Tuesday, March 31, 2015

About the Yews

As predicted, the Yews in front of City Hall are growing back after a drastic pruning about two years ago. They were slated for removal, but commissioners of several city groups urged officials to spare them.

Under the direction of former Public Works & Urban Development Director Eric Jackson and Public Works Superintendent John Louise, the grounds were redesigned with plantings of roses and coreopsis for visual interest while the Yews grew back.

Some of the Yews were cut way back and do not look viable. Maybe they can be replaced somehow.

I for one am looking forward to seeing the City Hall roses and other flowers start growing for spring and summer.


Damaged North Avenue Restaurant Relocating

The restaurant that had to close due to damage from the North Avenue demolition is relocating to 185 North Avenue, according to a sign there.
Mi Buenaventura was in business for three decades before its former location was crushed by falling debris on March 21.

By coincidence, that building location - 127-135 North Avenue - is on Thursday's Planning Board agenda. The owner wants to convert a vacant building at 122-128 East Second Street to 4,414 square feet of commercial space on the first floor, and 5 residential apartments on the second floor. He is seeking approval to use the lot behind the North Avenue building for five parking spaces. The application predated the events of March 21.


Hub Stine Renovations Talk on April 13

In December, I posted about renovations at Hub Stine Field. The school district will be holding a community meeting regarding the renovations at 7 p.m. April 13 in the Plainfield High School auditorium. Click the link above to see the post and some comments. The new lights were a special concern.

Spring Breaks Through!

Finally, some crocuses have emerged! Looking forward to a big burst of bloom when the daffodils and hyacinths get a little more sunshine. Happy yard work, everybody!


Democratic Control at Stake in June

The quote above was from 1990, but it might as well have been now, because Plainfield 's Democratic Party chairman did not even hold a meeting of the Democratic City Committee, let alone ask their advice.

What would have been decided by the committee, or at least by Green in front of the committee, was who will run for two City Council seats and who would run on the line for 68 committee seats. This is the year to elect the committee that theoretically will, on the Monday after the June primary, choose a chairman for the next two years.

Surprise! For perhaps only the second time in his long tenure as chairman, Green is facing an all-out challenge for control of the committee. The first time was in 1989, when Harold Mitchell filed a full slate in opposition to the party and garnered enough seats to displace Green. Instead, the two made a public show of unity and Green kept his chairmanship. But ever since, Green has made sure he filed a full roster of committee candidates.

Coming up the back steps of City Hall about 15 minutes before the filing deadline, who should I meet at the door but Green, looking anxious. Inside, Mayor Adrian O. Mapp had already submitted petitions for 65 of the 68 seats and the two council seats with the slogan, "Union County Progressive Democratic Organization."
With about three minutes to spare, Green came in with a bunch of just-arrived petitions for the Regular Democratic Organization of Union County, aka "the party," lacking just one of 68 committee candidates.

Between now and April 6, Mapp and Green can raise objections to petitions and try to knock names off. The final slates will be determined by April 8.

Comparing the names with a committee list from last year, I see that Green has different names for 41 of his 67 nominations. Mapp has 17 from last year's list and 48 new names. If either has to replace disqualified nominees, it could mean beating bushes that have already been thoroughly thrashed to come up with so many new nominees.

But on to the council races. Green is supporting PMUA Commissioner Charles Eke for the Second Ward seat against incumbent Councilman Cory Storch, who is seeking his fourth term. For the First & Fourth Ward at-large seat, there are two political neophytes, Green's choice being Steve Hockaday and Mapp backing Barry Goode. More later on these candidates.

There was a lot of consternation about the lack of a committee screening, even one with a foregone conclusion. Did it violate the rules? I leave that question to others. I probably could have called up Green and asked him why there was no committee meeting, but my last conversation with the chairman went rather badly, and I decided not to ring him up.

So ... as of today, the battle is joined, Green's slate versus Mapp's. The crazy thing is that whoever wins on June 2 gets the party line and will run representing the Regular Democratic Organization. But who knows, maybe June 8 will produce a different chairman and a new face to the party. Stay tuned.


Monday, March 30, 2015

Bilingual Education Program Wednesday

Thanks to "The Professor" for providing a format that I can actually publish properly.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Bilingual Education Program Wednesday

Third Annual
Herb Green Memorial Program
Featuring Melissa Logan on Bilingual Education in the Elementary Classroom
  What is bilingual education?
  How does it work?
  What does bilingual education look like in Plainfield?
  How is bilingual education funded?
  Who qualifies for bilingual education?
  Your questions answered here!
Presented by the League of Women Voters of Plainfield, 7:30 PM, Wednesday, April 1, 2015
In the Anne Louise Davis Room of the Plainfield Public Library

Herb Green was passionate about education in both the City of Plainfield and the State of New Jersey.  Locally he served on the Board of Education, was the founder of QUEST  (Queen City Education Study Committee) and read weekly to the children at Clinton School. He was the first male President of the League of Women Voters of Plainfield.

