Bettering Plainfield with the facts since 2005

Friday, November 6, 2015

YMCA proposal raises questions at Planning Board

The Plainfield YMCA is seeking to convert 60 SRO units
into 30 studio apartments for young people aging out of foster care.

The Plainfield YMCA's
proposal to replace its 60 SRO (single room occupancy) units with 30 studio apartments for foster children aging out of foster care was taken up by the Planning Board last night, under the leadership of chair Ron Scott Bey.

YMCA President and CEO Ravenell Williams appeared with attorney Larry Vastola, who led a bevy of professionals in presenting the project to the board and answering questions.

Though an entirely friendly meeting, the board heard testimony and asked questions for more than two hours -- leading one of the applicant's team members to praise the Plainfield board for the tone of its meeting and the quality of its questions.

In the end, the board unanimously approved the plan.

At one point in the presentation there was a slight wrinkle that caused me to think about the Planning Board process in general.

After discussing parking, trees, lighting and fencing, the focus shifted to the interior of the building.

The architect explained the reconfiguration of the existing rooms into studio apartments with the addition of some new construction, including apartments, an elevator, corridors and an access ramp on the 6th Street side of the building.

A simple question, though, on square footage of the new units led to the most tangled part of the evening's presentation.

Someone simply asked what the range in square footage was for the studio apartments. The architect explained that there were different sizes in part because the approval granted by the Historic Preservation Commission was predicated upon no alterations being made to the building's facade -- including existing window placement.

In any event, the architect gave a minimum (393 sq. ft.) and a maximum (443 sq. ft.) figure -- which turned out to be inaccurate.

This got board members poring over their drawings and led to a discussion not only of that question, but of the regulations concerning minimum sizes for such apartments.

The architect was unprepared, but perhaps for good reason. If this were a commercial project and rents or sales prices were dependent upon the square footage of the units, you can bet your buppie there would have been a chart or table presented. Since this is not a commercial project, such a provision may not have occurred to the presenting team.

The more serious discovery was that the designers had used a standard (the International Building Code) without reference to Plainfield's own regulations -- which, according to Planning Director Bill Nierstedt, are different.

The International Building Code (IBC) developed when three regional code development organizations in the US decided to develop a unitary code. That project got under way in 1994, and its most recent edition is dated 2015. Most land use and construction in the United States is now covered by that code -- which is the one used by the architects in preparing the YMCA project.

So, here are the questions that came to mind --

  1. At what point in the application process should the question of which code governs Plainfield projects have come up? And by whom should it have been brought up -- Plainfield planning officials? or the applicant's team?

  2. Secondly, if the IBC has become the national standard, why has Plainfield not aligned itself with this standard to avoid having this problem crop up at all?
Mayor Mapp has made it a point that he would like to see our planning and zoning processes be more "business friendly".

This sometimes causes anxiety in people's minds because of the fear that it means throwing regulations out altogether and giving in to developers willy-nilly.

However, experiences like last evening's show that there are issues that need to be addressed here in Plainfield that could in fact make the process more applicant-friendly and smoother, the IBC being just one example.

  -- Dan Damon [follow]

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