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Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Muhlenberg plan's Achilles Heel?

2013 Commemoration of Muhlenberg closing.
(l. to r.) Joan Van Pelt, Mother Carolyn Eklund, Dottie Gutenkauf.

Plainfield's Senior Center was packed Monday evening as residents turned out to hear from Mayor Adrian Mapp and Economic Development Director Carlos Sanchez an update on the status of the long-vacant Muhlenberg Hospital property.

In his opening remarks,  Mayor Mapp made the point that the City, in order to get anything at all to happen with the Muhlenberg site, needed to partner with JFK, which is the owner of the property.

He reiterated his opposition to JFK's original proposal for 600 apartment units in several mid-rise buildings, which was also strenuously objected to by neighboring homeowners.

Mapp touched on the process that brought the City to this point.

A five-member committee (Carlos Sanchez and Shep Brown from the Administration, Councilor Bridget Rivers, Planning Board chair Ron Scott Bey and resident Robin Bright) had worked with the City's consultants to refine an RFP and screen respondents. (A representative of JFK sat as a non-voting participant in the committee.)

The Mayor underscored that he was accepting the committee's recommendation, saying "I accept the recommendations of committees that I appoint".

Sanchez then took over, giving an overview of the redevelopment process from the beginning of the Mapp administration 30 months ago to date.

He noted that six responses to the RFP were vetted by the committee and the consultants.

Representatives of the consultant, Real Estate Solutions (RES), outlined the qualities a winning proposal would have to bring to the table, primarily experience with similar projects and the capacity to swing the deal financially. They noted that the developer would have to work out a deal with JFK to acquire the property.

Community Healthcare Associates (CHA) was named as having submitted the winning concept. Its proposal was explained by William Colgan, who walked the audience through the concept, which includes approximately 190,000 square feet for "medical services" and 149,000 square feet for "veterans housing or assisted living for seniors".

He noted that demolition of older parts of the hospital complex would be undertaken as, at 500,000 square feet, it was more than could be sustained.

The cost of the project is estimated to be $49M, which does not include the cost of acquiring the site from JFK.

Colgan noted that one of the City's requirements was that open space be created in the redevelopment, but also that more parking would be needed.

About two dozen residents rose to ask questions or make comments at the end of the presentation. These primarily fell into two groups: expressions of anxiety about the changes to the neighborhood because of the residential component (especially with reference to veterans) and concerns that JFK would limit the "medical services" that could be located on the site.

Committee member Robin Bright (who I surmise was the only dissenting vote) delivered a blistering critique, saying that the presenters avoided mentioning that JFK was insisting on a "non-compete" clause in the sale, which would tie the hands of the developers as to potential medical tenants for the refurbished site.

Mayor Mapp and Colgan said there was no such restriction, but Bright was adamant.

"Why not use condemnation [eminent domain]," she demanded, "we'll never get what we need because JFK will block it." To which the audience responded with applause.

Dr. Harold Yood, whose career was entwined with Muhlenberg, also was skeptical, saying that regardless, the project was "being held hostage by JFK". Colgan responded diplomatically that CHA and JFK had a "relationship of mutual respect".

Aside from worries that JFK would hamper or obstruct the project, thus proving its Achilles heel, several attendees expressed negative views about the prospect of veterans' housing that expressed their anxiety over the vagueness of exactly what kind of residential market would be considered.

It is too bad that the City and the developer could not be more specific, but it was made clear throughout the evening that this is a CONCEPT proposal, not a final PLAN.

That being said, the City and CHA will have a steep hill to climb to ease the minds of the neighbors. (Those of us with long memories will recall the turmoil around the building of the Kingdom Hall on Woodland Avenue, which was also fraught at the time, but which is not even remarked on any more.)

So now the negotiations between CHA and JFK begin.

And the rest of us wait.

  -- Dan Damon [follow]

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