Melissa Logan is a dual language teacher at Jefferson School in Plainfield, NJ. She has been teaching bilingual education for 20 years.

Spring Cleanup Time is Here

The Spring 2015 Public Works newsletter is online at the city web site and hopefully in the mail to households. Page 2 has the zone map and collection dates.

After this very harsh winter, many householders are eager to clean up their property. On my walk home from a medical appointment on Park Avenue last week, I saw a senior hard at work raking up matted leaves from her front yard and even though I am a tenant, I got out my own rake later to give the daffodils and crocuses a little sunlight and air in hopes of seeing some flowers soon.

Maybe this already happens, but I have hoped for a while that owners of rental property as well as tenants will receive this information. I voluntarily bagged leaves for several years because I just enjoy yard work, but as I have moved into the "old" category (over 75) and developed some medical limitations, I have not been able to keep up the pace.

Technically, grounds maintenance is the responsibility of a property owner, who has the ability to direct staff or hire workers for seasonal cleanups. As more and more rental properties come on line, one hopes the guidelines for collection will be conveyed to owners and/or managers as well as residents, so that appropriate arrangements can be made.


Progress Downtown and Parking Questions

Steel beams are rising on the former Romonds Garage site, for a five-story new building.

Earlier plans called for three new stories on top of the two-story Romonds building, but it was demolished for all-new construction. Known as Art Lofts I, the project will have 20 apartments over ground floor retail space. Developer Frank Cretella is pairing it with his rehabilitation of the former Mirons warehouse across Gavett Place, slated for 12 apartments.
This massive crane dwarfs the action at ground level and is a highly visible indicator of downtown change.

The properties are between the main train station to the south and Municipal Parking Lot 6 to the north, which is targeted for a parking garage. No details have emerged at the land use boards on the parking garage.

Meanwhile, residents are questioning when they can use the nearby parking deck built by the Union County Improvement Authority to serve its office building on the block bounded by Park Avenue, West Front Street, West Second Street and Madison Avenue. Weekend and evening public use was promised as part of a settlement between the city and the authority, whose director presented a $1.09 million check to the City Council in December 2013. The settlement dates back to August 2013 and clears up issues that go back to 2001. As much as questions about the UCIA parking deck came across as troublesome to a certain politician, parking is an increasing concern in Plainfield as development builds. It would be helpful for summer events downtown if the public had weekend and evening use of the UCIA parking facility.


Saturday, March 28, 2015

Primary Filing Deadline is Monday

Apparently I missed the Democratic Party screening for the first time in many years. Candidates must file by 4 p.m. Monday and historically the meeting to decide who gets the party line takes place a week or two before that deadline.

If any birdies out there want to tell what happened, feel free.

This election may be the pinnacle of Jerry Green's career and obviously he wants to come across as a statesmanlike guy, not the street fighter seen in his 2013 video. He has cleaned up his blog, though his political knifing of certain fellow Democrats still can be seen in the archives. I did hear something about his rejection of an incumbent for re-election in favor of a person with much more polished credentials, so there's that.

What choices will voters have on June 2? Maybe a lot, if the rumored challenge to the party line comes about. Besides the two-year Assembly term, other seats up this year are the 68 Democratic City Committee slots and four-year terms for the Second Ward and the First & Fourth Ward City Council seats.

Oh well, the news will out on Monday.

If you are one of the 8,000 or so unaffiliated voters but you want to be in on the 2015 Democratic primary, you can file to become a Democrat by April 8. See all significant election dates here.

There are Republicans in Plainfield as well, fewer than 900 to more than 13,000 Democrats, and the local GOP candidates will also have to submit petitions by Monday.


Friday, March 27, 2015

Snowdrops and Snow

On Wednesday I walked a mile on Park Avenue without seeing a single crocus or any other harbinger of Spring, so I checked the Grace Church yard on East Seventh Street and was glad to see these Snowdrops. Spring is on the way, though ever-so-slowly after the terribly cold and stormy Winter of 2014-15.

Don't put away your boots and mittens just yet, a reprise of snow and cold weather is predicted for the weekend.


Demolition & Politics - A Volatile Mix

While officials and politicians dicker over the facts behind the demolition fiasco, some of the businesses on the affected block of North Avenue were open Thursday. Cheery neon glowed in the early evening, highlighting a barber shop and a restaurant in the building where another restaurant was crushed by debris Saturday. A new dressmaking business, offering everything from prom gowns to "Arabic dresses," occupies a separate building.
Customers trying to reach North Avenue from Park Avenue will have to work around this road blockage for NJ Transit work on the railroad bridge. I had to go right through the main station parking lot, down the stairs to the rather gross tunnel under the tracks and back up to North Avenue. Plans call for the street to be closed for several weeks and then work will commence on the Watchung Avenue bridge, also necessitating a street closing.

