Newspaper article International New York Times

A Laboratory of Urban Renewal at a Thomas Edison Factory

Newspaper article International New York Times

A Laboratory of Urban Renewal at a Thomas Edison Factory

Article excerpt

Construction begins on Edison Village, a project to redevlop West Orange, N.J., despite concerns that it might not deliver on its promise of renewal.

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 retailing, could include a small grocery store, according to the developer. It 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 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.

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 retailing. 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.

In its prime, the area around the factory, at Main Street and Lakeside Avenue, was a center of industry, not retailing. 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. …

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