2008-01-23 / Front Page

O'Brien reflects on legacy

Former mayor will remember improvements to downtown, fiscal discipline
BY KATHY CHANG Staff Writer

After 21 years of serving the residents of Metuchen, former Mayor Edmund O'Brien said he is looking forward to taking a much-needed rest and spending time playing with his three grandchildren.

FILE PHOTO Left: Ed O'Brien joins residents and police for a walk through Metuchen on National Night Out in Aug. 2004. Above: The former mayor gives a speech against a state proposal for town consolidation in Jan. 2007. FILE PHOTO Left: Ed O'Brien joins residents and police for a walk through Metuchen on National Night Out in Aug. 2004. Above: The former mayor gives a speech against a state proposal for town consolidation in Jan. 2007. "I have enjoyed all my years of service," said O'Brien, 64, as he reminisced about his 12 years as mayor and nine years as a councilman while sipping a cup of black coffee at BrewedAwakening Coffee House last week.

O'Brien said he learned that he was the longest-serving member of municipal government when former Mayor John Wiley introduced him as the Metuchen Chamber of Commerce's Citizen of the Year award recipient at the 55th annual Chamber of Commerce dinner gala held Jan. 12.

"I said, 'Well it's a good thing I left,' " said O'Brien, laughing. "It was a remarkable honor receiving the chamber's award, and I appreciate being honored among the number of people who received the award in the past."

O'Brien, whose last day as mayor was on Dec. 31, 2007, announced in February that he would not seek a fourth term as mayor and called the decision a personal one. He said that 12 years was long enough and that he hoped his tenure at the helm of Metuchen has been a fruitful one.

"I hope that I've made a contribution that has bettered the community I know and love," O'Brien told Greater Media Newspapers in March. "And I wish all the best for the borough in the future."

O'Brien said he extended his good wishes to the new mayor, Thomas Vahalla, who took office on New Year's Day.

"He will have challenges, which are more budgetary than what I faced as mayor…well, I saw some of the problem," he said. "I always felt that it was important to keep the taxpayers in mind when any municipal decisions were made. … Tom will have to find his own way."

For the longest time, the longtime mayor said, he has been involved with politics.

"I was involved in the civil rights movement," said O'Brien. "Before Robert F. Kennedy's assassination [in 1968], my wife [Marguerite] and I were involved in his presidential campaign."

O'Brien added that his extended family has also been involved with politics in some way.

"I guess it was a natural avocation [to us]," he said.

O'Brien grew up in Lopatcong in Warren County and moved to Metuchen in 1970.

"In terms of Metuchen's population, the [number of people] shrunk over time since I moved [to the borough]," he said. "There were 3,000 to 4,000 more people and the high school classes had over 1,000 students. It was a different environment."

O'Brien, who became mayor in 1995, said the challenge of making the borough's downtown a viable place for people to come has always been a challenge, especially when Menlo Park Mall was built in Edison Township in the 1960s and Woodbridge Center mall in the 1970s.

"This has been and always will be a continuous challenge," he said. "We can't stop working on our downtown, even when we believe we are at a good place with our downtown. When I became mayor, we had 30 vacancies from Middlesex Avenue to Amboy Avenue - for sale, for lease, and going out of business signs were in the windows."

O'Brien said that over time, the malls were the reason why department stores left the downtown.

"We once had a full-service downtown … a shoe store, a women's and men's clothing store … we had everything," he said.

O'Brien added that at the time he became mayor, the country was coming out of a recession.

"There was great pressure for business owners who were trying to make a living here," he said.

O'Brien said he is pretty happy about the accomplishments made with the downtown while he was in office, and he said residents probably would most recognize the dramatic changes that were made to the downtown during his tenure.

"It was one of our challenges, and we needed to protect the downtown…I think we were pretty successful," he said. "Maintaining the downtown is always going to be an ongoing challenge, and we can't just walk away … it needs a lot of attention."

To revitalize the downtown, O'Brien said his administration took a look at the borough's land use laws to see how they could make it easier for businesses that wanted to come into the borough.

O'Brien said that the borough added a resolution for outdoor seating, which he said has been very successful.

"We became a community transit village [in December 2002] and a model of a place other communities wanted to [replicate] in the state," he said. "We were always involved with the state, receiving Smart Growth grants, for example, the cross walks on Main Street and working toward a pedestrian-friendly downtown."

In January 2003, then-Gov. James E. McGreevey and acting Transportation Commissioner Jack Lettiere called Metuchen Transit Village a model for smart growth and presented the borough with $600,000 for upgrades.

O'Brien said the borough also partnered with the Metuchen Chamber of Commerce, which helped put the borough on the economic map as a destination in New Jersey, not just a traditional stripmall downtown.

"We became the poster child for towns our size across the state," said O'Brien, who said the chamber and the borough began a flower planter initiative, which no other community had done before.

"It made the borough attractive," he said. "Our flower planter initiative became a model for other communities, like the Clara Barton section of Edison Township."

O'Brien added that during his tenure, the borough acquired more open space.

"If we exclude the [Middlesex] greenway, [which is an abandoned railroad corridor that runs from Middlesex Avenue in Metuchen to just east of Crows Mill Road in the Fords section Woodbridge] we have acquired 4 acres, which may not seem like much, but in Metuchen it's huge," he said. "Now, if we add the greenway, it probably is the largest acquisition in the history of the municipality."

O'Brien said he is proud of his administration's continued efforts to reduce costs and increase efficiencies.

"For a number of years, our tax rate has remained at a stable number, and all this without cutting services, but through natural attrition and through innovative technologies and outside-the-box thinking," he said.

O'Brien added that he worked with the Department of PublicWorks on innovative ways to cut costs. In November 2005, the DPW started accepting co-mingled recyclables, saving the borough money in labor and transportation costs.

O'Brien added that another accomplishment was the $6.4 million borough hall, 501 Main St., which was formally dedicated in September 2005.

The construction of the new borough hall brought several challenges to O'Brien's administration.

Residents opposed the demolition of the old borough hall, which sat on the same lot as the new one, lobbying unsuccessfully to retrofit and upgrade the old building rather than construct a new one. The new building also saw construction delays due to contractor woes.

For the man who has been involved in politics since the 1960s and is a retired principal from theWoodbridge School District, O'Brien said he thinks this is the finale of his political career.

"Well, I'll never say never," he said.

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