Thursday, July 28, 2005

Middle school cuts affect city's development plans

A state decision not to fund a new middle school will change the focus of a 44-block West End revitalization project that hinged on the school's construction.

"This is a huge problem for us," Mayor Albert T. McWilliams said Thursday (July 28, 2005).

The city owns a large lot that was the main part of the proposed school site between Grant and Plainfield avenues along South Second Street. The lot was slated for commercial development before the school district chose the site for the new middle school. With the middle school in limbo, the city will have to revisit development possibilities.

But Henry Mayer of the Edward J. Bloustein School of Policy and Planning at Rutgers University said the West End revitalization plans began taking a new tack about a year ago and housing rehabilitation will begin there, school or no school.

Planning for the project goes back five years and has involved hundreds of residents, professional support staff and officials at local and state levels."We had a stellar effort," McWilliams said.

Mayer heads one of seven centers in the Bloustein school, The National Center for Neighborhood and Brownfields Redevelopment. It led the project through organizational stages to define needs and make an action plan. Funded by two grants from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the project also sought to develop leadership skills for community members who would implement the plan.

Originally called WE NOW (for West End Neighborhood Organization and the slogan, "If not we, who? If not now, when?), the group issued a newsletter in August 2004 announcing that it had drafted bylaws and was forming a board. The project's top priority was rehabilitation of run-down houses, along with bringing jobs and community services to the 210 acres bounded by Central Avenue, Clinton Avenue, NJ Transit tracks and the south side of West Fourth Street.

Since then, the group has reorganized as POWER (Plainfield Organization for West End Revitalization) with former Councilman Al Hendricks as president.

Mayer said within a week the group will apply to a state revitalization tax credit plan to start rehabbing run-down homes. Groups can receive up to $1 million annually if the state has enough money, but Mayer said realistically the group may get about $100,000 to get started. With other grants, it may be possible to spend $600,000 to $700,000 to fix up about five homes in partnership with the Interfaith Council for the Homeless of Union County.

"We're poised to really do some serious revitalization in the West End," POWER Vice President Curtis Conway said.

Conway said in many African-American communities, revitalization really means gentrification - moving one population out to make way for another. But he said POWER will "improve the neighborhood with the people that are there" and will invite all community development corporations in Plainfield to work together on the revitalization.

The city's problems are more complex.

Besides having to rethink plans for the city-owned site, McWilliams said the city also lost about $200,000 a year in tax revenues when a commercial building on West Front Street was converted to a "swing school." Students from Clinton and Emerson elementary schools are now housed there while the state School Construction Corporation completes projects at their old schools. The shutdown of construction has also left many homeowners up in the air as acquisition of property around the middle school bogged down.

McWilliams said if the city had carried out a $3 or $4 million commercial project on the South Second Street site, another $200,000 annually in taxes might have been realized.

Plainfield resident Assemblyman Jerry Green, who usually claims credit for facilitating major institutional upgrades for the schools or for the hospital, told the Courier-News he was "shocked and amazed" at the news.

Mayer said after School Superintendent Larry Leverett resigned in December 2002, the district lost ground to suburban communities in the race to use up the state construction funding. An interim superintendent served until Paula Howard was hired in 2003.

"There are many reasons why the middle school didn't get funded," he said. "The Board of Education and the superintendent didn't act as aggressively as other communities."

--Bernice Paglia
KEYWORDS: Schools, development

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