Bettering Plainfield with the facts since 2005

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Another Robinson-Briggs mess hits the fan -- East 2nd Street

The East 2nd Street Commercial District runs from Johnston to Leland Avenues.

Though you would never know it from the tone of the discussion at Tuesday's Plainfield City Council agenda-setting session, the Council and Mapp administration are being faced with cleaning up yet another mess left behind by former mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs.

Residents and business owners concerned with revitalization of East 2nd Street's business district between Johnston and Leland Avenues showed up in force to press their case for Urban Enterprise Zone funding to begin fighting the area's blighted conditions.

After a spirited presentation by the Rev. Paul Dean of Visions of God Church, who acted as spokesperson for the group, each of the six Councilors present weighed in (Councilor Brown was absent) -- some more than once, and some at exhausting length.

Though all were supportive -- some exuberantly so -- Councilor Storch was cautious, suggesting that while $1.2 million being discussed seemed like a large sum, it really wouldn't go very far and the success of such a large-scale revitalization would depend on outside investment. And where would that come from?

The revitalization proposal emanates from a design charrette conducted in 2012 by Rutgers professor (and Plainfield resident) Dr. Roland Anglin and a group of students who took up the various facets of issues and possible solutions for problems with the East 2nd Street Commercial District. The resulting study can be viewed online here.

The area gives evidence of once being a bustling neighborhood shopping district that fell on hard times -- as so many in other communities also did -- when the rise of Route 22 strip malls offered wider selections, more convenient parking and pricing with which neighborhood merchants could not compete.

I personally remember how hard Sherry Ryan struggled to make her excellent dance studio prosper there. She had a great building and ample parking, but found that parents were afraid to send their children to classes because of fears of the neighborhood. Eventually she had to give up.

But I can also remember the district being disheveled all the way back to the time when Councilor Taylor's husband was mayor. No administration did anything until the Urban Enterprise Zone was extended under the late mayor Al McWilliams to include the East 2nd Street corridor and West Front Street to the Mack property. Near the end of McWilliams' second term, the Planning Board also designated the locale for redevelopment** [See correction below -- DD].

And there things sat for four more years under mayor Robinson-Briggs, until neighborhood pressure got her administration to file a plan with the UEZ in December 2010 to use more than $1 million for streetscape improvements similar to those undertaken in the Central Business District with UEZ funds a few years earlier. That request got tangled up in the demise of the Urban Enterprise Zone program under pressure from Gov. Chris Christie, with the funds being wound down through local control.

It came out in the course of the back-and-forth with the Council that Rev. Dean had already set up an appointment to discuss the matter this coming Thursday with representatives of the Administration.

Director of Finance & Administration Ron West explained that he is still in the process of sorting out the bookkeeping with regard to UEZ funds (another Robinson-Briggs mess to clean up!) and the city couldn't even say with any exactitude just how much money there is in the UEZ kitty.

An objective observer might have cried 'Dirty politics!' at the way the matter was broached at a Council meeting before even meeting with the Mapp administration, but that seems to be the temper of the times.

When City Administrator Rick Smiley told Councilor Taylor that the Thursday meeting was preliminary and was planned to involve staff and neighborhood representatives only, she protested, assuming her most schoolmarmish threatening tone.

Perhaps she'll have him write on the board 'I shall never contradict Councilor Taylor' five hundred times, and then stay after class to clean up the blackboards?

**CORRECTION: The East 2nd Street Commercial District has NOT been designated in need of redevelopment. My memory played a trick on me. My last assignment in the early months of mayor Robinson-Briggs' first term was to photograph separately all of the properties in several redevelopment plans. The East 2nd Street locale was included in the assignment though it was not then and is not now in a redevelopment plan. -- DD, 9/3/14.

  -- Dan Damon [follow]

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Bill Michelson said...

The first part of the project that produced our 1998 Master Plan and 2002 Land Use Ordinance was my zoning report that analyzed all our old land use conditions and regulations. I noted a strong, direct correlation between the neighborhood commercial zones (such as East 2nd Street) and the places where most of our crime tended to occur. This is largely because that's where the drug traders go, to do their thing. It reflected the fact that people tend to chase hoodlums away from the front of their homes, but this does not occur in front of commercial properties where no one lives. Other than maybe allowing a 7-11 or Wawa store at a major corner, I do not think the neighborhood commercial zones can be saved. I therefore question the spending of tax money on projects to improve them.