The West Orange Town Council approved two ordinances on Tuesday that could make way for a movie studio owned by Whoopi Goldberg. A unanimous vote to amend a redevelopment plan, then another to issue a multi-million dollar bond resolution, allows the administration to effectively commandeer land from a defaulted developer that dragged its feet for over a decade.
The redevelopment zone in question is a 17-acre parcel near the Thomas Edison museum on Main Street. The exclusive rights to develop the land were awarded to Prism Capital Partners nearly 15 years ago. But the Nutley-based firm has been beset by financial difficulties — routinely delinquent on property taxes — and never broke ground on the second phase, leading the township to issue a notice of default.
In what some believe was merely an effort to save face, Prism retaliated by filing a lawsuit two months ago, as Jersey Digs reported, revealing to residents what had only been discussed behind closed doors at Town Hall — that the township had all along been negotiating with a production company owned by Goldberg. The default, Prism claims, was merely a ruse to cut them out of the picture and renegotiate more lucrative terms with a new developer.
Appearing before the council, Mayor Rob Parisi announced that both parties were nearing a settlement, which would entail buying back the land from Prism for $13 million, requiring the council to move forward on two ordinances.
“It’s the worst kept secret in town — it’s been in various publications — but, yes, the township is interested in pursuing a film studio,” Mayor Parisi said. “The fact that Prism wasn’t prepared to move forward with phase two has opened up a huge opportunity for the township.”
Heaping praise on the developer for its phase-one renovation of Edison’s battery factory into lofts, Parisi’s tone at the council meeting was notably conciliatory, so soon after he and Prism partner Eugene Diaz launched smears at each other in the media. Parisi even seemed to excuse Prism’s default as the result of unforeseen changes in the real estate market brought on by the pandemic.
Meanwhile, residents who testified before the council said that a movie studio would be a boon to the township and a historically meaningful addition to a neighborhood where the world’s first film house was invented. But the consensus was that they were suspicious why the township — whose debt after the bond ordinance passed reached $129 million — is shoehorning a bail-out plan for a private developer. The onus to sell those properties, residents argued, is on Prism.
“The reason why we have to move on this now is because we have a timeline with the court system,” said Council President Cindy Matute-Brown. “We’ve reached an agreement pending approvals from both parties due back to the court with respect to the deed restriction.”
Residents in attendance, however, were unswayed, accusing the council and administration of lacking transparency. One resident even characterized the buyback deal as a “bait and switch.”
“I don’t know how we got to this place where there is so much distrust verbalized in these meetings,” said Councilman Bill Rutherford.
“We all want the same thing. We want a new look for our Main Street Corridor,” Rutherford continued. “The redevelopment plan — and the items that are in our agenda tonight dealing directly with that — I believe firmly puts us in a great position to execute on that.”