The needler in the haystack.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Heathenish Plainfield Dems?




Maundy Thursday commemorates the institution of the Eucharist or Lord's Supper.


Is Plainfield's Democratic City Committee a bunch of heathens?

Assemblyman Jerry Green, the city committee's chair has put the committee in something of a pickle by scheduling a committee meeting for 7:00 PM on Thursday evening, to discuss candidates for the June primary.

That would be Maundy Thursday, the day that the world's Christians following the Gregorian calendar mark as commemorating the institution of the Eucharist, or Lord's Supper. (The word Maundy is a corruption of 'mandatum', from the Latin Vulgate translation of Jesus' words: 'A new commandment [mandatum] I give you, that you love one another as I have loved you'.)

In many parishes, the clergy and leaders of the congregation participate in washing each other's feet on this solemn evening, recalling Jesus' washing of the feet of the disciples as recounted in John 13:1-17, particularly --
12: So after he had washed their feet, and had taken his garments, and was set down again, he said unto them, Know ye what I have done to you?
13: Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am.
14: If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another's feet.
15: For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you.
16: Verily, verily, I say unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord; neither he that is sent greater than he that sent him.
17: If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them.
As a sign of humility, the Pope traditionally washed the feet of 12 poor persons from the streets of Rome at the Maundy Thursday mass in St. Peter's, a custom observed by other great and powerful people at various times, including the kings and queens of England, who did so up to the death of James II in 1701.

In Plainfield, many will be observing this Holy Thursday at the time of the Democratic City Committee meeting, forcing a choice on those who are observant.

Is it a choice between God and Mammon?




Many also observe Holy Thursday by washing the feet of others
as a sign of humility.


-- Dan Damon [follow]

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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Should Charlotte worry? Charlotte should worry.




Union County Dem chair Charlotte DeFilippo.


Should Union County Dem chair Charlotte DeFilippo be worried as the primary election draws near?

Plainfield was well-represented at a gathering of progressive-minded Union County Democrats in Elizabeth last night, and the consensus there was that Charlotte should be worried.

Agreeing that the Union County machine has over the years consistently pushed talented younger good-government Democrats to the fringes (or beyond) in favor of lackluster hacks, the sixty or so in attendance reviewed plans for a 'Democrats for Change' slate for this year's June primary.

Representing the heavily-Democratic towns of Elizabeth, Plainfield, Roselle, Linden, Hillside and Union, the group discussed a slate that would be topped by challengers to County Clerk Joanne Rajoppi and Union County Sheriff Ralph Froehlich, extending down through Freeholders all the way to Council races in the various towns (Hillside is the only town without a local race this year).

Noting the good showing against the DeFilippo-Lesniak machine last year, reports from the grassroots indicate voters are even more disenchanted with Union County's go-along, get-along Democratic politics.

A couple of surprises came out during the meeting:
  1. Rahway mayor James Kennedy was reported not to be seeking a sixth term, meaning Rahway voters would be looking at electing their first new mayor since 1990, and

  2. 'Bo' Vastine, the Republican Assembly candidate who ran against Jerry Green in last year's race is said to be keen on moving back to Plainfield, which would put him once again in Jerry's face. Vastine and his running mate, Marty Marks, came within 1,800 votes of unseating long-term Dem Assembly fixtures Green and Linda Stender.
There are unconfirmed reports that cases of Pepto-Bismol were seen being delivered to 65 King Street.



-- Dan Damon [follow]

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Monday, March 29, 2010

Weekend homicide at Plainfield's BUF raises troubling questions




Plainfield's BUF is a popular rental space for events.


Hours before Plainfield Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs was to be fêted at a brunch on the same premises, a guest at an event at the BUF/HHS complex on Saturday evening died from stab wounds received in a fight. A second victim was taken to RWJ hospital, where he was listed in critical condition Sunday.

I posted a 'BREAKING' brief on CLIPS about 1:00 PM Sunday, and the Ledger (here) and Courier (here) posted online stories later in the day.

Turns out there was more going on overnight Saturday: a reader who listens to the police scanner reports there was also a brawl at the Heard One complex on Church Street at about 2:00 AM, as well as at other locations, and that North Plainfield and South Plainfield police had to assist as Plainfield police were overwhelmed with the rash of incidents.

I also have been told that an off-duty Plainfield police officer attending the event at BUF was sucker-punched in a SEPARATE incident at BUF that evening, resulting in a serious eye injury (don't know if this is the 'unidentified person' in the Ledger/Courier stories).

With many questions and few answers, issues began to mount --
  • What was the nature of the event at BUF? A private party? Or an event to which tickets were sold?

  • Was booze being served at the BUF event? If so, was a liquor permit for the event issued by the city?

  • Had the sponsor of the event obtained an event permit from the City? Had BUF required proof of a bona fide permit?

  • If booze was being served, why were no off-duty police hired to provide security for the event?

  • If, as I am told, several fights had broken out at the BUF event, why was the party not shut down or police not summoned before the fatal stabbing?
Coming less than a year after an incident at the YWCA where a 'Sweet Sixteen' party got out of control, resulting in a melée involving hundreds in which a police officer was injured (see here; and here), this weekend's homicide should prompt a look at problems with these large-scale events.

In the YWCA incident, off-duty police were being used for security, but the number of youths inside and outside the building were more than could be controlled when a fight broke out, resulting in the
melée.

At the time, Public Safety Director Martin Hellwig admitted the police 'dropped the ball to an extent' when assigning off-duty officers to the party. It turned out that no permit for the party had been issued by City Hall.

And there's the rub.

The YWCA appears to have taken the word of the organizer that a permit had been issued, when in fact none was. If it turns out there was no permit for Saturday's event at BUF, the question becomes why not? And why would BUF permit use of the premises without one?

Perhaps it is time for the Council to look into whether venue owners and operators should responsible for keeping records of their event rentals, with copies of city-issued permits to be kept on file. Such owners/operators could then be held liable if trouble ensues, perhaps facing substantial fines (say $1,000) for failure to comply, or even suspension of their ability to rent the premises.

It could be a life-saving change in the way these events are handled.

