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Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Cedar Brook Park improvements get bumpy start

Engineers for Union County discuss Olmsted plans
showing active sports use on the area under review.

Soccer enthusiasts lined the meeting room.
Pictured (l. to r.) Commissioner Larry Quirk, Chairman Bill Michelson,
and planner Scott Bauman.
Union County officials were perfectly prepared for a meeting to discuss proposed improvements for Plainfield's Cedar Brook Park.

Trouble is, it was the wrong meeting. The attorney and engineers making the proposal would have been right on target with, say, the Planning Board. But Tuesday evening's meeting was with the Historic Preservation Commission, which has quite different concerns and authority.

As resident Gerri Heydt put it to the County representatives well into the meeting -- t
he Historic Preservation Commission is concerned with "mitigating the effects" of adaptations to uses by the public.

The meeting got off on a shaky start when a Commission member asked the engineers to please orient the Commission and the audience to the area where the work was actually going to be done.

This is a common mistake I see at land-use board meetings. In fact, so common I am surprised someone doesn't tell applicants that the very first thing they need to do is give some spatial orientation to viewers by citing street locations or nearby landmarks. It is a simple step that would improve everyone's experience of the hearing manyfold.

The engineers discussed all the work to be done, from drainage improvements, the size and orientation of two new soccer fields, removable protective fencing, improved lighting and handicap access for the area which lies near the rear of the JFK-Hartwyck facility.

The adequacy of restrooms was discussed, as well as efforts to reduce or eliminate light spillage on surrounding residential areas.

But the engineers seemed flummoxed when asked what color the light poles would be, or whether the proposed poles could be somewhat lower than the 80' in the plans.

The Commission became extremely attentive once the engineers produced plans of the original Olmsted layout and demonstrated that active use (with ballfields) had been accommodated in this same area since the earliest days of the park.

To my mind, those plans were the county's trump card (and not the crowd of soccer enthusiasts they produced to fill the meeting room), and it should have been played first, not near the end of the meeting.

I have found that the Historic Preservation Commission -- though it can sometimes get really, really lost in the weeds -- is reasonable when approached properly.

In this case, the issue at hand is -- to my mind -- not only about trying to make the proposed changes as unintrusive as possible, but also to make recreation more equitable in the community.

Demographic changes in Plainfield over the last two decades are being shown in the immense popularity of soccer.

In addition to the fields under consideration, use was made for several years of the area between Randolph Road and Stelle Avenue, where there were an additional two soccer fields unitl the grass reached to point it could not recover from the sustained use.

The open area on Kenyon Avenue behind the high school is also used for soccer, as well as the field adjacent to Maxson and Woodland Schools.

In the West End, there is another heavily used soccer field at Green Brook Park (also a county park), as well as two informal areas in that park that are used for soccer.

In addition, the city has a soccer field adjacent to Rushmore Playground that is used evenings and weekends throughout the season, as well as Milt Campbell Field on East 3rd Street.

The pressure for more soccer space will not let up any time soon, and an equitable recreation environment must include addressing this need.

The county's plans are a step forward in this direction, but should be fine-tuned to meet the Historic Preservation Commission's concerns. The proposal will be continued at the HPC's December 15 meeting, 7:30 PM at City Hall Library.

  -- Dan Damon [follow]

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