Activist Dottie Gutenkauf led the crowd in the Plainfield High School cafeteria in voicing a loud "No!" to 600 apartments, but speakers varied on what should occupy the site of the former Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center, which closed in 2008.
"The only thing we really need in Plainfield is an inpatient hospital," Dr. Harold Yood said.
Saying non-profit hospitals are a thing of the past, he called for a commercial facility with specialty practices and short-term inpatient care.
Other suggestions included an acute-care emergency room, a birthing facility and a medical mall.
Councilwoman Rebecca Williams raised the issue of competition among medical facilities and pointed to legislation backed by Assemblyman Jerry Green that would offer tax breaks to a developer who would "repurpose a former health care facility" but would not "destabilize the supply and delivery of acute health care services in its market." JFK Health System operates JFK Medical Center in nearby Edison.
Williams recalled that Green said recently he has a developer for the site.
The comments pointed up the swirl of possibilities floated for the site since the hospital closed. JFK Health System presented the governing body with a proposed ordinance to rezone the site and all other documents needed to proceed with its plan, which was based on its study showing a demand for rental housing. Two prominent clergymen claimed broad community support for the JFK proposal. The legislation and Green's talk of a developer does not indicate a specific plan, but Green did suggest new uses on his blog in 2012.
Meanwhile, the city-sponsored six-month study now underway is supposed to yield the best use for the site as envisioned by residents and the planning firm's findings. The firm, Heyer, Gruel & Associates of Red Bank, will hold two more community sessions in April.
The shuttered hospital used to serve many communities besides Plainfield, and speakers urged the firm to publicize the upcoming session to include all of them. Gutenkauf, who has been campaigning since August 2008 for the hospital to be restored, called for "standing-room only" crowds at the April sessions.
Regarding the 600 apartments, residents said the high number of foreclosures and the inability of a downtown condo development to sell units proved the fallacy of adding more housing.
Several who called for a full-service hospital noted the travel time and expense to reach hospitals in Edison or Somerville. One longtime resident said she had to move her ill mother to Baltimore for quick access to the care she needed. Now back in Plainfield, she said she feels insecure for herself without a hospital in the city.