And who couldn't be for that, after this past weekend's tragedy?



-- Dan Damon [follow]

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Sunday, March 28, 2010

VISIONING PLAINFIELD: A landscape of hope and glory




Residents helped plan a future around Plainfield's rail line.


Plainfielders took a big step toward taking their future into their own hands at the Visioning Plainfield Charrette Saturday.

It was a perfect day: sunny and bright, with bracing air and a cerulean sky, a heavenly California-type day that puts spring in your step. And a vision of a landscape of hope and glory (once again) for Plainfield in your imagination. (See my slideshow of the event at the end of this post.)

The crowd of seventy or so, mostly Plainfield residents, business folks and planning officials, mixed easily with the NJIT grad students for whom this was also a day of excitement as part of their hands-on training.

With
Darius Sollohub, NJIT's Director of Infrastructure Planning, acting as emcee, the students got the day off to a start with a great PowerPoint presentation (where the script explained the unfolding diagrams and illustrations, but was not shown on the screen -- take note, all you amateurs out there!)

Congratulations should be given to Councilors Storch and Burney, who pushed for this planning process against considerable skepticism from some of their fellow councilors and an initially hostile reaction from Mayor Robinson-Briggs' then-director of PWUD, Jennifer Wenson-Maier. I think the turnout and level of participation vindicate their leadership on this question.

Councilor Storch has posted his assessment of the charrette (see here). The complete presentation has been put on YouTube by the good folks at NJIT. You can start with the overview video (see here), and check the other sections listed in the right hand column of the page -- or visit Councilor Burney's blog where a link to each section is listed (see here).

Mayor Robinson-Briggs and Assemblyman Jerry Green were both present. Robinson-Briggs exercised her one real gift in welcoming the attendees and expressing hope for the process' outcome.

Assemblyman Green focused on the housing portion of the planning process, letting it be known that Plainfield is considered to be compliant with its affordable housing obligations, and reiterated his oft-stated theme that Section 8 housing is a big problem for Plainfield and that Section 8 must go.

After the overview presentation, punctuated with a Q&A session, participants were encouraged to join in discussing issues and opportunities for six areas identified along the Raritan Valley rail corridor from Clinton Avenue in the West to Netherwood Station and South Avenue in the East. Each area was provided with a table with aerial map, zoning overviews and tracing paper and markers to develop ideas for development opportunities.

Following a lunch break each table was given time to report on its activities to the group as a whole.

(
Those who are aware the City is forbidden to supply food for events per the Memorandum of Understanding Mayor Robinson-Briggs entered into with the state on January 15 as a condition for receiving this year's extraordinary aid will be pleased to know that Assistant Economic Development Director Jacques Howard used his charms to get local businesses to donuts the refreshments, which included morning coffee and donuts and a hearty lunch from KFC.)

The afternoon concluded with a summary of the day's work and an outline of next steps (you can see the Visioning process' committee membership and proposed timeline here).

While the many transportation possibilities for the area were exciting (including a possible cross-county rail link, and an eventual one-seat ride to Manhattan), I did note that the one transportation idea that was RED-HOT when I moved to Plainfield has disappeared entirely from the vocabulary of possibilities: the extension of PATH to Plainfield.

At the time I moved here, I still worked in mid-town Manhattan and a PATH ride from Plainfield to 34th Street/Penn Station would have been a gift from heaven.

That proposal failed.

Times, hopefully, have changed.

And will change some more with a successful Visioning Plainfield study.

(NOTE: Clicking anywhere on the slide show below will open it in a separate window, where you can choose to view it FULL SCREEN for better details.)





-- Dan Damon [follow]

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Saturday, March 27, 2010

The place to be today: PLAINFIELD VISIONING Workshop





The vision for Plainfield's future is in your hands today.

The long-awaited planning process for a transit-oriented future for Plainfield development kicks off today with an all-day workshop (fancy word, charrette) beginning at 9:00 AM at Washington Community School.

On hand will be local officials (including Councilors Storch and Burney, whose brain child this project is), Rutgers and NJIT profs (who hold the consulting contract) and -- if you come -- loads of community residents and business people.

As Councilor Burney outlined at Thursday's Ward 2 town hall, this is the leading edge of a process which, if successful, will develop a plan that could be defined within the next year and adopted soon thereafter by the Council and Administration.

The only guarantee you will have of having a say in the final outcome is to take part.

Get my drift?





PLAINFIELD VISIONING WORKSHOP


9 AM - 3 PM Today

Washington Community School
427 Darrow Avenue
(Parking available in the Spooner Avenue lot.)

Residents and business owners are invited to join with local officials
and a team of Rutgers and NJIT faculty and students
in re-imagining Plainfield's future
with a focus on the Main and Netherwood Stations
and the Western rail corridor
FREE
Lunch provided




-- Dan Damon [follow]

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Friday, March 26, 2010

Three meetings in one night, each with a Knickers-twist




Dedication of the YMCA lobby to Jo-Ann Sloane
was one of several events last night with a Knickers-twist.



As I have said before, the time in Plainfield is long-gone when one could singlehandedly attend all the important events going on. Last night is a perfect example.

Besides the Council's and school district's town hall meetings, there was the NJTransit fare increase hearing (there are about 900 commuters a day out of Plainfield), a United Way planning committee meeting for the May house tour, Plainfield's Cable TV commission, and a dedication in honor of the late JoAnne Sloane at the YMCA.

I decided to try and do three, each of which turned out to have a little Knickers-twist.

Arriving late (for reasons noted below) for the WARD 2 TOWN HALL MEETING, at which last week's hosts (McWilliams, Reid and Mapp) were joined by Storch and Burney, I found the room set up in a huge open horseshoe with a mike at the center, a double row of chairs with about sixty in attendance (which gradually grew as the meeting went on), and the Councilors at a table in the front.

The seating arrangement seemed odd, and I noticed that latecomers took chairs off the stack in the corner and formed a further outer ring at the far end of the room rather than take the plentiful empty seats near the front of the horseshoe. Just a little odd.

While I was there, several speakers rose to address the Council, offering questions, suggestions and points of view on taxes, the city's budget process, the relationship between the schools and the city's image and possibilities, travails with the PMUA, and economic development.