If Bill Reid was still on the City Council, he would likely pronounce the post-demolition chatter a lot of "who shot John."

All the relevant documents are on line and both bloggers and their readers have commented profusely. In a special meeting Monday, Council President Bridget Rivers called for an investigation of the timeline and process that ended with the governing body being asked to authorize a demolition contract and $250,000 tab after the fact.

All this comes as filing day for the June primary is imminent. Questions about the demolition are adding a layer of intrigue to an expected challenge to the party line from Mayor Adrian O. Mapp, former president and still the perceived standard bearer of the New Democrats. This is the year for the Democratic party to reorganize and 68 city committee seats are up for election. Those elected to the committee on June 2 will choose a party chairperson on June 8. Can Mapp pin the tail on the donkey and overcome Chairman Jerry Green's grip on local party control? Will his candidates prevail in the two council races on the ballot?
Former Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs, cast out by Green in 2013, is now his political sweetheart once again. Apparently still stung by the embarrassing investigation of her 2010 emergency town meeting on gang violence, she also favors an investigation into the Mapp administration's handling of the emergency demolition.

While waiting for the next episode of the demolition drama, we shall at least discover the cast of characters for the primary showdown on Monday. Both sides will undoubtedly challenge each other's nominees, so the list may not be final. But it is always interesting to see who takes what side in Plainfield. The deadline for filing is 4 p.m. in the City Clerk's office. (School board filing is in July.)


Thursday, March 26, 2015

Another Fine Mess

Falling bricks? Oh my!
Did they fall from way up there?
Whoops, where's my hard hat?

Hope this gets fixed soon.


Wednesday, March 25, 2015

HPC Left Out of Demolition Process, Members Say

Members of the Historic Preservation Commission said Tuesday they were unaware of problems that led to demolition of an 1895 building in the North Avenue Historic District and received no advance notification of Saturday's emergency action.

April Stefel of the Planning Division told the board of her efforts late last week to gain compliance with state requirements for emergency demolition of historic property after learning that the process had been set in motion.

"I am afraid these kind of things would put the city in jeopardy," she said, noting various pending grant applications that require state approval.

Commission Chairman William Michelson said he was concerned that "somebody decided two or three months ago that the building had to be investigated and nobody told Planning."

The building at 117-125 North Avenue suffered a devastating fire in December 2011. Demolition was considered, but owner Dexter Humphrey said he intended to rebuild it. The building then stood open to the elements for years until Construction Official Joseph Minarovich sent Humphrey a Jan. 6 notice of "imminent hazard" and ordered its demolition. Humphrey agreed, then changed his mnd, according to a memo from Public Works Director Eric Watson, who cited a Feb. 2 engineers' report on the structure that also declared the building in imminent danger of collapse.

According to Watson, Yates Real Estate Inc. was selected as the contractor. Business owners on the block were told demolition would take place on March 24. But the work was done by a sub-contractor on March 21, in advance of a March 23 special meeting to seek City Council approval.

In public comment at Tuesday's meeting, this writer noted the district had once been closely monitored by the late preservation advocate William Hetfield and by business owner Henry Johnson, but there no longer was a district association in place to watch over it. I suggested the commissioners might do well to visit the district and check the interior of the blocks as well as the streetscape. The building that was demolished appeared sturdy from the street, but its entire rear  portion was was crumbling. 

At Monday's special meeting, the governing body took umbrage at  receiving information on the need for demolition after the fact and rejected resolutions to authorize the emergency work, an allocation of $250,000 and a contract for Yates Real Estate. Council President Bridget Rivers called for an investigation and hiring of an outside special counsel to conduct it.

The entire packet of documents, including Watson's memo and the engineer's report, is now online at the city web site. Mayor Adrian O. Mapp released the documents Monday afternoon to show the administration's desire for transparency.


Tuesday, March 24, 2015


It was a thrill to see these Snowdrops in front of Municipal Court on Watchung Avenue Sunday. Hoping we don't see another drop or flake of snow for a while!


After-the-Fact Demolition Approval Nixed

In Monday's special meeting called by Mayor Adrian O. Mapp, a City Council majority rejected all three resolutions related to demolition of a North Avenue building and vowed to launch an investigation into why it had already taken place on Saturday.

The resolutions were to authorize emergency bids for demolition services. to authorize a temporary appropriation of $250,000 to do the work, and to award an emergency contract to Yates Real Estate.

Council members charged they were not given advance information, and deplored the timing of the demolition as well as its impact on several adjacent businesses, including a restaurant damaged by falling debris. The woman who owned the restaurant for 32 years and a barber who was ordered to close his shop Friday expressed fears for their livelihood and that of their employees. The business owners said they were told the demolition would take place on March 24, but then had to shut down Friday. A translator for restaurant owner Maria Rosa said, " She had everything ready for the weekend and lost all the food she had prepared."

