A Movie Studio and Tax Breaks — Is Tory Corner in West Orange the Next Montclair?

0
Tory Corner West Orange
At the Corner of Main Street and Washington is a stone slab that commemorates Tory Corner, the meeting place of British loyalists. Photo by Darren Tobia/Jersey Digs.

There was a time not long ago, before all this talk about Whoopi Goldberg and Hollywood movie studios, when Tory Corner locals just wanted a place to buy a decent latte. (Trust me, I live there.) These days, this historic crossroads in West Orange is beginning to feel like a proper neighborhood. Light Bulb Coffee Shop, Willow & Olivia bakery, Parris Treasures antiques, with new restaurants like BK Lobster on the way.


“I tell my neighbors that Tory Corner is just as close to us as downtown Montclair,” said Daniel Garcia-Pedrosa, a Montclair resident who bought his first of four downtown properties eight years ago. “It’s a true downtown with a true Main Street — not every town has that.”

Llewellyn Hotel Main Street West Orange
A rendering of the renovated Llewellyn Hotel on Main Street. Courtesy of Pymstone Realty.

Garcia-Pedrosa, who is renovating one of the neighborhood’s most storied buildings, the Llewellyn Hotel, will appear before the zoning board next week. Perhaps the best symbol of his faith in downtown is that he plans on moving his company, Pymstone Realty, into the ground floor.

A stone slab at the sharp bend in Main Street commemorates a meeting place of British loyalists — called “Tories” — during the Revolutionary War. Tory Corner, as it became known, is a snapshot of the late 19th century. The oldest building is the Community House, which was built in 1846. The tree near its entrance is even older.

Three visionaries made Tory Corner prosper — Llewellyn Haskell, the prospector behind Llewellyn Park. Watson Whittlesey, the developer behind hundreds of homes in Watchung Heights. And Thomas Edison, the inventor who built a laboratory on Main Street.

Thomas Edison National Historical Park
The Thomas Edison National Historical Park draws about 5,000 visitors each year. Photo by Darren Tobia/Jersey Digs.

Today, Edison’s lab is a museum that brings in thousands of visitors each year. Though, like many downtowns, Tory Corner began to struggle with the rise of malls and big-box stores. Designating the neighborhood a redevelopment zone — in 2012 and then expanded last year — is an effort to redeem that.

“It’s going to anchor development — all of the businesses in that corridor have a reason to celebrate,” Councilman Bill Rutherford, who is running for mayor, said at the February town council meeting.

So far it has brought about the renovation of Edison’s old battery factory into loft rentals. A grant won by the pedestrian safety committee will flush Washington Street with $700,000. The area has also become a focus of the Downtown West Orange Alliance with events like the annual street fair on June 4th and a new mobile app.

“We knew there would be around 300 more people looking to shop, dine, and walk around downtown,” said Megan Brill, executive director of the DWOA. “The Downtown Alliance wanted to capitalize on this influx of people being in the middle of our downtown corridor.”

Meanwhile, some critics say the designation hands over too much power to Town Hall to condemn or demolish properties and to unilaterally name a new developer. This power makes some constituents uneasy, especially after the previously chosen developer, Prism Capital Partners, failed to deliver on the second phase of the plan, leading Prism to file a lawsuit. Days after a settlement was reached, Mayor Rob Parisi announced a new partnership with acclaimed movie studio MBS Group to build as many as eight sound studios in the redevelopment zone.

“With the huge appetite and demand for content, there’s a huge appetite and demand for studio space to shoot it,” said Parisi, who mentioned that longtime West Orange resident Whoopi Goldberg helped in the negotiations, as she will likely headquarter her production company there.

Both the mayor and MBS Group are cashing in on the newfound allure that New Jersey has for production studios. For one, many of our cities and towns can double for New York City settings, which happened in the case of “Joker,” filmed in Newark, and “West Side Story,” filmed in Paterson. The other incentive is a progressive tax credit program called the Film & Digital Media Tax Credit.

“Representatives from the MBS Group have told us it’s one of the most beneficial tax programs in the entire country,” Parisi told the town council.

The enthusiasm surrounding the announcement has been met with equal parts concern. What would a movie studio look like downtown? Will the facility resemble the windowless hangar in Jersey City? Or the gated compounds in Los Angeles? And in buying the land back from Prism, why was the mayor so willing to assume liability for Prism before an environmental study was completed?

So far new studios have opened in Kearny and Jersey City. Netflix is trying to open a studio in Fort Monmouth. One thing all of these ventures share in common is that they are located on the outskirts of their respective municipalities. Perhaps it all works out in the end and Parisi goes down as Tory Corner’s next great visionary. If it flops, well, at least Whoopi Goldberg will have a short commute to work.

--

Have something to add to this story? Email [email protected].

Click here to sign up for Jersey Digs' free emails and news alerts. Stay up-to-date by following Jersey Digs on Twitter and Instagram, and liking us on Facebook.

No posts to display