Speakers were polite but concerned, with an underlying edginess: the news from Trenton has tax implications for Plainfield that are not reassuring and the threat of ever-spiraling taxes has folks stressed out.

Councilor Burney was expansive on the topic of economic development, recalling Mayor McWilliams strategic planning effort of a dozen years ago, saying the problem was that it didn't come up with a plan (wrong!) and thus languished. Saying that the current Visioning process (which he and Storch have pushed, and which has a public workshop tomorrow) would take about a year to develop a plan, then 6 months to get agreement on it (among whom not exactly spelled out -- Council and administration? Business community? Community organizations?), and then four or five years to implement. We shall see.

Jim Pivnichny wanted to know if there was any way the Council could get the Robinson-Briggs administration to submit its budget earlier, noting the lateness of the last two years' budgets and the limited savings thus achieved. He reiterated that he thinks planning should go forward AS IF there were to be NO EXTRAORDINARY AID (a thoroughly sensible suggestion). McWilliams responded that the Council expects to take up a resolution in April that will spell out its expectations of the budget process in a timeline. (I was set to wondering whether the Council couldn't go to court to compel a budget be submitted, if it comes to that. File that thought.)

As I was preparing to leave for my next meeting, Council President McWilliams, noting the large number of Board of Ed candidates in the room, allowed as how she intended to keep the evening focused on City of Plainfield issues, and not Board of Ed issues.

And that evidently became the Knickers-twist of the evening. Writing later on her personal blog, BOE candidate Renata Hernandez takes McWilliams to task (see here), citing the opportunity given Dr. Gallon to take the floor at last week's Ward 1 Town Hall. (For Dr. Gallon's take on that meeting, see here.)

What do you think? Was it a mistake for McWilliams to give Gallon and Assemblyman Green the floor the week before? Should forums designated for resident input to the Council be highjacked as vehicles for BOE candidates to campaign? Or should everything just be a free-for-all?

Arriving at the CABLE TV BOARD meeting, which was well under way, I was surprised at the turnout. The table at the City Hall Library was nearly ringed with Board members and a Verizon rep as they discussed rolling out Verizon's Plainfield PEG channel.

This was a complete contrast to the last CATV meeting I attended, at which Dottie Gutenkauf presided (the Mayor's husband had had to step down as chair), which was poorly attended and seemed dispirited.

The
Knickers-twist here was on the table as I took my seat: Where would the Verizon equipment be housed and how would training of residents in content production be handled? The Verizon rep allowed as how the Board of Public Utilities (BPU), the state agency which oversees cable franchises, wanted to see COLLEGE facilities used. The Cable TV Board is plumping for the school district's PAAAS (Plainfield Academy for the Arts and Advanced Studies) facility, located at the former National Starch headquarters building a stone's throw from the Dunellen line. Stay tuned.

My evening kicked off at 6:30 with a DEDICATION CEREMONY AT THE YMCA dedicating the Lobby in memory of the late Jo-Ann Sloane, who died two years ago.

A dear friend and political collaborator, Jo-Ann was a patient care rep at the Lyons VA hospital and tireless advocate for better, fairer and more extensive treatment of our veterans. She also worked part-time at the YMCA, where she helped coordinate services for the homeless shelter. She was an indefatigable Democratic activist, serving as the late Mayor Al McWilliams' campaign treasurer. She was generous and enthusiastic, with a razor sharp wit and a ready smile and hug. We all still think of her daily and miss the boost her presence gave to everything she touched.

So the parlor of the YMCA was full to bursting with family, friends and co-workers as executive director Ravenell Williams emceed a program that featured reminiscences by those who worked closely with Jo-Ann, and opening and closing prayers by Elder Diane Hathaway from the Christian Fellowship Gospel Church, Jo-Ann's congregation.

The
Knickers-twist?

As the program was drawing to a close, we could hear through the doors the building's fire alarm sounding -- and watch as karate students, wellness-center jocks, residents, staff and United Way planning committee members all began to exit the building.

Pushing to bring the event to an end before the fire trucks arrived, Ravenell urged the remaining speakers to be brief -- managing to close up ceremony just as the fire trucks arrived to check out the building.

As everyone gathered on the sidewalk outside, we shared a laugh over the fire alarm -- false alarms are a not-uncommon occurrence at the YMCA, as Jo-Ann would have attested -- and decided it was her way of pranking us and thanking us for the ceremony and recognition.

I'm sure it was.

Loveya, Jo-Jo!

And miss you forever.



-- Dan Damon [follow]

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Thursday, March 25, 2010

North Avenue historic property demolition: Criminal neglect. But whose?




The Fire Division responded Tuesday evening to falling debris.


An 1886 commercial building in Plainfield's North Avenue Historic District, directly opposite the city's main train station, will start to come down today. If Bill Hetfield were here, I am sure he would be hopping mad.

The photo above was taken Tuesday evening on my way to the Board of Ed meeting. The Fire Division had responded to calls that debris was falling from the boarded-up building at 187-191 North Avenue. The division's 92-foot extension ladder was used to examine the building's facade and remove loose brickwork from the top left roofline of the brick building.

Coming by on Wednesday after blogging, the Police Division's mobile command unit was parked across the street and police, inspection, construction and emergency management officials were consulting about the demolition of the building. Oliver Brown, of Oveter Construction, was on the scene and told me that he expected his crews would get under way with demolition late Wednesday or early today, depending on crews getting the gas and electric connections shut down. (I noticed that they were busy in the front, but that at the rear of the properties there was a mare's nest of power, phone and cable lines to the various buildings, all with occupied apartments except for the one to be torn down.)

The Star-Ledger reporter was prowling about, as was the Courier photographer. I got some snaps of the front of the building and the rear, which is accessed off an alleyway across from the Post Office.




My photo of 4/22/2009, after falling debris caused the area to be cordoned off.

Just eleven months ago, last April, I photographed the building's exterior after authorities put up yellow 'Do Not Cross' tape and sawhorses to keep anyone from walking or parking directly in front of the building. At that time, as this past Tuesday, there had been falling debris from the building posing a danger to passersby.
The building has been vacant for years and police have told me they have had to chase squatters out on numerous occasions.