Council President Bridget Rivers' call for an investigation with a council-appointed attorney took on a political tit-for-tat tone when she compared it to a past council investigation into costs of an emergency town hall meeting called in 2010 by former Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs. The former mayor beat Mapp to win a second term in 2009, but he bested her in 2013. Since then, she has countered him at numerous public meetings and was on hand Monday. From the sidelines, she corrected Rivers on the amount of the town hall cost..

In public comment before the votes, Dr. Harold Yood raised many questions about the process, including why a real estate firm was to be hired for the demolition and who would be responsible for the damage to the adjacent building. Public Works Director Eric Watson said only two bidders responded and the city took the lowest bid. He said the company had more than $6 million in insurance.

Historic Preservation Commissioner Larry Quirk asked why the real estate firm was hired when the demolition firm could have been hired just as easily.

Real estate company owner John Campbell said, "I'd like to get in on the action if all you require is a real estate license."

Late Monday afternoon before the 6 p.m. meeting, Mapp emailed 17 pages of background information on the demolition to bloggers and others with this statement:

"The emergency demolition of the structure on North Avenue, over the weekend, has raised a number of questions, spawned speculations, and innuendos. Since my administration prides itself on transparency, I am releasing the attached documents prior to tonight's special council meeting. You are free to publish them in any medium of your choosing. I remain committed to leading an administration that will be professional in all of its dealings; an administration that will lay bare all of its financial dealings to the public at large, but more specifically to the people of Plainfield."

But Rivers and other council members claimed they were left in the dark. Councilwoman Vera Greaves called it "outrageous" that the council was not informed and said it seemed the administration was trying to run the city without the governing body.

"I just feel it was a sudden decision that was made," Councilwoman Diane Toliver said.

The ever-suspicious Councilwoman Gloria Taylor said, "I'm not sure who's telling what," and later added, "I smell a rat."

The documents sent by Mapp revealed a timeline that began with a Jan. 6 finding by the city's Division of Inspections that the three-story, fire-damaged building was unsafe and an imminent hazard. It said attempts were made to reach the owner. On Feb. 2, a structural engineer from Remington & Vernick determined that the building was "in imminent danger of collapse." 

Another document said the city had sent owner Dexter Humphrey a notice of imminent hazard in January, with an order to demolish the building by Jan. 13 or face penalties of up to $2,000 per week per violation. Public Works Director Eric Watson said Humphrey first agreed to demolish the building, then changed his mind a week later. The city then solicited bids from six demolition contractors, but only two responded.and the lowest bid, for $214,000, was accepted. B&B Demolition Company, a sub-contractor for Yates Real Estate, Inc. the company up for council approval Monday, demolished the building on Saturday.

The packet included a report on the "accident" in which part of the three-story building fell onto the adjacent restaurant at 131 North Avenue.

The city received clearance on Friday from the DEP's Historic Preservation Office to demolish the three-story 19th Century building with the proviso that care be taken not to damage surrounding buildings, and that the Plainfield Historic Preservation Commission shall have the opportunity to review any new proposed design on the lot.

The $214,500 demolition cost was also supposed to cover back-filling the lot and bringing it to grade, though the bid from Yates Real Estate said any unforeseen remediation could cause additional costs.

A detailed report from Remington & Vernick said in January 2012 an engineer for the property owner found there was no danger of imminent collapse. Using photos, Remington & Vernick claimed to show deterioration over three years since the fire due to wind, rain and snow, and deemed the entire building in need of demolition. (Note: The Remington & Vernick January 2012 photo showing the side wall largely intact must have been just before a Plaintalker post on Jan. 20, 2012 that shows a partial demolition taking place and only the "Bull" portion of the Bull Durham wall sign remaining. This appears to refute the claim that the damage took place over the ensuing three years.)

Rivers wanted the council to vote Monday on hiring outside counsel for an investigation, instead of relying on Corporation Counsel Vernita Sias-Hill's word on the matter. But City Clerk Abubakar Jalloh said only items on the special meeting notice could be acted upon. The council's next agenda-fixing session is 7:30 p.m. April 6 and the regular meeting is 8 p.m. April 13, both in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.


Sunday, March 22, 2015

Businesses Shuttered by Demolition

Businesses including two popular Latino restaurants are closed after debris from a demolition project destroyed one of them.
No one was injured in the incident Saturday when workers were performing an emergency demolition at 117-125 North Avenue.
This is another section of the Mi Buenaventura restaurant..
 "Notice to vacate" signs were placed on the doors of all the businesses in the one-story building. For the restaurant, the "Sorry We're Closed" seems like a sad understatement.

