It doesn’t take long to spot the historic Rialto theater in Westfield. Located near an awe-inspiring Presbyterian church that seemingly was built in colonial times, the Rialto — and its distinctive marquee — is one of the first things you see when you enter the picturesque suburban town on its northern end, near Route 22.
Don’t go there if you’re hoping to catch a movie, though. The Rialto closed suddenly in the summer of 2019. It reopened in the fall of 2021 as the Center for Creativity at the Rialto, which aims to serve as a champion for the arts.
The reimagining of the Rialto is an example of how a town can slowly adjust to modern times. In Westfield, that modernization is about to be fast-tracked.
On Tuesday night, the Westfield town council is expected to overwhelmingly approve a redevelopment agreement that is a big step in a project that will bring 310,000 square feet of Class A office space, 27,000 square feet of retail, 205 units of housing (most of which is reserved for the over-55 crowd), more parking than the town currently has — and acres of greenspace and streetscapes improvements.
The project, called One Westfield Place, will be developed by HBC Streetworks — the development arm of Hudson Bay Co., the owners of the now-shut Lord & Taylor retailer that anchors the town on its the southern side, next to the train station.
According to the economic impact study by HBC Streetworks, the residential and office components of One Westfield Place would support 1,371 direct on-site jobs and generate $149 million in direct labor income.
The proposed project also is estimated to generate $250,000 in local tax revenues, $30,000 in tax revenue for Union County and $11.38 million in tax revenue for the state, according to the assessment.
The good news: Nearly all of the One Westfield Place project will be done on existing surface lots. The Lord & Taylor building is the only existing structure that will be changed.
The better news: Nearly all of the project will be done near the train station and will serve as a connector to the downtown. The idyllic structures that give Westfield its charm, such as the Rialto, will not be touched.
The best news: It will give the town a future.
That’s the take of Mayor Shelley Brindle, who said the project is necessary to replace the nearly 2,000 jobs the town has lost in the past decade, provide office space that will bring the workers needed to increase foot traffic in the town to support retailers — and offer housing for both the empty-nesters who want to remain in town and young people who currently can’t afford to live there.
“Westfield is very idyllic. It’s beautiful. It’s charming,” she said. “But there’s also a fundamental economic ecosystem that’s needed to support our businesses that’s no longer here.”
The Lord & Taylors of the world are gone and are never coming back, Brindle said. A town that does not have a Fortune 500 campus, a medical center or a university as an anchor needs to accept a new reality.
To be able to undertake a project like this — in partnership with the company that owns the land that needs to be redeveloped — is a generational opportunity, Brindle said.
“I just was reading through the redevelopment agreement this morning and, I will tell you, it’s remarkable — it really is,” she said. “I don’t even know if our residents understand the opportunity in front of them. It’s unheard of.
“The reality is that this is a model for what post-COVID Main Street communities can and should be.”
Doug Adams, a senior vice president of development for HBC Streetworks, looks over the full-scale model of the transformed town that is laid out on an approximately 14×10 table in the development preview center that opened on Elm Street last fall.
He explains the ins and outs of the project as he has done in thousands of engagements with residents.
Adams, who worked for Streetworks before it was acquired by Hudson Bay Co. in 2019, said the company has only one goal: To turn outdated Hudson Bay Co. properties across the country into centerpieces of redevelopment projects that will benefit the entire town in which they are located.
Doug Adams, a senior vice president of development for HBC Streetworks, said the office space being built into the One Westfield Place project will be what’s called “modern timber construction.”
He described it this way: “Most office buildings today are built out of steel and concrete, which is tough on the environment because you have to cover it up with drywall and paint. What we’ve seen on the West Coast and in Canada are buildings made out of wood. It’s much more sustainable. We think it’s where the future is headed.”
That’s what is taking place in Westfield, he said.
“We partnered with the town to take the property we owned, the Lord & Taylor building that’s currently vacant, and the underutilized surface parking lots to create a mixed-use development that combines with the existing downtown, one we think creates a future pathway to bring Westfield into the next 50 years,” he said.
Adams breaks the project into three zones.
The West Zone: This encompasses the 7.3-acre Lord & Taylor property, which includes a 143,000-square-foot building that closed for good in 2020. Through adaptive reuse, it will become:
- 100,000 square feet of Class A office space;
- 25,400 square feet of amenity space;
- Two residential buildings with a combined 138 age-restricted (55-plus) units (including 21 affordable);
- 16 age-restricted (55-plus) townhomes;
- 16 non-age-restricted townhomes;
- A maximum of 33,000 square feet of retail.
The North Zone: This is a 0.22-acre portion of the municipal parking lot for the train station on North Avenue. That will become:
- One residential building with 35 loft-style apartments (including six affordable);
- 2,110 square feet of street-level retail;
- Public parking deck with 352 spaces.
The South Zone: This is a 2-acre portion of the municipal parking lot for the train station on South Avenue. It will include:
- Two Class A office buildings totaling 210,000 square feet with private parking;
- 12,000 square feet of street-level retail;
- Public parking deck with 208 spaces.
The proposal includes a retail component — “just enough to activate the street,” Adams said — but he feels the existing business community will benefit from the increase, thanks to the new office workers.
“We want these folks to feed businesses that exist here,” he said. “We want folks to come out of their offices and be able to walk right into downtown for lunch or something else.”
Incredibly, parking actually improves under the plan.
