Time does fly by in quirky, quaint little Moorestown, New Jersey. There are many reasons this town was named America’s top place in which to live in 2005 by Forbes Magazine. However, it’s been nearly three years since a somewhat suspicious summer fire destroyed its rather pedestrian but certainly functional downtown Town Hall complex. Since the fire, the building has been cordoned off, and executive and administrative affairs conducted at an office park location literally on the other side of town. Since the fire, the town’s largely Democratic council pondered what to do about the property: repair and restore what once was, or float approximately $13,000,000 plus for a stunningly elegant ‘town hall boulevard’ concept.
Up until the time of the fire, Moorestown’s town hall was located in a plain, two story nondescript building, to which its police department headquarters was literally attached. The building housed the township’s municipal court, as well as the offices for the town clerk, tax collector, recreation department, tax assessor, director of planning, building inspectors, virtually every administrative office except that of Public Works. Located on Second Street, the town hall complex was virtually in the heart of the town, a block away from Main Street and its business and shopping district. A parking lot separated town hall from the town’s public library, to which was also attached its Recreation Center, an old building that once served as Moorestown’s high school. A number of residents who lived in the ‘heart’ of the township walked to town hall to conduct business on a fairly regular basis. The current site for the temporary town hall, located in the ‘west’ end of the township, is now accessible almost exclusively by car.
The fire occured while a Democratic majority was in place on council. After being stalled by insurance adjustors and necessary fire inspections and queries, council set out to a) find a new place – and quickly – in which to conduct the every day business of running a small town, and b) rebuild, reconstruct or restore its former place of operation. Over a year ago, council engaged the services of the architectural firm Kitchen & Associates of Haddon township, also in southern New Jersey, to figure out which path they should follow. To date, approximately $80,000 has been spent on the taxpayers’ collective dimes as Kitchen came up with solutions.
Much of the past year was spent by Kitchen ‘interviewing’ stakeholders: those who work at town hall, those whose offices were located there, administrators and employees alike. I do not know to what, if any, extent the general public was asked for their own input, other than several letters to the editor in a variety of newspapers asking the status of the project. In late December, 2008, Kitchen unveiled two sets of proposals to town council at a regular meeting, open to the public, as to their recommendations.
One proposal called for the town hall, police department (which continues to operate at its original location) and Recreation Center to be located on one side of a rather impressive ‘boulevard’. The buildings would be interconnected, handsomely landscaped, boast skylights and walkways. A portion of the site would be set aside for a community meeting/gathering area. The town library would be located across the grand boulevard; it would have a fancy stone wall, and be significantly upgraded in terms of space and facilities. Skylights were also a touted feature in the library.
The other proposal called for the town hall facility itself to be a separate building, located towards the end of the site. The library, police department and Recreation Center would be apart from town hall. Each would feature the skylights, walk ways, etc., as in the first proposal. The only real difference was the town hall would be a separate building, as opposed to being combined with the other facilities, save for the library.
The cost for the first proposal was in the range of $13,200,000. The cost for the second was slightly less, about $200,000. Both proposals were without question significant upgrades over what had previously occupied the entire site. They were visually stunning; they were striking examples of what could be on what was previously a pretty nondescript but functional town hall/town center complex.
There is now a Republic majority and mayor on council. Bear in mind, too, that in a Quaker-based town, fiscal conservatism is a moral value. (Some of the truly wealthiest families in Moorestown live in modest, tidy homes. The display of wealth is considered unseemly, in poor taste, and a sign of moral deficiency.) The $13,000,000 price tag, give or take a few hundred thousand either way, has to date not been well received by the majority of residents. Most of them had no input in the Kitchen & Associates planning stages. Most had not seen their finished products until they were presented at the council meeting, which was not widely publicized.
Much to the apparent dismay of the architects, Mayor Dan Roccato has sent them back to the drawing board. This time, the intent is very clear and concise: What would it cost to do a ‘paint and paper’ job on the existing town hall? What will it cost to just repair the building to what it formerly was? Take out the built-in ‘goodies’ such as the extensive use of sky lights and fancy outdoor lighting. Do away with the imported stone wall on the side of the library. How much will it cost to re-open the doors to the current town hall building?
New Jersey residents have long been victims of extremely high property taxes. Last year, Democratic Govenor Jon Corzine raised the sales tax from 6% to 7%. More tax increases are on the way. During one of the worst financial downward spirals that the country – let alone the state and the township – has ever experienced, why would a Moorestown taxpayer wish to float a bond for a $13,000,000 infrastructure when the one currently standing can be repaired?
Either of Kitchen & Associates’ original two plans would have been a wonderful, charming addition to a wonderful, charming small town – if money were no object. We find ourselves in economic times like no other in American history; money IS very much a concern. It strikes me as very odd that Kitchen & Associates would not have included a ‘paint and paper’ repair job as one of their original proposals. Then again, the cost for such a proposal would be literally millions and millions of dollars less than what they appear to have hoped town council would automatically approve. ‘Paint and paper’ won’t cost the Moorestown taxpayer nearly as much as a fancy new municipal complex would. It also won’t put as much of that cold, hard cash in Kitchen & Associates’ own coffers.
As of late February, 2009, Kitchen has not yet presented an official proposal to Moorestown town council on the cost of a ‘paint and paper’ project to just re-open the existing town hall. Their dream of raking in millions in profit on one of the two originally proposed plans has fallen flat on its face. Shame on them for thinking that the Moorestown residents could be so easily swayed – dare I say bamboozled? – by glitz and glitter when we live in dirt and concrete economic times.