This image shows the same restaurant next to the building after the suspicious December 2011 fire that caused the block to be closed for weeks.
A barbershop is also affected again.
This sign is on another restaurant in the building.
The remains of the building at 117-125 North Avenue are fenced off.
The demolition Saturday appeared to have been done by B&B Disposal & Demolition of Newark. This logo is on a container of metal scrap from the demolition, including the fire escape and metal beams.

A special City Council meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday in City Hall Library. Three resolutions are on the agenda, one authorizing an "emergency demolition," another establishing an appropriation of $250,000 to pay for it and a third awarding an emergency contract to Yates Real Estate Inc. to do the demolition at 117-125 North Avenue.

The other building, 127-135 North Ave., is the subject of a Planning Board application set to be heard on April 2. The application extends to the East Second Street side of the block, where the owner proposes to create five apartments and first-floor commercial space. The rear lot of the North Avenue building would be used for parking and a trash bin. It is unclear how the incident that caused closure of the North Avenue businesses will affect the owner's plans.


Saturday, March 21, 2015

North Avenue Building Down, More Info Needed

By Saturday afternoon, the fire-damaged building at 117-125 North Avenue was just a pile of rubble. Official details about the demolition were not available to this writer Saturday. (Click images to enlarge.)
On Friday, notice was given of a special council meeting Monday with three resolutions on the agenda, one authorizing an "emergency demolition," another establishing an appropriation of $250,000 to pay for it and a third awarding an emergency contract to Yates Real Estate Inc. to do the demolition.
The meeting is 6 p.m. in City Hall Library. Perhaps some explanations will be made regarding Saturday's action, including the sequence of events that resulted in damage to the restaurant to the right of the demolition site.
Workers from B&B Disposal and Demolition were on the scene.
A problem apparently developed with the large machine (excavator with grapple?) that was demolishing the building.
I don't know the terminology, but one of the treads malfunctioned.
A worker used tools to try to fix it.
The operator tried to use the big claw to fix the tread.
A small machine that was moving debris was also used to adjust the tread.
I had to leave due to the cold, damp weather and did not see the end of this story.

I was told the site would be secured by a fence and police would patrol it, but I was not able to return to verify that.

I retired in 2003 as a reporter and no longer have the standing to pester officials for information. I found out Saturday that my endurance for adverse conditions is also not what it used to be, so I had to walk home and call it a day. Maybe we all will learn more on Monday.


Demolition Underway on North Avenue

An historic building on North Avenue is being demolished today, more than three years after it was damaged in a fire that resulted in the block being closed for weeks. A special City Council meeting on Monday to authorize an emergency demolition was announced Friday.
A restaurant owner on the block said debris fell on another restaurant, at the right of the damaged building. The buckled front window can be seen above. The demolition may have to extend to the entire row of businesses in the one-story building, a fire official said. (Click to enlarge images.)
A worker uses a blowtorch to take apart a steel girder. The portion of North Avenue between Gavett Place and Park Avenue is closed to traffic due to the demolition.
Plaintalker will be posting more images later. Read more about the building's history here.


Friday, March 20, 2015

East Third/Richmond Hearing Moved to April

Former Cozzoli Machine Company building
A proposal for development on the former Cozzoli Machine Company site contained so many changes Thursday that the Planning Board decided to start fresh with a new hearing in April.

Attorney Elnardo Webster II began his presentation on the Crown Real Estate Holdings proposal with a litany of changes: 150 units, not 153 as stated on the agenda; 104, not 110 one-bedroom units and 46, not 43 two-bedroom units; 113, not 110 parking spaces in the basement with more at ground level.

Webster downplayed the changes, but later the board got into a discussion of how many stories were actually proposed if the basement garage and a rooftop community space were counted. When architect Noel Musial mentioned the rooftop element, Planner William Nierstedt said, "Wait a second." Addressing Webster, he said, "If that's  correct, it raises a huge question."

Webster said the fifth floor was on the plan that was reviewed, but board Chairman Ron Scott Bey said, "You didn't ask for a five-story building."

In the end, board attorney Michele Donato concluded that the proposal had changed so much that the applicant had to start all over, with a hearing on April 16.

Before the decision to start over, Musial had provided numerous details of the proposal, such as the site being 1,620 feet from the main train station, its proximity to the Plainfield campus of Union County College, the addition of 50 storage units, a community space on the third floor, a laundry room with 20 washers and dryers, a rental range of $900 to $950 for one-bedroom units and $1,200 to $1,250 for two-bedroom units and outdoor decks on the fourth floor.

Two other expert witnesses did not get a chance to testify.

The East Third/Richmond redevelopment tract had previously included many more parcels. In 2006, Plainfield Plaintalker had numerous posts about a prior redevelopment plan by George Capodagli. The plan was fast-tracked early on, but the developer's designation expired in 2007 and in 2008 Capodagli was excused. The Thul family, which had a business in the area since 1919, objected to the plan and later closed all operations. Union County College recently acquired one of the Thul buildings.

