Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Council Hesitant About Church Group's Development Plans

A church-based group that is poised to build 10 homes on failed redevelopment sites ran into City Council fears that the new proposal might also fall through.

On Monday (Nov. 14, 2005), the council discussed the plan to sell 13 city-owned parcels to Kings Temple Community Development Corp. for $465,000. The agreement calls for completion of the one-family homes within 12 to 18 months, employing as much local labor as possible.

The lots had been among 67 that the city previously turned over to a Westfield-based development group. Only about 30 homes were built, including some that were ridiculed for anomalies such as a 27-step front entry on Clinton Avenue and an angled setback on West Front Street, before the plan fell apart in litigation. The scheme was part of a massive redevelopment plan for 197 sites across the city.

Rev. Gary Kirkwood, his family and church members listened as the council fretted because some documentation was missing from their packets and because of the number of lots involved. Originally, only four of the 197 lots were allotted to non-profit housing groups.

Finance Director Ron West told the council the city had decided last year to offer the remaining New Century sites to for sale to non-profits and some were sold to Habitat for Humanity and Faith, Bricks and Mortar. The 13 lots, merged into 10 sites, attracted 10 interested firms, he said. But Kings Temple emerged as the only community development group among three finalists.

All the properties have liens and foreclosure problems that the city is trying to resolve in talks with Bank of America, West said. The sale price would go toward paying off the mortgages, special counsel Joseph Maraziti said, noting the city has a "major public policy interest" in redeveloping the properties rather than having them put out for foreclosure.

The proposal still must be "blessed by the court," Maraziti said.

But council members balked when they found out the 40-page agreement they received did not contain information that Maraziti had.

"You're asking the governing body to vote on something without all the information," Councilman Don Davis said.

Councilman Rashid Burney noted the agreement only called for 51 percent local hiring and even then, just for the group to make its "best effort" to do so.

Councilman Ray Blanco questioned how the group would address the fact that two sites are in one of the city's historic districts and will be subject to review by the Historic Preservation Commission.

"I don't see anything about the historic district in here," he said, riffling through the agreement.

City Council President Linda Carter voiced the most apprehension.

"I have a huge fear because of what we already faced with New Century Homes," she said. "I think it is a big project."

Carter said she didn't think the agreement gave enough assurance for the city.

"I can't approve this," she said. "I'm not comfortable with it.

"But after being promised the missing information, all but Davis agreed to have the matter put up for a vote next Monday (Nov. 21, 2005).

Kirkwood spoke during the public comment portion late in the meeting, saying he was not sure how or why all the documents didn't get to the council members."

Our church is committed to this project," he said.

Kirkwood said it was "not right and not fair" for the ministry to be judged incapable of building 10 homes because it had not done so before.

"I'm asking you now to vote for our ministry," he said.

Earlier, while residents waited for the council to come out of closed session and open the meeting, Kirkwood told The Plaintalker he had been in Plainfield since 1983. Kings Temple Ministries has a church and a school on New Street and also leases out a food concession at the corner of New and West Front Street. Kirkwood's longtime wish to have a radio station came true in 2003, when he acquired WKMB in Stirling and began Harvest Radio with a gospel format at 1070 AM. The station and the community development corporation have offices at 120 West Seventh Street in the city.

"Our commitment is to improve the quality of life - that's it," he said. "We want to be part of the continued revitalization of Plainfield."

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: redevelopment