Is there criminal neglect in this matter? And if so, whose neglect is criminal?

Based on an inspection made April 17, 2009, Plainfield construction official Joe Minarovich issued a 'Notice of Imminent Hazard' by certified mail to the owner, Solngu Enterprises LLC of Piscataway (whose phone number is listed as 908 756 912, thus incomplete), on April 20, which stated --
Failure to render the structure temporarily safe and secure and/or demolish the structure in accordance with this ORDER will result in this matter being forwarded to legal counsel for prosecution, and assessment of penalties up to $2,000.00 per week per violation.
The document could have been confusing to the owner (if they accepted the certified letter), because it contained TWO MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE ORDERS: 1) Immediately correct the above noticed imminent hazards so as to render the structure temporarily safe and secure, and 2) Demolish the above structure by 4/20/2009. Both boxes were checked. (Keep in mind that the report was dated April 20, and the required demolition date was the same date. Kafkaesque?)

On May 1st, the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) contacted Minarovich, copying DPWUD Director Jennifer Wenson-Maier, as well as engineering, planning and inspections officials, concerning the Imminent Hazard Notice, which it had taken up at its April 28 meeting.

Besides concurring that the corbelled parapet needed to be removed, the HPC placed five conditions on the process of removal, including salvaging materials and updating the HPC.

Its first and most important condition was that --
...[t]he building needs to be assessed by a structural engineer and properly secured so as to avoid any further water or structural damage, including covering all holes in the roof and ensuring the that existing interior drains (if any) are functioning properly...
The Commission went on to remind the recipients of the letter that --
187-191 North Avenue is significant not just as an individual property, but also as part of the cohesive historic fabric of the North Avenue Historic District. Our cooperative efforts in saving this building from further damage will help stabilize the North Avenue Historic District and support property values. (Emphasis added -- DD)
Months went by, evidently with no further action by the Robinson-Briggs administration.

The yellow tape and sawhorses remained in front of the building. There is no record the owner ever appealed or was fined for noncompliance with the order.

Finally, on October 6, 2009, the chair of the Historic Preservation Commission once again wrote to Minarovich, copying Wenson-Maier and the others from the original letter, noting that the Commission had received no response from any party to its May 1 letter, that the parapet had not been removed, and inquired whether the public safety situation had been abated, asking for a response by October 30, 2009.

On November 30, 2009, Remington & Vernick, the city's outsourced engineering firm, reported to Wenson-Maier the conclusions from its inspection that 'the roof overhang' (the marquee suspended over the entry by chains from the facade) be removed; noted water penetration of the building and recommended a further inspection of the interior to determine required repairs or a recommendation of demolition of the building.

Gentle reader, keep in mind -- 1) we are now more than six months past the date of the previously ordered demolition, and 2) the engineers -- who get paid like a cabbie -- are suggesting they be called upon once again, for a further fee, to make the inspection and recommendation. (Did I forget to mention these are politically connected donors to the mayor's campaigns?)

The North Avenue Historic District, designated in 1983 under Plainfield's first African American mayor, and as a result of the efforts of activists such as Bill Hetfield (who owned a property at North and Park) and Jan and Henry Johnson (publishers of the Plainfield Today newspaper, who also owned property on North Avenue), languished until the late 1990s.




This plaque in the North Avenue sidewalk highlights
historic Plainfield sites, including the train station.



At that time, New Jersey Transit invested more than $12 million in restoring the eastbound main station building and razing and replacing the westbound building with a new passenger platform with an elevator, a reopened tunnel between the two buildings and a large plaza, where the plaque picture above is permanently mounted in the walkway.

With the demolition getting under way today, Plainfield will be left with a gap-toothed streetscape for riders on the Raritan Valley trains to peruse. Sort of like a Halloween jack-'o-lantern, but definitely not amusing.

The sad thing is that none of it needed to be this way. A couple of months ago, Frank Cretella, putative developer for several proposed projects in the downtown train station area, lamented to me personally that he really would have liked to do development of the North Avenue Victorian commercial properties (of which the demolishee is one), but that 'no one will talk to me'.

Has there been criminal neglect?

I suppose it depends on your definition of 'criminal'.

How could the owner, the mysterious Melva Solis, who paid $110,000 for the building in 2000 and converted it to the current LLC ownership by a quitclaim deed in 2006 (for $1), care so little about her investment? She is lucky that no one has been injured, for that would have been legal 'criminal neglect'. But I am concerned about the neglect of our downtown transit-oriented development that the Robinson-Briggs administration has engaged in from its inception.

(How ironic that the public is invited to an all-day workshop on Visioning a revitalized Plainfield along its rail corridor, to be held this Saturday -- see notice below.)

Under the McWilliams administration, a redevelopment plan was conceived for the North Avenue Historic District which elicited interest from a number of developers with track records in development and historic preservation.

All to naught.

The Council at the time declined to entertain serious negotiations. Assemblyman Green was not interested in pursuing matters.

Jennifer Wenson-Maier, Robinson-Briggs' hand-picked Director of Public Works and Urban Development in her first term, carried out an aggressive policy of hostility and disrespect toward Plainfield's strong historic preservation heritage and assets, one has to assume with the blessing of her boss the Mayor.

While my last official duty before retiring was to create for Wenson-Maier a photographic inventory of the North Avenue and East Second Street redevelopment areas, no further action was ever taken with regard to these projects.

Robinson-Briggs, instead, concerned herself with cockamamie schemes like the Capodagli proposal at West 3rd and Richmond (since vanished into thin air) and the 'no-cost-to-Plainfield' Monarch condos project on East Front Street (for which ground was broken at the precise moment the housing bubble burst, and is now floundering).

The neglect by the Robinson-Briggs administration of the possibilities of North Avenue development while the market was hot is the real crime.

With the demolition of 187-191 North Avenue due to her administration's inaction over the past year, Plainfield taxpayers will now suffer for it.




This historic North Avenue property, shown yesterday, will start to come down today,
a victim of the Robinson-Briggs' administration's neglect.




