Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Q&A: Downtown Plainfield,

A few weeks ago, I ran into Ron Johnson downtown and we had a brief conversation about Plainfield. Ron is the city's Zoning Officer and has a keen interest in its future. He recently updated me on some initiatives and I asked a few questions, which he just answered. He agreed to let me post them and his responses as a Q&A. Tomorrow (March 15) he is launching a new website (see below Q&A). I wish him the best.

- How would you define millenials in Plainfield and what products might they want downtown?

I would define millennials in Plainfield as curious, ambitious and some of the most prominent shoppers in Downtown after our large latino population. While they may not appear particularly appealing for older generations, the urban clothing stores in our downtown (Ped-Eze, Hot Spot and some others) are particularly well used by younger population for the newest streetwear, shoes and accessories. It's important that a downtown as large as Plainfield's has variety for shoppers of all kinds and ages. We should embrace these stores as they have some of the nicest displays, signs and storefronts in our downtown, easy to work with (from a zoning standpoint), regularly invest in their storefronts, stock the most current trends, and help establish our Downtown as a destination for not only people in our community but around it. The stores appropriately reflect the demographic that they're trying to sell to. It's also important to realize that these types of stores cannot be found in any community anywhere near here, (with the closest being Elizabeth and Newark) which translates to offering something unique for clientele and more sales. We need to start thinking outside the box about economic development and educating all stores about how to be successful. I've noticed that Plainfield at times can be very hard on ourselves. We should embrace our uniqueness and find new ways to market that to people to where it can help us in our ultimate goals of becoming a live, work, play community.

In addition, Landmark Developers is working on opening a temporary pop-up art gallery on North Avenue in the short-term future that will reflect artwork from local artists. We've already seen the utility box art installations pop up around town featuring local millennial artists. The city's Mural Arts Committee is actively engaging and seeking out artists in our community for more utility box art and murals. This is the first time in quite a while the city has effectively engaged young people. The utility boxes made their way to Instagram, Facebook and snapchat and has received far more "likes" than we ever would have imagined. I can see our millennials being attracted to this.

I've met so many amazing and talented millennials from Plainfield with entrepreneur ambitions. What I've found is that many need guidance on how to accomplish their personal and professional goals. We have individuals from many different backgrounds that simply need someone to talk to about their ideas and how to move on them. I wish to help any fellow millennial I can and guide them with their goals no matter if it's downtown or elsewhere.

- How would your group interface with Paramount, owner of about 45 storefronts downtown? Also the Korean merchants association, Latino business owners, SID, developers Cheung, Cretella, Camino? 

I come with existing contacts and strong relationships with all of our developers. I work with Landmark, Paramount, Cheung and Camino on a regular basis. Despite the negative perceptions, Paramount has been an absolute DREAM to work with. They're very quick to make the necessary adjustments to bring their properties or storefronts up to code and are very easy to work with from a zoning standpoint. Camino is another that is very ambitious and is taking a "slow and steady" approach to developing their buildings. They emphasize quality over hasty development. Downtown Plainfield Alliance (DPA) is putting together a strategy on how to directly engage with the developers moving forward and to ensure their voice is also heard. These are partners in our community that put their money on the line every single day because they believe in us. We need to believe in them also. The existing relationships I bring to the table will make moving forward with them much easier than an upstart group.

As far as the SID is concerned, our group has no interest in competing with or overshadowing the efforts they've made thus far. It takes commitment and people who care to change our downtown and the SID certainly is committed and cares. There is still much value in the SID and I believe working with them on the conditions of Downtown should be a goal of the city as well as Downtown Plainfield Alliance. The SID is a tax collecting organization while DPA is not, and that sets them apart from us. They're also a merchants group, to which we are not (DPA is a nonprofit beautification, marketing, economic development and volunteerism organization --very different). We're interested in marketing the SIDs events, pushing collective decision-making and overall cooperation on all accounts. The city is far too small to have infighting between groups. We come with our best intentions and will be reaching out to the SID shortly.

