The needler in the haystack.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Boards mull making Plainfield 'more business friendly'

The UEZ logo intends to capture the appeal of Plainfield:
An active business community, attractive and historic housing,
in a community that cares about its environment.

Last Saturday's joint meeting of four Plainfield boards (the Planning and Zoning Boards, and the Historic Preservation and Shade Tree Commissions) took up some important topics -- including a wide-ranging discussion of one of Mayor mantras, making Plainfield "more business friendly". The meeting was facilitated by Ron Scott Bey, chair of the Planning Board. After introductions, Mayor Mapp made opening remarks setting an overview for the discussion.

First, let me say that all Plainfielders owe the volunteer members of these boards a huge "Thank you".

They donate hundreds upon hundreds of hours of service every year to watching over the best interests of the city's residents in regard to land use and development issues. They work to understand, interpret and apply New Jersey's land use laws -- no easy matter. Their decisions shape the community for years to come.

For these reasons, it is important to support and thank them. It is also important to come out and speak up when there is an issue that may concern you as a resident. Board members need that feedback, and welcome it.

Carlos Sanchez, Deputy City Administrator for Economic Development kicked off the conversation by giving a "developer's eye" view of Plainfield. He noted Plainfield has a reputation as being a "tough" place to get anything done: things take too long and different parts of the process don't work well together.

(I will leave out any discussion of the rumors that have swirled for years that one of the obstacles to getting things done in the past has been the necessity to "grease the wheels" with "consultant" and "referral" fees or to use certain law firms and other professional services to get a project moving.)

Sanchez made it clear that the Mapp administration was not asking any of the boards to "look the other way" or bend the rules. The main pitch was for a smoother, more consistent workflow, more automation and better deployment of staff.

The discussion got quite lively right away. Everyone had a horror story and many of them tended to point toward the timeliness of permitting and inspections.

Councilor Storch related how an office remodeling project by the nonprofit he heads cost his organiation an extra month's rent because they could not get an electrical inspection in a timely fashion.

Snachez shared his Elizabeth experience: Not only are there full-time staff members to do inspections, there are third-party licensed inspectors who can be called on an as-needed basis to guarantee an inspection to an applicant on a Monday through Saturday basis with a one-hour appointment window.

Members of several boards pointed out that there is no online "road map" or live tracking of projects -- from preparing plans for board review to permits to inspections and final certifications.

It was noted this is something the Mapp administration is working on (it will need Council approval of costs).

Board members also expressed exasperation at the shoddy preparation of many project proposals. Is it a board's fault if an applicant shows up with poorly prepared plans, lack of details, inability to answer board members' questions?

Sanchez suggested that applications be made as strong as possible before getting to a board. This, of course, suggests staffing issues. It was noted that with the appointment of Ron Johnson as zoning officer, some burden has been taken off Planning Director Bill Nierstedt's shoulders. However, Nierstedt also noted that development applications are up and are looking to go up. Does the Planning Division need more staff? If the answer is "yes", will the Council support it?

One last suggestion by Sanchez generated quite a bit of comment: that Plainfield do as many other communities do, and issue TCOs -- Temporary Certificates of Occupany -- when only minor matters remain to be completed (he used the example of being short one or two trees on an agreed planting).

Here, I think we should keep the example of the Park-Madison project in mind. More than a decade after the project has been nominally completed, there is still a "punch list" of incomplete items which, technically, have kept a permanent CO from being issued. What happens when a developer stalls on completing the remaining items? Who follows up to nudge TCOs across the finish line?

Mayor Adrian Mapp, who opened the meeting with remarks on development, noted that his administration was looking into providing incentives for owners of properties in the downtown TOD development area to rehab their upper floors into residential and office spaces once more -- something that disappeared from Plainfield many decades ago. Such incentives might involve tax abatements for a specified number of years for work that is done.

The timing seems right for this move -- already some activity has been undertaken by developers on North and Park Avenues, and there is a proposal to rehab the former Red Cross building at West Front and Grove into mixed-use retail and apartments. This is a trend that should be further encouraged.

When it came time for public comments (I think there were perhaps three members of the public there, including myself), I was nudged by my seat mate, a Planning Board member, to speak.

Thus forced, I suggested to the Mapp administration three points --

  • First, that a perception that Plainfield was "tough" present a communications problem that the City could attack and solve with a communications strategy that included putting everything online, giving folks a road map and making it all transparent;

  • Secondly, using a "ticket" system which assigns a "ticket" to a problem, place or person (or combination of all three), both developers and the public can follow along as projects move through the process. (Hint: Prospective developers and investors could be encouraged by the availability of such information.); and

  • Lastly, get more buzz off the launching of new business ventures by turning them into invitations to the general public to come out, help cut the ribbons and sample the goods and services. This would mean planning ahead a little more, doing some publicity outreach ahead of time, and scheduling the events for a convenient time for the public -- evenings or Saturdays preferably.
The joint meeting -- this was the second -- is a great idea and I look forward to another being offered next year. Two suggestions, though, one for the planners and one for the Mapp administration.

First, the planners -- if you plan on having more of the public out (a good idea, I think), perhaps you need a larger venue like the Plainfield Public Libnrary's ALD Meeting Room. City Hall Library was pretty full, and not even all of the board members were there, let alone many of the public.

Second, the Mapp administration needs to look around the room -- the number of women commissioners is shockingly low, perhaps the lowest it has been in more than a decade. With women making up more than half the City's popoulation, are we supposed to believe there are so few qualified or willing to serve on these important boards?

  -- Dan Damon [follow]

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