to impose height limitations given the proximity of their backyards to the proposal. Sears ultimately placed the project on hold - before the Paramus Planning Board could take a final vote.

One major difference indeed separates the Great Indoors project from the Vornado proposal. In the former's case, Maywood would not have received any property tax revenue.

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