- Do you consider Block 247 part of the downtown? (The block bordered by West Front, Central, Madison, West Second)

Yes. Block 247 is an integral part of our downtown and always has been. In fact, I always include the block directly west of central avenue bounded by the Green Brook, Central Avenue, West Front Street and terminating near New Street as downtown as well. This block has primarily Latino businesses that I've also built up a relationship with and frequent from time-to-time. They hold tremendous value in that community and is an extension of the more built-up blocks to its east. The TOD Downtown boundary isn't necessarily the "written in stone" boundaries of the Downtown in my eyes.

- Do you have any thoughts on a business registry?
Downtown Plainfield Alliance has created a business directory for the downtown that lists all the businesses, their phone number, address and websites (if applicable) all organized based on what service they provide. In order to bring Plainfielders and shoppers outside our community back into our Downtown, people need to know what is Downtown. People will start adventuring back Downtown once they find one or two stores or restaurants that they tend to like and have a positive experience visiting. The thought of "let's stop the car and try this place" will keep popping up if people's first experience at one establishment is positive. We need to work on making every experience positive.

- Any thoughts on the UEZ?
The loss of the UEZ is certainly harmful to the downtown as far as the sales tax is concerned. As you know, Plainfield has a lump sum of money from the UEZ (how much is left, I do not know). The city has purchased new parking lot meter systems for some lots with the UEZ funds. Using the funds for projects that would make the biggest difference and be the most efficient and especially effective should be key.

The sign and facade program was an excellent program that few businesses took advantage of. Despite the program being in existence for well over two decades (if not longer), the program was not advertised effectively, bureaucratic, and took a long time to get approvals. Many tenants never even knew the program existed. The Economic Development Office is looking at ways to continue funding the program using UEZ money. This is great to hear, however it needs to be done right this time. DPA is looking to find a matching grant to cover the remaining 25% of signage costs (the Sign and Facade program only covers 75% of signage or facade costs).

- How do your plans relate to municipal government, specifically land use policies?

We directly support the municipal government and the developers downtown. Land Use-wise, Plainfield continues to attract developers big and small to the Downtown and cooperation on all fronts will help cement further investment. We see our organization as the community engagement arm to economic development and planning policies in our Downtown. Smart Growth, transit-oriented development, new urbanism and 21st century urban design appears to be at the forefront of the city's goals we support them tremendously! The municipal government has been very receptive to our plans and we cannot wait to get down to business and help each other out in our time of need.

- Any models for what you envision (how to attract major retailers and/or reflect new buying habits?
The city's strategy over the course of the last decade or so has been to wait for businesses to come to us, then market the town to them. As you know, this has not worked very well over the years. We have the rise of online shopping, the decline of department stores and other factors at play on the national and state level that are tremendously taxing on the health of our downtown. We need to start reaching out directly to stores, putting together facts that will counteract the negative online perception of Plainfield, and redirect businesses from being built around us (mainly on Rt. 22) and instead into the downtown. We've reached out to businesses already and are very proud to report that Blink Fitness gym and Yami-Yami Grill, the first Japanese Sushi restaurant in downtown Plainfield, will be new tenants opening their doors mid-year on our main street, Front Street. These are world-class, high quality businesses that will help attract people to Plainfield and rewrite the narrative. Yami-Yami Grill has one location already in Watchung and the fact that they believe in downtown enough to open their second location here over places like Scotch Plains, Westfield and Greenbrook speaks volumes on the effectiveness of this strategy. Be proud Plainfield, we're just getting started!

Also, I can share that DPA is putting together business success kits for existing and new businesses, business recruitment kits and developer recruitment kits to further market our city and strengthen our business community is in the works. Amazon.com is experimenting with new retail store prototypes in many cities, and attracting one of the concept stores or small warehouse distribution centers to our community would put Plainfield ahead of the curve. We will be reaching out to Amazon soon to start a dialogue. A part of attracting businesses is crunching census data for the downtown and finding the most positive numbers so we can market them and show progress. This is an ongoing task.