All existing parking spots will be replaced by the decks — none of which will be used by those in the new office buildings. And the 542 spots that are being created for the new office workers will be available for use on weeknights and weekends by others visiting the town.
The plan also calls for 200 new trees and more than $200,000 worth of sidewalk improvements and upgrades. And it calls for 2 acres of new public space — aside from what is being done on nearby Quimby Street, which converts easily into a pedestrian plaza for weekend festivals and concerts.
“We’re creating places — and the town and the community will decide how to activate them,” Adams said.
Increasing office space — and thus daytime foot traffic — is just one way One Westfield Place will help the town’s economic future.
The other: increasing the number of housing units for purchase and lease in town, something other towns similar to Westfield (including Summit, Morristown and Montclair) have far more of.
The goal, Brindle said, is to give lifelong Westfield residents a place to stay in town after their kids are gone.
Because the transformation of Westfield is so extensive, 10 different intersections will be improved — either through a new light or traffic circle or new traffic pattern. The extent of this change will impact traffic throughout the town, Mayor Shelley Brindle said.
“When you fix one intersection, it usually does not have that much impact because you are not able to make updates elsewhere,” Brindle said. “When you’re making changes to 10 intersections, you can do it holistically and make improvements everywhere because they are all integrated.
“Any agency that’s come in and seen our model — whether it’s (the Department of Transportation) or New Jersey Transit — has been blown away by what we’re going to be able to do.”
“We don’t have options for people who want to downsize,” she said. “We always say, when our kids graduate from high school, the parents have a ‘Congratulations, Senior’ sign on their yard — and a ‘For Sale’ sign right next to it.”
Here’s where the problem starts.
“These people are not going to Florida,” Brindle said. “They’re going to Mountainside and Springfield and other adjacent towns, because there are no options for them in Westfield.”
Going with them is their disposable income, Brindle said.
“That’s exactly the people that we want to be supporting our businesses,” she said.
At least one group of them.
Westfield lacks the ability to attract young people and young families, too.
Starter homes? There’s not much, considering Westfield pricing.
Brindle, in fact, said there soon may be none at all.
“What has been happening is the starter homes that were the entry point into Westfield have been getting torn down and replaced with much bigger homes,” she said. “The entry-level market has really dried up.”
That’s what some of the non-age-restrictive rentals are for, Brindle said.
“If you can’t afford a starter house because they don’t really exist anymore, you may be able to get into a multifamily apartment where you can live while you’re saving for that down payment,” she said.
This is New Jersey. Land of home rule. Land of opposition — to anything new.
Brindle said she has seen the headlines and the quotes.
“It’s too much … it’s going to drive too much traffic … it’s going to change the character of the town,” she quoted the stories.
No one wanted to put a total cost on the One Westfield Place project just yet. There are too many variables, they said.
But the project is eligible for a payment in lieu of taxes, which will be introduced Tuesday night by the town council, Mayor Shelley Brindle said. And the council will introduce an ordinance to take out $57 million in redevelopment area bonds to fund the public improvements that are associated with this project.
Doug Adams, a senior vice president of development for HBC Streetworks, the master developer, said the company has spoken with the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, but has not applied for any awards.
“We’ve looked at this as 100% private underwriting with the public-private partnership with the town,” he said. “We’ll explore other options, but right now it’s being underwritten as a private project.”
There’s just one catch: These headlines aren’t from today — but 1962, the last time Westfield made a significant change to the town. There was concern then about how the Haynes department store (which became Lord & Taylor) was going to ruin the fabric of idyllic Westfield.
“We have copies of the stories,” Brindle said. “You could literally just change the date on the stories, and you’d have the same arguments that we hear today.”
Truth be told, opposition has been limited. There are a few yard signs against the project, but the conversations with HBC Streetworks (either over Zoom during the pandemic or in person at the information center) seemingly have assuaged most concerns.
Brindle is glad.
“To me, the danger in any place is when you feel like you don’t need change — because we all know change is going to happen, whether you like it or not,” she said. “You either want to put yourself in the driver’s seat to control the outcome — or the outcome is going to control you.”
The One Westfield Place project will require site plan approvals over the next two years — nothing that could prevent it from going forward. An early guess by those involved said the first shovel could be in the ground by the end of 2025, with a completion date in 2027.
That day can’t come soon enough, Brindle said.
“Westfield is probably a little late to the party in terms of redevelopment because we have been so successful in the past,” she said. “Westfield had attracted all these big chain stores in the early ’90s. And, when the transition to online shopping happened, which was during the financial crisis, Westfield was caught a bit flatfooted.
“Other communities around us, like Summit or Cranford, which didn’t have the benefit of those chain stores, were busy working on redevelopment plans to bring more foot traffic. We weren’t.”
As a result, Brindle said Westfield now has the greatest reliance on property tax of any municipality in Union County.
“Most people don’t realize that 92% of Westfield’s taxes are paid for by single-family residences, because we do not have any diversification of our tax base,” she said.
“The No. 1 complaint I get as mayor always is, ‘For the taxes I pay, I should get “X.”’
“And they’re right. But what people need to understand is, for us to take on big projects — whether it’s enhancements to our parks or our downtown or new services — it’s on the backs of taxpayers who already feel they are paying too much.”
That’s why One Westfield Place is so desperately needed, Brindle said.
“This is about creating a Westfield that is going to be relevant to this new generation of families,” she said. “This is about being proactive to ensure that Westfield remains this idyllic community with the reputation that it has.
“It’s not about changing Westfield — it’s about evolving it to be able to sustain it.”