PLAINFIELD VISIONING WORKSHOP

Saturday - March 27
9 AM - 3 PM

Washington Community School
427 Darrow Avenue
(Parking available in the Spooner Avenue lot)

Residents and business owners are invited to join with local officials and
a team of Rutgers and NJIT faculty and students in re-imagining Plainfield's future
with a focus on the Main and Netherwood Stations and the Western rail corridor.
Lunch will be served. Free, but please confirm your attendance
with Jacques or Jeanette at (908) 226-2513.




-- Dan Damon [follow]

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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Schools budget: Mysteries lead to a thought



14 candidates are vying for seats at this table. Why?


The first big mystery about the Plainfield Board of Ed's meeting to adopt a preliminary budget for the 2010-11 school year last night was WHERE WERE ALL THE PEOPLE.

Having become accustomed to wall-to-wall audiences of 150 or more, it was a shock to find just 15 people sitting in the audience when I arrived, several of whom were board of ed candidates. Over the next 45 minutes another 5 people came in.

Where were the crowds? Do they only come out for soap opera moments and not for a whopping $154 million budget proposal?

District PR person Eric Jones was busily photographing the widely dispersed audience and making sure every single person in the room signed the attendance sheet that was headed 'Preliminary Budget Hearing' -- presumably to prove to the state the public was involved in the process.

(
On a positive note, trees everywhere can be thankful they didn't have to sacrifice as much for last night's agenda, which was a merciful 2 sheets of paper, two-sided.)

The next mystery: WHERE ARE THE BUDGET DETAILS? Answer: Come back next week.

Memo to self (and readers): Don't ever confuse the school budget process with the city budget process. While there may be more transparency in the city process (
although that may be more appearance than reality), the school budget is still the closest New Jerseyans can get to direct democracy: the voters get to approve it or defeat it directly at the polls.

Mystery Number Three: DISTRICT ENROLLMENT.

I thought I misheard BOE member Wilma Campbell when addressing a question to Dr. Gallon she referred to 'educating our 6,400 children'.

6,400?

The last figure I remembered was when Dr. Larry Leverett was superintendent and as the city's public information officer I was routinely given '7,200' as the number to be used in press releases, etc.

That is about a 12% decrease.

But my perception is that the number of residents (and by extension, the numbers of school-aged children) has only INCREASED in the past ten years -- the Census' 2008 estimate notwithstanding.

So, where have all the students gone? Can it be that they have all been absorbed by the Charter Schools? Are more students attending parochial and private schools? (I am told the state knows the answer to the second question, but good luck you ever finding out!)

But this leads to an even more interesting question: SHOULD THE SCHOOL DISTRICT CONSIDER CLOSING ONE OR MORE SCHOOL BUILDINGS?

What are the enrollment projections five years out? If enrollment is really down by this kind of number, and likely to remain so, what is the ECONOMIC SENSE of having so many buildings and all the related expenses?

Is a partial answer to Gov. Christie's challenge to the state's public schools staring us in the face?



-- Dan Damon [follow]

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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Pity the poor working journalist



A reporter's reward?


Pity the poor working journalist.

Bloggers, no matter their interest and/or energy levels, don't have editors telling them what to cover.

Mark Spivey on the other hand, Plainfield's beat report for the Courier, does have to answer to an editor. After all, stories must be covered.

Mark was at last night's special Zoning Board meeting. When the Board took a break between the two items on its agenda (both Charter school zoning variance requests), we chatted for a moment and Mark allowed as how he had a busy day set up for Tuesday (today) -- he has to be in Municipal Court at 9:00 AM for the continuation of the Angela Kemp matter; at 1:00 PM, he has to be at the Woodbridge Hilton for the auction of five of David Connolly's most valuable apartment buildings; finally, at 7:00 PM, he will be back in Plainfield for the introduction and preliminary adoption of the 2010-2011 school budget.

How's that for a busy day?

At least there is a consolation -- a little bird told me that Mark is being honored by the New Jersey Libraries Association for excellence in general reporting for his coverage of the Plainfield Public Library.

Congrats, Mark!

And have a nice, cold brewski when you get home at last tonight.

If it is still tonight.



-- Dan Damon [follow]

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Monday, March 22, 2010

Two charter schools on Zoning Board agenda tonight

Plainfield's Zoning Board will hear two matter tonight, both concerning charter schools.

The Central Jersey Arts Charter School, which proposes to buy, renovate and move to the old ARC property at 1225 South Avenue, will have the concluding portion of its appeal tonight.

Also on tap is the new kid on the block, the Obama Green Charter High School, which is seeking zoning variances to be housed in the Boys and Girls Club property on West 7th Street.

The Zoning Board will meet at 7:00 PM in City Hall Library.




-- Dan Damon [follow]

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Sunday, March 21, 2010

'Kids Iron Chef' cookoff a blast



Assemblywoman Connie Wagner emceed the Kids Iron Chef event,
seen here chatting with Councilor Adrian Mapp.



Youngsters from Bergen, Passaic, Essex and Union counties gathered at the home base of the Plainfield feeding program Grace's Kitchen, housed at Grace Episcopal Church, Saturday afternoon in a cookoff to combat childhood obesity.

Titled 'Kids Iron Chef', the afternoon saw three teams, each with a celebrity chef coordinator in pitched battle to cook up a scrumptious -- and nutritious -- main dish and dessert for a demanding team of judges aged 9-11. (See slideshow at bottom of post.)

Each of the teams -- Red, Blue and Orange, coached by chefs Pearl, Christopher and Ed -- chose from a large selection of fresh organic vegetables and fruits, spices and other ingredients to whip up their creations.

With a digital clock just like in the real show, the contestants worked against a deadline to decide on their recipes, prep and then cook their ingredients, and finally plate and garnish their creations for an attractive presentation to the -- dare I say 'demanding' -- panel of judges.

Once the teams got under way, the staid audience-vs-contestants seating arrangement totally dissolved as onlookers, family members, friends, Junior League members and kibitzers crowded forward, moving from station to station to observe the contestants close up.

When the burners finally fired up, the whole room began to fill with enticing aromas, making the audience even more interested in what was being done by the young contestants.