The next Planning Board meeting is 7:30 p.m. on April 2 in City Hall Library. Applications scheduled to be heard include one for a vacant three-story office building at the southwest corner of Park & Seventh to be converted to 14 apartments above 6,693 square feet of commercial space on the first floor.


Special Meeting Called for Demolition

City Clerk AJ Jalloh sent out notice today of a special meeting called by Mayor Adrian O. Mapp for 6 p.m. Monday in City Hall Library. Three resolutions are on the agenda, one authorizing an "emergency demolition," another establishing an appropriation of $250,000 to pay for it and a third awarding an emergency contract to Yates Real Estate Inc. to do the demolition at 117-125 North Avenue..

I recently wrote about the building in question, noting the fire that damaged the building occurred on Dec. 17, 2011 and including links to prior stories about the aftermath. I asked, "What will it take to resolve this situation?" and now we see what is proposed.

People are already questioning  the urgency of the proposed action after all this time, the suitability of the contractor and the cost. Between now and Monday, one can bet that the Plainfield grapevine will be in full effect regarding this matter.


Happy Spring!

Happy Vernal Equinox!

This is also the time of the Persian New Year, Nowruz, which goes back centuries before the current political situation.

President Obama marked the occasion with greetings to all who celebrate Nowruz and also to voice hope for resolution of the issues. See his message here.

Winds of Change at PMUA

This week's strong March winds may well have been the winds of change at the authority that provides solid waste and sewer services to Plainfield.
Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority commissioners Thursday again put off the hiring of several professional service providers and Chairman Charles Tyndale announced a search for the positions of executive director and chief financial officer.

The professional roster, including legal counsel and engineering firms, was up for approval at the authority's annual reorganization in February, but the resolutions were tabled. The firm of McManimon & Scotland has served the authority since its inception. There have also been only been two executive directors, Eric Watson and Dan Williamson, and two chief financial officers, James Perry and Duane Young, in the authority's 20-year history. Young also served briefly as interim executive director.

Williamson's three-year contract expires in June.

The air of change began with approval last year of Mayor Adrian O. Mapp's nominee Charles Tyndale to replace holdover Commissioner Alex Toliver on the eve of the 2014 PMUA reorganization. This year, at a special meeting on Jan. 26, Mapp nominees Henry Robinson and Michelle Graham-Lyons won council approval to replace holdovers Cecil Sanders and Malcolm Dunn, respectively. Tyndale became chairman at this year's reorganization.

Toliver, Sanders and Dunn gave the three votes necessary to approve a controversial settlement with Watson and his second-in-command, David Ervin, in 2012.

The new commissioners had many questions for Williamson and the PMUA staff Thursday regarding personnel issues, purchases and operating policies. The board agreed to authorize purchase of new equipment to handle increased volume at the Rock Avenue transfer station, which is now receiving bulky waste and vegetative waste from several other municipalities in a bid to increase revenues.

The board also approved a contract for recycling services with Waste Management, which will pay $5 per ton. The authority formerly was receiving $40 per ton, but when the market for recyclables changed, the authority first had to pay $5 per ton for removal of recyclables and later paid $10 per ton..

A proposal to pay $60,000 for an agreement to provide printers and related equipment prompted Tyndale to remark that "because of the flux" the board should hold off on purchases and hiring.

The commissioners may have to hold a special meeting in April to deal with the delayed contracts or may reschedule its regular monthly meeting in order to combine it with a special meeting.


Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Expungement Workshop Saturday

The New Jersey Institute of Social Justice 
will present a 
Expungement Workshop 
from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
on Saturday, March 21
First Unitarian Society of Plainfield
Parish Hall
721 Park Ave., Plainfield

This informational workshop will help individuals learn how to have their criminal records expunged. Workshop will cover eligibility, the process and requirements for expungement of records for adults and juveniles.

Seating is limited - call ahead to reserve a place.
(908) 756-0750

Charter School Costs Now 10 Percent of Budget

The expected closing of Central Jersey Arts School brings up some general thoughts on charter school costs.

Since the 2008-09 school year, the allocation for charter schools nearly doubled and is almost the amount of the entire local school tax levy that was in effect from 1992 to 2007. In 2008-09, it was $8,238,249 and for 2014-15, it had grown to $17,237,842, or 10 percent of the budget. Until state-mandated increases in the amount of the local tax levy, it had been unchanged at $17,683,906 for fifteen years. As of this school year's budget presentation, the local portion of the total school budget is $31,114,411, or 17 percent, and the state still contributes the greatest amount, $143,779,771, or 80 percent.

The city only has four charter schools, but the 2014-15 budget indicates attendance at nine charter schools with transportation provided for 353 students.