- How to deal with transitions at City Hall?
Transitions are a part of life in any city. As employees and politicians come and go, we have to stay steady and work towards our goals as a community. A new generation is awakening. New ideas are flowing. We have a tremendous opportunity to engage our entire community and all walks of life. Politics is in every town in NJ, but many towns are able to overcome the challenges by communicating and not letting politics get in the way of the town's goals. In some towns, the Mayor and council get together once a week at the bar or out to dinner and simply talk their issues out. Communication is even more important during transitions to ensure knowledge is passed down.

- Whom do you see as major partners for your vision?

The Planning Division, DPW, PMUA, SID, HPC, Planning and Zoning Boards, Shade Tree Commission, NJ Transit and Inspections Division are all vital groups for a redeveloping community. I've worked with most of them at varying capacities. Outside of the city, banks and philanthropic organizations should be scouted to make our dreams a reality.


I welcome everyone to join us tomorrow, March 15 at 12 noon on www.downtownplainfield.com as we unlock our website to the public. This is a three year project that was almost derailed by the Planning Division layoff (I was on the layoff list). We plan to launch Plainfield Permits (www.plainfieldpermits.com), a permitting solution to help educate Plainfielders about the zoning code on April 15, 2017. Also, we'll be having a Downtown Cleanup event on Earth Day -- Saturday, April 22, 2017. I look forward to releasing more information about this soon.

My late-cousin Rashid Abdul-Haqq used to talk to me constantly from the time I was a little kid until adulthood about how I can "be that rock" for my community (in his words), and use my education to come back home and help my community. I love Plainfield as he did, and wish to carry his legacy forward. I welcome everyone to follow me personally on my website iplanurban.space as I continue to build tools for the entire Plainfield community.

Readers can contact Downtown Plainfield Alliance at info@downtownplainfield.com or myself at iamronaldjohnson@gmail.com.


  1. Great article and incite... Didn't know about the new Japanese resteraunt yami yami coming to Plainfield... Happy to hear of more diversified businesses in Plainfield... Glad to hear of the upcoming events that are happening on earth day...all of this sounds awesome... Thanks Ronald for your awesome interview... My father rasheed abdul-haqq would of loved this and all your new endeavors and ideas....

  2. Thank you Bernice for posting about our nonprofit! Together, we can all make a difference in our downtown and be the change we want to see.

    Please also follow us on facebook: www.facebook.com/downtownplainfieldalliance/

    and on Instagram at @downtownplainfieldalliance

    Also, we have a GoFundMe for our downtown cleanup event on Earth Day. Our goal is to raise $100.00 for bags and gloves. Any extra funds we receive will go directly to planting materials and flowers to be planted throughout the downtown. Here's the link to donate: https://www.gofundme.com/downtown-plainfield-cleanup

    Thank you everyone for your support.


  3. This non-profit sounds like a step in the right direction. Plainfield can use some more public interest and community organizations which are non-partisan. This can only help the the towns community and economy

  4. We are so lucky to have Ron Johnson working for us in Plainfield! Thank you, Bernice, for sharing this.
    Rebecca Perkins

  5. WOW! This is the best thing to come out of this City since Joe Black!

  6. Good luck Ron with your web endeavor. You're a great advocate for Plainfield, and a fine asset for the City. Keep up the good work!

  7. Very impressive article. I applaud the fact he recognize the need to seek out those we want to develop in Plainfield as opposed to waiting for them to come to us. My only concern would be the lack of marketing to the baby boomers and generation X, as we know this is the group that is less likely to shop and conduct business online. This group is more tangible in the way they shop and the need to have brick and motor locations to cater to them is great. Mr Johnson has great ideas and plans and I’m excited to see his accomplishments in improving our downtown area and making Plainfield a live, work, play destination.

  8. Congrats Ron on your new endeavor.