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Thursday, December 2, 2010

Plainfield Sears project will bring new life to Downtown West

The proposal is for mixed-use development at West Front and Grove Streets.

A proposal to develop the old Plainfield Sears store into mixed use retail, apartments professional offices advanced with the Zoning Board of Adjustment's blessing last night -- with conditions, of course.

With a new addition on the currently vacant lot next to the building at the corner of West Front and  Grove Streets, the newly configured complex will house three retail spaces facing West Front Street, four professional office spaces facing Grove Street and a total of eight spacious apartments on the upper floors of the two buildings.

Coming back to the board with substantial changes to the design of the project, Front Street Realty LLC, the developer was able to make several improvements that at the same time eliminated variances previously requested, not the least significant of which were reconfiguring parking to avoid a side yard variance and widening the driveway to avoid another variance request.

Board chairperson Scott Belin seemed puzzled at the planning expert's insistence that the 1,200 square foot 'units' were small. When Belin asked if the square footage wasn't really rather large for 'an apartment', he got pushback that on the contrary they were small for 'units'.

Eventually, this semantic quibble kind of petered out, with Belin (and myself -- having once lived in a 700 square foot Brooklyn apartment) holding out for his interpretation that the spaces were really quite large, considering.

The project, coming as it does while the City Council has begun but not yet completed an ordinance rezoning the area from R-5 (one- and two-family residences) to MU (mixed use retail and residential), put the proceedings into a kind of Catch-22 scenario.

For instance, the project simply wouldn't qualify in an R-5 zone, so everyone is proceeding on the basis of the zoning change. Right. Then talk turns to storefront signage, for which the current R-5 has no regulation. But the expected new MU does. However, we are not there yet. Well, we will be, so let's talk about it. The developer wants to put the signage in line with a horizontal band across the new construction above the first floor shop windows that will match up with an existing band across the front of the former Sears store. But it will be higher than the regulations under the MU zoning change will allow. Variance needed? Hmmm.

Aside from this minor hiccup, everything proceeded smoothly despite the zoning gear shift under way.


Parking is a complex, multi-faceted issue -- both for this project and others being considered in the vicinity of the city's Lot 9.

According to Planning Director Bill Nierstedt last night, 42 parking spaces are needed for the project.

Nine on-site spaces for tenants of the apartment units are provided for in the plans.

The discussion then shifted to the city-owned Lot 9 cater-cornered from the Sears building.

Talk was of ten permit spaces being 'bought' for the needs of the retail shops' employees.

And the remainder was discussed as being metered spaces for use of the customers and clients of the retail shops and the professional offices.

All this seemed a little vague to me, and I think there needs to be some concentrated study on the matter of parking -- especially given interest in the general area.

Here are some caveats --

  • On-street parking --
      • Someone needs to come downtown during business hours and see what the REAL conditions are;
      • Front Street spaces are taken up all day long;
      • No parking is allowed on the West side of Grove Street along the building

  • Lot 9 parking
      • Meters: The only metered spaces I am aware of are in the portion of the lot outside the Pueblo Viejo bar;
      • Permit parking: signage in Lot 9 is a little vague, to say the least;
      • Stores facing Front Street regularly use the space immediately behind their premises and loading zones and for employee parking;
      • A church near the 2nd Street end of the lot uses quite a few spaces several nights per week as well as on weekends;
      • Residents in area apartments use the lot overnight for parking their vehicles;
      • Weekend nights, crowds from Pueblo Viejo and El Palacio pack the lot to its limit, as DPW superintendent John Louise testified in the recent budget hearings.
Then there is the matter of the CONDITION of the lot itself. The city should be embarrassed to even think of charging permit fees for parking there, considering the general condition after a long period of neglect (decades?).

There are potholes; the portion of the lot alongside Pueblo Viejo is so rutted one's fillings can be jarred loose driving through it. In addition, it floods during heavy rains owing to faulty stormwater drainage provisions.

Successfully implementing any arrangement agreed upon with this developer (or others) should require the City to come up with a plan for improving the condition, marking, signage and meters for the entirety of Lot 9. As well as provision to enforce regulations on the newly monitored uses.

Given the interest expressed in the area by others -- a church at West 2nd and Central and a proposal for condos between Madison Avenue and the rear of Lot 9 -- the Robinson-Briggs administration would be well-advised to keep tabs on what is being offered/allowed for new area uses and what the City needs to do to meet some level of decent provision of parking that would justify demanding permit fees or meter coins.

Lastly, my only gridge -- and it has to do with the way the developer's team talked about building rather than the project itself.

All night, the board and the public had to hear talk of 'this light industrial building' and how it's (now-abandoned) current use as a 'light industrial building' did not fit the character of the neighborhood, etc., etc.

I got a headache.

When the public was allowed to comment, I offered that in fact the 'light industrial' use was an aberration in the scheme of things and that the building was originally designed and built as Sears, Roebuck & Co.'s Plainfield retail store, a use to which the building was put for decades before Sears built its spanking new monster store on Route 22 in Watchung some 50-or-so years ago. (In fact, a 'ghost' image of a 1930s advertising sign saying 'Sears, Roebuck & Co., Retail Store' can still be seen from Front Street on the building's west-facing wall.)

The Sears store was built on the site of First Baptist Church after it burned down.

(The Sears retail store itself was built on the premises of the First Baptist Church, which moved after burning down and merged with the former Park Avenue Baptist Church which had been at the corner of Park and Prospect Avenues to form the current First-Park Baptist Church at West 7th and Central Avenue.)

My PR bones were crying out that a far better tale to tell than REPURPOSING a 'light industrial' building was the one of RESTORING a Plainfield landmark to an earlier and prouder use, more becoming to the needs of today's Downtown West's burgeoning retail activity.

After I vented, board member Liz Urquhart said she had brought the Sears connection up at an earlier meeting, and chairperson Belin recalled being taken to the store as a youngster.

After board members each offered their opinions on the project, a unanimous vote was given to move it forward.

In times as economically perilous as these, I am cheered by an investor coming forward with a relatively modest project which he is prepared to undertake immediately and which will definitely architecturally enhance the neighborhood, add value to its retail experience (the anchor tenant will be a pharmacy), and bring more people into the Downtown West shopping area.

Sounds like a win-win to me.

On to the ground-breaking!

-- Dan Damon [follow]

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Anonymous said...

Dan, Thanks for the old picture of the church. Wish Plainfield still looked like the streetscape in that photo. Also, the history of the First-Park Baptist Church was informative, as my grand-parents were members.

What is of special note about the project is that the developer did not ask for a PILOT subsidy which robs our school district of revenue. Can't understand why a different downtown developer needed, let alone was given, a 50 year tax abatement (50 years!)which I estimate as being worth over $30 million for a project that will probably not even cost $30 million. On that PILOT project the city council has sacrificed a brand new school building. Kudos to this project.