Bettering Plainfield with the facts since 2005

Monday, September 8, 2008

Plainfield buying Armory? A little background and a modest proposal.

Plainfielders may well remember that the Seniors nearly ran Assemblyman Jerry Green out of town on a rail when he proposed the Armory on East Seventh Street as the site for a new Senior Center.

Today comes a front-page story in the Courier that the city may be on the verge of acquiring the Armory, thanks to the good offices of the Assemblyman (read the story here).

Assemblyman Green is surely right about one thing: No buyer should overpay for the building. That is especially true in today's real estate market, and I certainly hope that professional appraisals have been made of the property's current market value.

The Assemblyman's heartfelt concern for the fate of the NJ Youth Corps program currently renting the space is touching, but there is more to the tale than has been spoon-fed to the media.

The issue of the state selling the Armory was brought up by Assemblyman Green in the politically heated 2005 Democratic primary, in which Green advanced the candidacy of Sharon Robinson-Briggs.

Assemblyman Green attempted to create a furor by asserting that Mayor McWilliams had not responded to an April letter from the state and that THAT was why the state was putting the property on the market.

McWilliams promptly wrote the state, asserting the city's interest in the property -- and formed a task force charged with looking into possible uses and issues with the building. That task force met on July 6, 2005. The state never replied to Mayor McWilliams' letter of interest, and the task force eventually disbanded. I am not aware of a formal report from the task force (and would have been, since it would have been my job to get the word to the media).

There were -- and still are -- several issues with an Armory purchase, purchase price being only one of them.

I recall a conversation with Mayor McWilliams, in his office, where he held that the building was so fraught with issues that the state should offer it to the city for a nominal sum of $1. (The thought was inspired by a deal where New York sold a 160,000 square foot armory building in Albany to the Albany Patroons, a minor league basketall team for $100,000. Read more about that deal here and here.)

Though imposing, the Plainfield Armory is not ADA-compliant, and an immediate expense would be the installation of ramping and elevators. Additionally, if it were to be used in such a way as to fall under the state's school building laws, there would be the issue of sprinklering the entire building --- another enormous expense.

Then there is the matter of air conditioning. At the time the state put it on the market there was no central air (and I suspect there still is not), meaning the building, whose roof lets the summer heat penetrate to the main drill floor, would face the expense of insulating the interior face of the roof, which might necessitate a new roof AND the installation of an expensive modern HVAC system.

Having been to both a WWII-themed Historical Society formal dance there in the summer (sweltering is too kind a word) and holiday boutiques in the winter, I can personally attest the building is weather-challenged.

All of that aside, the ground floor was a rabbit warren of little rooms, there were outdated toilet facilities (none at all on the main floor), and onsite parking was deemed inadequate for any expanded constituency such as senior citizens, etc.

It is hardly surprising, then, in view of all the above, that the Armory has remained unsold in spite of the State's intense marketing efforts. (Not to mention that the State asserted -- see the old newspaper stories -- that the building could NOT be demolished, a fact which alone would deter many interested parties.)

One feels for the difficulties of the excellent NJ Youth Corps program run by Jeanne Shanker and her dedicated colleagues. Living on a month-to-month lease can be fraying to the nerves, but I strongly suspect that the program is in no immediate danger of losing its premises.

Assemblyman Green's focus on the purchase costs leaves needed expensive renovations completely out of the picture, and these could be a deal-killer.

Perhaps, before dumping the Armory on Plainfield's taxpayers, the Assemblyman can convene a task force to look into the true costs of buying AND operating the facility.

One possibility that should certainly be considered is having the Union County Improvement Authority purchase, operate and maintain the building in its role as developer-of-last-resort.

Such a task force, assembled by the Assemblyman, could also make proposals to ensure the NJ Youth Corps program is safe.

Without the City buying the Armory.

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Anonymous said...

If the City of Plainfield does indeed acquire the Armory property and they plan to develop or change the current use of the building, we would hope that the city would include us, the community, (as mentioned in Councilmen Burney's blog), in these decisions.

The possibility of this acquisition further validates our demands on the city that they come up with a comprehensive rezoning plan of the entire Plainwood/South Ave area. This should included the Netherwood Train Station.

Netherwood Heights Neighbors Association