The poor judges were practically overwhelmed with each team's offerings, presented on colored plates identifying which team had prepared the delectables.

(The judging was spirited, and I was so busy trying to get some photos I wasn't able to make notes on what exactly the offerings were, though I saw one Junior Leaguer busily scribbling down the comments and votes tallied from numbered cards the judges held up for each dish.)

Team Orange won first place, followed by Team Blue and Team Red. Each winning contestant and the celebrity chefs got a hand-decorated plate commemorating the event and
a goodies bag.

Assemblywoman Connie Wagner (D-Paramus) was an inspired choice for master of ceremonies. A warm and gregarious presence, she made instant connections with contestants, chefs and judges, eliciting frank -- and sometimes hilarious -- comments from participants.

State Senator Tom Kean, Jr., spoke to everyone before the contest got under way, engaging kids in a back-and-forth about just how important good nutrition is.

Throughout the event, there were informational tables at the back of the hall which folks constantly browsed. These included flyers for upcoming health-related events, as well as a 'wheel of fortune' type contest with a food choices theme, and plenty of tasty and healthy snacks supplied the major event sponsor Whole Food Markets -- including a mountain of fresh bananas which pretty much melted away throughout the event. Everyone had to take a hand at mixing their own Granola from sacks of crunchy oats, cranberries and raisins.

Local officials on hand included Councilor Adrian Mapp who eagerly took part in the entire event and Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs, who came in time for the judging and awards photos.

Thanks were also expressed to Sherrie Russell-Brown, who coordinated the event on behalf of Grace Church's feeding program, Grace's Kitchen; Elsie Jenkins, health coordinator of the Plainfield Area YMCA, who organized games and activities for non-contestant youngsters; and the Rev. Carolyn Eklund, rector of Grace Church, for offering the church as the site of the cookoff.

More information about the programs of the Junior Leagues of New Jersey can be found on their website (here). Grace Church's feeding program, Grace's Kitchen, can be found at Grace Church's website (here).






-- Dan Damon [follow]

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Saturday, March 20, 2010

'Kids Iron Chef' statewide competition today at Grace's Kitchen



Michele Obama wants to fight the nation's childhood obesity epidemic, and the Plainfield feeding program Grace's Kitchen, housed at Grace Episcopal Church, decided to pitch in.

From 1:00 - 3:00 p.m. this afternoon three teams of young people aged 12-14 will face off in a competition to make the most scrumptious and healthy dinner with fresh ingredients they can imagine. They will have the toughest judges on earth -- other youngsters, aged 9-11.

The contest, which the public is invited to watch, is a project of the Junior Leagues of New Jersey with sponsorship by Whole Foods Markets. Attendees will have an opportunity to visit various health and nutrition stations throughout the Grace Church's parish hall before the competition gets under way and after the prize ceremony.

Youngsters from throughout the state, including Plainfield, will work in three teams -- Red, Blue and Orange -- under celebrity chefs from New Jersey.

Chef Pearl, a Newark native whose New Brunswick program 'Promise Culinary' trains underserved residents in the culinary arts, will have Team Red.

Chef Christopher, a New Jersey native who has been an executive chef for Whole Foods as well as hosting television cooking events, will have Team Blue.

Chef Ed, who grew up in Grace Church and served in the Marine Corps, is a recent graduate of the French Culinary Institute and is now pursuing a degree in business management. He will have Team Orange.

Notables participating in the program include Assemblywoman Connie Wagner (D-Paramus) who will be master of ceremonies and special guest Sen. Tom Kean, Jr. (R-Westfield).

The 'secret ingredient' teams will have to use in their recipes will be revealed jointly by Laura Hall of Whole Foods Market and Elsie Jenkins of the Plainfield Area YMCA.

The entire event will be taped by Cablevision.

Hope to see you there!




'Kids' Iron Chef' Competition

Today
1:00 - 3:00 PM (Doors open at 12:45)

Hosted by Grace's Kitchen

The Feeding Program of Grace Episcopal Church
East 7th Street and Cleveland Avenue
(Parking in public lot across 7th Street)
Parish Hall entry is on Cleveland Avenue near East 6th Street



-- Dan Damon
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Friday, March 19, 2010

Town Hall meeting has some surprises



'Dedicated...to the cause of just and capable government'

(from the entablature over City Hall's entrance).

The first of four planned town hall meetings sponsored by Plainfield's City Council was held at the new Emerson Community School Thursday evening.

About seventy people eventually assembled to engage in a dialogue with City Council members Annie McWilliams (citywide at-large), Bill Reid (Ward 1), Linda Carter (Wards 1/4 at-large) and Adrian Mapp (Ward 3). Councilor Bridget Rivers (Ward 4) came later, and sat among the audience.

Plainfield Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs opened the meeting with remarks about the new -- but as yet unofficial -- FiOS cable channel (Plainfield will be ch34 for FiOS viewers), the April Golden Gloves event and the expected opening of a C-town market on South Avenue, as well as having copies of her 'State of the City' address distributed to interested attendees by her confidential aide, Barbara James.

McWilliams set the tone for the evening by saying she hoped that a less formal structure with no time limit for speakers and with no topic off limits would encourage people to participate and share their concerns.

Folks practically leapt to the microphone as soon as they had a chance and there were some interesting -- even surprising -- comments, issues and ideas floated throughout the evening.

Though taxes, potholes and speeding were cited by many, most seemed to abide by an unspoken rule and did not berate the Councilors on issues that others had already expressed fully.

It is truly heartwrenching to hear stories of some seniors, living on fixed incomes with property tax bills in the range of $7-8,000 (one woman cited her mother, who lives on a monthly income of $1,300).

Everyone seemed to have a list of potholes (don't you, too?), as this is the season, but was generally good-natured about it, realizing that the DPW crews just keep plugging away at it (am I punning?). McWilliams reminded the audience that notes were being kept and items would be shared with the Administration as needed.

FLOODING: With flooding on everyone's mind, there were suggestions that the Council find out why the Fire Division no longer has pumps to pump out flooded basements, as well as exploring turning the rear parking lot at Sears into a retention basin (or swale) to manage overflow from the Green Brook during floods, easing the likelihood of street flooding in Plainfield's East End.