With the change to November school elections, the public no longer votes on the budget, but may comment at a public hearing. According to the agenda for the March 17 business meeting, the tentative budget for 2015-16 totals $188,240,923, including $23,958,938 to be raised in local taxes. The date for the public hearing is May 5.

The budget is still passed in the spring for the coming school year, though new board members now come on as of Jan. 1, in the middle of the school year.

I regret very much that I am unable to cover school board meetings in addition to municipal government and land use board meetings. The initial blog, Plainfield Plaintalker, includes many posts on school matters, but the successor, Plaintalker II, does not. A 2013 post on the school budget may have been the last, and it included a plea, still unanswered, for someone to take up school board coverage.


Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Planners to Hear 153-Unit Proposal Thursday

We may be entering a slow news time. It's three weeks to the next City Council meeting (April 6, 7:30 p.m., 325 Watchung Ave.) I'm sure I am not the only one who wants to forget about news and just go work in the yard or garden.

There are two meetings this week, though they overlap. As luck would have it, the March PMUA meeting was postponed due to inclement weather and will now take place at 6 p.m. Thursday. Also on Thursday, at 7:30 p.m. in City Hall Library, there will be a Planning Board hearing on the Crown Real Estate Holdings application to construct a four-story apartment building with 153 residential units and 155 parking spaces, 110 of which are proposed for underground parking. A legal notice for the meeting says the developer is seeking a variance for insufficient parking spaces, as 306 spaces are required.

The developer also wants approval for some undersized units. A one-bedroom unit requires 750 square feet and some 700 square foot units are proposed. Similarly, 1000 square feet is required for a two-bedroom unit and some range between 917 and 980 square feet.

The property is in the East Third and Richmond Redevelopment Area, where developer George Capodagli had proposed an even larger development in 2006. It was rushed through several steps, then nothing happened for a while and in 2008 Capodagli was excused.

Plans may be seen in the Planning Office during regular business hours and the public will have an opportunity to speak on the application at Thursday's meeting.

If anyone wants to go to the PMUA meeting at 6 p.m. Thursday, here is the agenda.


Monday, March 16, 2015

Apartment Boom Raises Questions

Resident Tom Kaercher asked a number of questions in a comment on the new development maps.

I do not have the expertise to answer them all comprehensively, but I will give my perspective and I welcome further comments and responses from readers.
Note: In his March 13 newsletter, Mayor Adrian O. Mapp credited Assistant Zoning Officer Ron Johnson with creation of these maps. If you have not yet asked to be on the newsletter list, call the mayor's office at (908) 753-3310 and submit your email address. 

It seems as though all the new development is in new apartments, all which will contribute Plainfield's already overburdened infrastructure (schools, roads, etc.)

Yes, nearly all the proposed development currently is for residential units. Ironically, that was the trend suggested in a 2012 report on best uses for the Muhlenberg campus, which residents roundly condemned. By contrast, a decade or so ago a strategic plan for the city called for a 10 percent reduction in tenants, who comprised about half of Plainfield households, based on a notion that tenants are less desirable than homeowners. Now apartments, especially along the Raritan Valley Line, are deemed the key to revitalization.

Hearings on development applications often include projections of the impact on infrastructure, but the fact that cities already have sewer systems and streets is considered favorable in contrast to development where infrastructure must be created. On the other hand, the sewer system is more than a century old and many roads here were built in an age when the "horseless carriage" was just coming into use.

The PMUA just increased its sewer connection fee per unit, so there should be some offset for repairs and upkeep of the sewer system. The real dilemma may be providing parking for tenants. A downtown parking garage has been proposed, but it is unclear who will pay for it.

 Are there any new industrial developments underway that would bring permanent jobs to the City instead of just transitory construction jobs?

I do not recall any major industrial development coming in. I think one premise of transit-oriented development is that residents can more easily commute to jobs throughout the area. It appears that the city will continue to rely largely on housing stock for tax revenues. A lot of new city residents take public transportation or vans to nearby industrial jobs.

What, if anything, has been said about how the influx of all the new apartments will impact the tax base?

So far most of the apartments (Park Avenue, East Fourth Street) have been created in existing buildings. I don't know whether changing from commercial to residential use affects the tax rate. Replacing older or smaller buildings with new construction (East Second Street, South Avenue) should bring in more taxes. That is probably something for the Finance Director to discuss, especially if developers are seeking tax breaks.

 Is there sufficient demand for apartments in the city or are they destined to become more low income housing once the developers make their profit from constructing them?

I think only time will tell on that one. My concern is that once these apartments are developed, there must be landlords or managers to operate and maintain them. Bad management will drive market-rate renters elsewhere.  It is too early to say how it will play out, as only a few dozen new apartments have been occupied so far. One hopes some lessons were learned from the Connolly story, where one company acquired most of the multifamily buildings and then failed. Just as block associations look out for neighborhood concerns, there may need to be tenant organizations to uphold renters' rights, or perhaps some advocacy from City Hall. 


