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Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The big question with the Charter School-Dunn matter is 'Why?'

Why build new on Central Avenue when a perfectly adequate
state-of-the-art school facility (with ample parking) sits vacant
on South Avenue?

There are many questions that will be raised at the Plainfield Zoning Board of Adjustment meeting on Wednesday (August 3), when an application will be heard for a variance to construct a new building (and modify an existing one) for the Barack Obama Green Charter High School on a double lot owned by Flora Dunn, wife of former City Councilor Malcolm R. Dunn.

The property, known as "Treelawn" (about which I wrote three years ago when it was on the market, see here), sits between the duCret School of Art and Questover, a mansion that was once a Muhlenberg Auxiliary showcase home.

The Dunn residence, "Treelawn", when it was on the market in 2013.

While a school is not an allowed use because of the area's R-2 zoning, the board can, after weighing the pros and cons, grant a variance.

Unfortunately, the most important questions about the whole matter cannot be taken up by the Zoning Board.

Most important of these is: "Why finance and build a new school building, when a perfectly adquate school building is vacant and waiting?

The existng building is the former Central Jersey Arts Charter School (CJACS) at 1225 South Avenue, which was shut down at the end of the 2014-2015 school year because of multiple issues, including poor student performance, questionable financial practices and failure to develop a plan to remedy the defects.

CJACS spent millions remodeling the former ARC building on South Avenue (across from the Burger King), turning it into a state-of-the-art complex with a classroom building, a gym/multi-purpose building and a large parking area just past the KFC next door.

The funding for the makeover was provided by the Union County Improvement Authority (UCIA) through a bond issue after the school's original board was superseded by a "Friends of CJACS" board hand-picked by Mr. Erick Torain, who was working on behalf of the UCIA.

The availability and desirability of the South Avenue property may bolster neighbors of the Central Avenue proposal, but the Zoning Board has no brief to compel the charter school applicant to look elsewhere.

Nor can the Zoning Board object because the new use would take the Dunn property off the tax rolls -- to the tune of about $20,000 annually.

Another question that is out of bounds for the Zoning Board is how Barack Obama Green Charter HS intends to pay for the project -- which will have a total footprint of 13,510 square feet (including the renovated residence). A considerable amount of money has already been spent on architectural plans and a stormwater study submitted with the application. There are also rumors circulating that the property is under contract with the school, contingent upon a successful outcome with the Zoning Board.

It would be curious indeed if the UCIA emerges as the underwriter of the project by way of a bond issue. The only thing needed to complete the picture would be the reappearance of the mysterious Mr. Torain.

The Zoning Board of Adjustment meets Wednesday, August 3, at 7:00 PM in City Hall Library. City Hall is at Watchung Avenue and East 6th Street. Parking and entry at the rear.

  -- Dan Damon [follow]

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