POLICE PRESENCE: Whether on East 2nd Street between Netherwood and Garfield where a liqour store is a constant source of problems to Milt Campbell Field, where kids and others hang out late at night and disturb the neighbors, there were concerns for more -- or more regular -- police presence in the East End.

PMUA: One resident touched on a sore spot with many -- judging from reactions throughout the room -- in bringing up the PMUA, it's fees, services and alleged poor customer relations. (In defense of the PMUA, though, it is not a good idea generally to pay this kind of bill in cash, and I find their policy that check or money order be used laudable -- at least they don't have the problem of disappearing cash the way the City does.) Councilor Reid tried to suggest that issues with the Authority should be taken up directly at PMUA board meetings, but the resident countered with 'we bring these things to you because you're our representatives, elected to help us'. McWilliams moved the item along by telling the resident the Council is looking to have a meeting with the PMUA commissioners soon and his issues would be brought up.

QUEEN CITY BASEBALL LEAGUE: With a season opening date of April 14, a representative of the QCBL urged the Council to intervene with the Administration to ensure fairness in allocation of ballfields to all who want to play. Reid referred to 'an extensive email of issues' raised with the Recreation Division, with assurances they were 'being looked into'.

TRAFFIC ISSUES: Several residents brought traffic issues to light -- one suggesting that Hillcrest Avenue be made one way AWAY FROM Front Street to remove the hazard of drivers speeding through the neighborhood during the morning rush to make the shortcut (via Raymond Avenue) to Route 22; another wants a traffic light at Netherwood and East Front, which is said to be accident-prone.

BUDGET: Arguing that extraordinary state aid was reduced to such a low prospect (if not none), the Council should press the Administration to put forward its budget proposal by September, saying 'there is no reason why it has to wait'. McWilliams, citing no mayoral election this year and a conversation with the auditors, said it was within the realm of possibility it could even be introduced in August, but certainly by September.

STATE AUDIT: Former Board of Ed member Bob Darden raised a number of issues -- bringing chuckles from all when he described turning off Watchung onto his street (Oak Lane) as 'doing the Electric Slide'. Most seriously, though, and citing the money ($4,000+, not $40,000 as folks 'remember' it) gone missing from the Tax Collector's office under Robinson-Briggs' stewardship, he called once again for a forensic audit of Plainfield's books.

SURPRISES: There were some surprising assertions and suggestions, to wit:
  • SEARS retention basin (see above), which I found interesting; it was noted that it would require joint action by the City, North Plainfield and Watchung (which is where Sears is located) as well as Somerset and Union counties -- a reminder once again of how important joint action on the Green Brook flood plain is;

  • PARK HOTEL tax status -- is the Park Hotel, which is now owned and operated as a for-profit enterprise, on the tax rolls? It seems unlikely the Assessor would overlook a taxable property, but I will be checking this one out;

  • TAX non-resident Plainfield workers -- this suggestion was made by a resident who learned about it (painfully) when working in New York City, where non-residents face just such a tax. Besides being something the Council may not have a stomach for, or the state may not allow, there would be the matter of whether administering it would be cost-effective, but I give the idea an 'E' for effort;

  • PUT CONDITIONS ON TUITION REIMBURSEMENTS at the BOE -- Bob Darden reviewed the granting of a $10,350 reimbursement by the BOE on Tuesday to an employee who soon may be no longer with us, citing a practice when he was on the board a decade or so ago, that tuition reimbursement was contingent on the recipient contracting to stay with the District for a stated number of years subsequent to receiving the reimbursement. Good idea, I thought. Checking with BOE member Chris Estevez, who was present last night, I found that it is not a policy of the BOE at present. Agreeing that it was a good idea in principle, he said he would check into it.
Council President McWilliams and the whole Council should be congratulated for setting up these Town Halls, which I think will prove to be very useful.

Here is the remainder of the schedule --
  • Ward 2 Town Hall · 7 PM · Thursday, March 25 · Cook School
  • Ward 3 Town Hall · 7 PM · WEDNESDAY, March 31 · Cedarbrook School
  • Ward 4 Town Hall · 7 PM · Thursday, April 22 · Clinton School


-- Dan Damon
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State workers demonstrate at Park-Madison against Christie cuts



Drivers showed support of union members by honking.


Plainfield saw one of about twenty demonstrations statewide on Thursday by unionized workers protesting Gov. Christie's proposed budget cuts.

Organized by the Communications Workers of America (CWA), the Plainfield demonstration mobilized DYFS workers from the County Office Building at the Park-Madison site and workers from the newly opened state office at East 5th Street and Cleveland Avenue servicing clients with physical disabilities and special needs. This story is illustrated with shots I took at the scene.

About sixty workers picketed and chanted in a constant loop around the plaza and the sidewalk on Front Street to the Dunkin' Donuts shop. A smaller group stood lined at the curb's edge on Front Street, waving to passersby and motorists, many of whom showed encouragement by honking their horns.

The unions are arguing that Christie's proposed budget cuts will lead to layoffs, reduction in services and a move to outsource some of the work done by unionized employees. Saying they are being unfairly targeted, the workers also suggested that any privatization of services will result in a reduced quality of delivery.

Chris Estevez, a CWA official (also a Plainfield resident and BOE member) pointed out that Thursday's statewide demonstrations were only the first wave of an expected series, noting that the CWA is the largest state employee union, but that the NJEA -- the teachers' union -- is also expected to mount demonstrations in response to Christie's budget proposal.

Thursday's demonstrations were covered by both the Courier (here) and the Ledger (here), with a photo gallery of the Courier's Ed Pagliarini's shots online (here).












-- Dan Damon [follow]

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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Monarch condos: A reader raises issues


Monarch condo sales -- and sign -- have been whiplashed.


A Plainfield Today story from last week (see here) generated a sidebar discussion on the Monarch condo situation that is worth bringing to the fore.

One commenter's suggestion that new South Avenue development reflected a 'build it please-we-hope and they will come' mindset, it provoked a comment in defense of the Monarch project.