Sunday, March 15, 2015

Commentary on DPW&UD Audit

A headline last week on nj.com links former Public Works & Urban Development Director Eric Jackson to a proposed audit of the department, making insinuations about his leadership.

As someone who has seen directors of city departments come and go, let me say Eric Jackson did his best to increase professionalism in that department, but there were a couple of divisions where individuals did their own thing, perhaps due to a notion that they enjoyed special protection and backing from certain elected officials.

While it is true that a director is responsible for results, a couple of Jackson's subordinates consistently stonewalled requests from the governing body for fiscal information on events or programs. Before Jackson arrived in September 2011, there was also a span of five months without any director overseeing division heads in the department. Perhaps this is when some developed a laissez-faire attitude toward accountability.

Jackson's demeanor impressed many residents. Although it was likely he would be making a run for mayor in Trenton, many were glad to see him stay on as department head when the administration changed in January 2014. His most visible legacy is the physical restoration of City Hall and its grounds to a place of dignity befitting the Queen City.

It is unfortunate that the news article assigns blame at the very inception of an inquiry into fiscal practices in a city department. A director can hold up a standard, but cannot always overcome intractable habits and behavior of employees. Only the outcome of the audit will tell the facts and for that we shall have to wait.


Saturday, March 14, 2015

New Maps Highlight Development

Deputy City Administrator Carlos Sanchez announced a new resource Monday for tracking city development: Four maps detailing projects in stages ranging from conceptual to complete.

One features projects in the North Avenue Historic District, which includes the main train station. Perhaps the most ambitious is a paired set flanking Gavett Place off East Second Street, the rehabilitation of the former Mirons warehouse for 12 apartments and new construction replacing the Romonds Garage with 20 apartments.

The Transit-Oriented Development Netherwood map shows one 25-unit completed project and several others that could yield as many as 300 more apartments near the Netherwood train station.

Downtown development abounds, with five projects completed and many more in the pipeline. Developer Frank Cretella has converted some office buildings to residential use and has extensive proposals for other projects. NJ Transit's promise of a one-seat ride to New York City is sparking interest in development around the main train station.

comprehensive map shows all development on the books as of March 2015.

These maps represent a valuable reference for anyone who wants to share Plainfield's new chapter of economic development, be they Realtors or just proud residents of the Queen City.

Sanchez is in charge of economic development. The Mapp administration restored the cabinet-level title of deputy city administrator for economic development after it was vacant for eight years, during which time a division head within the Department of Public Works & Urban Development was tasked with the responsibility for economic development. The city's current web site does not have a link for deputy city administrator, but Sanchez can be reached here until the web site is updated.


Limited Audit Cost Set at $25,000

Thanks to the person who pointed me to the resolution that came out of the closed session Monday. The City Council emerged from the executive session to vote on that item only before moving along to the regular  meeting scheduled for March 9. Somehow I missed seeing the resolution that gave details on the audit for the Department of Public Works & Urban Development.

Baker Tilly, the same firm that did the limited audit ordered by the administration at $17,500, will do the DPW&UD audit at a cost not to exceed $25,000. The resolution states that the limited audit "identified a need to further review operations" within that department, which has divisions including Recreation, Inspections, Engineering, Building, Economic Development, Community Development, Planning and the City Yard.

The cost will come out of the "adopted 2015 budget." The city is currently operating on temporary appropriations. The budget process, including council review of departmental and division requests, is scheduled to begin next month.

Given the span of divisions within the DPW&UD, one can only guess which engendered the need for closer fiscal scrutiny. The public will just have to wait for the outcome. Meanwhile, the possible tab so far for the two inquiries totals $42,500, more than two-thirds of the initial request for a full forensic audit that the council rejected in December.


Friday, March 13, 2015

Sights on a Stroll

Wednesday's weather gave relief to those afflicted with cabin fever. Even a short walk revealed items of interest.
After finding the sidewalk blocked under the railroad bridge on Watchung Avenue, I came upon workers getting ready for the bridge replacement. The trees were removed last fall. I hope I can get some photos when they actually move the new bridge in.
 This crew looks seriously ready for business. I'm told the replacement will only take one day after all the preparation is done.
The steel is rising on the former Romond's Garage site. Plans call for 20 apartments here.
Parking Lot 6 is full of potholes, but will it get repaved or will the long-awaited parking garage be built first?
Not sure why all this debris is on the Gavett Place sidewalk, but it looks like time for a bulky waste pickup.
PMUA still has a big job to do, convincing residents to sort their recyclables and not put trash in the same bin.
Public Works had just pulled away on East Sixth Street after filling these potholes. A new road repair plan is coming, officials say.

I had forgotten all about the proverbial March winds until they began howling Wednesday night and kept up all day Thursday. Can't we just skip to the May flowers somehow?