My suggestion that owning rather than renting was a better way to go prompted this long and thoughtful comment (perhaps from a real estate insider) which I am reprinting in full --
Dan, this is a response to your comments on the rental approach: I agree with you that when someone purchases a property he or she is making a direct investment. I would also agree that the direct investment is most likely a superior investment than a person investing indirectly through rental.

You are correct in stating the agreement was for a condo development. I think we need to consider the Monarch’s best use of the property based on the current economic reality.

Due to the size of the property (60+ units) it will be very difficult for the owners of the property to dispose of units as condos even with FHA financing because of FHA’s presale requirements which have been reduced to 51% from about 70%. As such before anyone can take possession of a unit in the property, the property owner must have contracts for 51% of the units. That can be extremely difficult in this market.

I still contend that quality rentals can be good for a community because there is a strong likelihood that the renter in a true market rate rental will ultimately become a property owner in the city eventually. Plainfield’s problems with rental properties are not necessarily due to the properties being rentals, instead the issues with rental properties in Plainfield are due to a failure of this administration and past administration to seriously enforce the code by addressing overcrowding which leads to potentially higher risks of injuries for firemen and of course a higher probability of deaths due to fires plus other increases in crime due to higher incidents of domestic violence , rapes and incest.

A true capitalist will seek the option that leads to the highest profitability at the lowest possible risk.

We need a solution to the Monarch’s issues and the party that is most likely to lose if we do not arrive at one soon is the Plainfield tax payer. The Monarch’s owners have already made a significant profit on this transaction through general contractors’ profitability, lower interest rates for construction financing through HMFA’s insurance, a non-recourse loan and of course a developer fee on each unit in the building that was probably worth about 20K per unit.
Let's take a closer look --
WHAT'S THE STATUS OF SALES?
The Tax Assessor's office tells me there are just THREE sales recorded with the County, hence subject to tax assessment. The highest sales figure is in the upper $240s. Each unit is assessed separately, based on its sales price, size and amenities; the assessment including the unit's share of the condominium's common spaces.

This is not terribly encouraging, considering the units have been offered to the public for over a year now. Whether that is just because of the weak market, because of the location on the fringes of downtown, or because there are many condo options in the same price range in other communities may never be known.

A driveby on Wednesday evening found two cars in the parking lot and lights on in two third-floor units, one facing Bank of America and the other facing the rooftop 'garden'.

Though the units are being marketed by two of Plainfield powerhouse real estate firms (ERA Reed and Sleepy Hollow Realtors), the softness of sales and time-on-market still indicates the units are overpriced for current market conditions.

But does that mean there's trouble afoot?
RENT VS. BUY: WHAT'S AT STAKE?
The reader holds that renting the remaining units is a viable option for several reasons, including difficulties in buyers obtaining loans, and the assertion that 'the renter in a true market rate rental will ultimately become a property owner in the city eventually'.

Buyers getting loan approvals has become a problem throughout the real estate market -- and not just in Plainfield. We are returning to an old-fashioned, reality-based lending market: you must have a real job with a verifiable income, a real down payment, and qualify for the loan on old-fashioned income ratios. Making the adjustment from NINJA (no income, no job or asset verification) loans to this more traditional reality will take time, but we will get there.

I do not know of any studies that show these 'quality' renters will be likely to buy in the community, or that even if they do it will be the unit which they have rented.

In fact, the experience with the Meadowbrook Village condos further down East Front Street argues against it. In that situation, the developer went belly up with only about 25% of the units sold (in the late 1980s). Subsequently, the balance became mostly rentals. The value of the owner-occupied units plunged, only recently returning to near the dollar values of the original sales (but of course those were in 1988 dollars, and these are 2010 dollars -- hardly worth the same).

Besides that, I learned from the Tax Assessor's office that many units in Meadowbrook Village have been bought by NONPROFITS and are used to house various clienteles. You know what that means -- those units have been removed from the tax rolls. Not exactly a prospect one wants to see replicated at the Monarch.

As for the reader's assertion that the problems with Plainfield rentals have to do with failing to address overcrowding (but leading to incest? Really??!!), there is some truth to that -- a topic on which I have harped from time to time.

That being said, however, there is no guarantee that allowing The Monarch to become rentals would not mean its becoming subject to the same overcrowding pressures (which are, after all, just an expression of the drive to maximize profit).

The point of The Monarch's being developed as MARKET-RATE, OWNER-OCCUPIED CONDOS was to prove that Plainfield was capable of standing on its own two feet in the condo market, competing with other communities for these attractive buyers and using this project as a wedge to leverage transit-oriented, mixed-use development that would enliven its downtown scene.

Succumbing to becoming a rental means the failure of that attempt. Another loss for Plainfield.
RENT VS. BUY: WHOSE DECISION IS IT?
In some ways, the conversation about whether The Monarch units should be rentals is beside the point, because the ultimate deciders in that regard seem to be the Union County Improvement Authority (UCIA) and the developer (Dornoch/P&F/Fishman).

That is a decision about which we can confidently expect NOT to be consulted.
WILL PLAINFIELD TAXPAYERS LOSE?
Will Plainfield taxpayers lose if the situation is not remedied quickly?

Yes and no, it seems.

The Senior Center appears to be the City's regardless of what happens to the developer. That could be considered a plus.

Will the tax rolls see the full benefit of the condo units coming online? Not for a while, unless a) the market improves, or b) the prices are reduced.

If it were to become a rental property -- that is with the DEVELOPER owning and renting it -- the taxpayers would have the benefit of a substantial ratable coming onstream, but there would be the conterbalancing negative that increasing tax assessments on the condos, presumed usually to increase as they turn over again and again, would be denied in favor of a one-time, lump-sum assessment.

The reader is right, though, that the developer has already made a tidy bundle off the deal -- even if it goes belly up and the lender seizes the asset (it's only recourse under a non-recourse loan).

The one point the reader fails to mention where the developer has benefited is the outright gift of the property by Mayor Robinson-Briggs to the UCIA and thence to the developer for the majestic sum of ... $1.
Maybe the taxpayers have been the losers from the beginning?


-- Dan Damon [follow]

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