Saturday, July 30, 2005

POP Protests Iraq War in Plainfield

The last Saturday of the month is the day when the Plainfield branch of the People's Organization for Progress holds an anti-war protest on East Front Street. That's the location of the Armed Forces Career Center.

According to a brochure the POP people hand out, the Newark-based organization wants to call attention to links between the Iraq war and "local concerns such as jobs, housing, healthcare, education, racism, police brutatlity and prisoner abuse."

If you are interested in getting involved, show up at 11:00am in front of 112 East Front Street on the last Saturday or attend POP's regular meeting the first Monday of the month.

The meeting is held at Agape Worship Center, 522 East Seventh Street, in Plainfield at 6:30pm.

You can also contact the Plainfield chapter at 908-801-0001

--Barbara Todd Kerr
KEYWORDS: protest

For additional information, click People's Organization for Progress

Spend your Tuesday Night...Out

This Tuesday (Aug. 2, 2005), Plainfield will resume a 14-year tradition by observing National Night Out.

Elizabeth Urquhart, a former City Councilwoman, worked with law enforcement agencies to organize National Night Out crime awareness marches and parties annually beginning in 1988. After she lost her 1st Ward seat in 2002, the city dropped the project.

Urquhart said she urged new council members to hold the event and helped organize the new effort. Part of the funding will come from $2,000 left in the National Night Out city budget line from August 2002.

"I'm pleased," she said. "I'm very happy that they revived it. It raises awareness and promotes camaraderie."

City Council President Linda Carter said one purpose of National Night Out here is to "try to help bring different areas of the city together."

At this outdoor event, she said, "People really get to know their neighbors."

Carter said quite a few block associations have reorganized and are taking part. She said Tiffany Wilson of the Union County Prosecutor's Office is working to help revitalize even more neighborhood groups.

Some block associations have set up web sites to share information and keep busy members in touch with each other, she said.

The celebration begins at 7 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall Plaza and will include a flashlight walk, music, Neighborhood Watch information, a martial arts demonstration, hot dogs and luminaria in several neighborhoods.

Co-sponsors are the City of Plainfield and the Union County Prosecutor's Office, with corporate support from Target Stores and Wachovia Bank.

For more information about this Tuesday's event, contact Councilwoman Linda Carter, Chairperson: 908-963-9135.

--Bernice Paglia
KEYWORDS: community, crime prevention

See National Night Out and the National Association of Town Watch for related information.

A casual Friday in the park

I was hurrying down Leland Avenue Friday afternoon on my way to...oh well, it doesn't matter. Something special caught my eye. I had to step on the brakes, turn around, and find a shady spot to park the car.

At that moment Cook School Park was clearly the better destination.

Memo to busy people: real life is right outside and it can be far more engaging than "reality" TV, Gameboys, or IM-ing friends in Wisconsin.

Isn't it time you introduced your children to the natural world? Go ahead. Wake up. Smell the grass. Feed a few geese.

It could do your children - and you - a world of good.

--Barbara Todd Kerr

KEYWORDS: children & youth

Friday, July 29, 2005

National Kids Day celebrated tomorrow in Plainfield

There will be lots of things for kids to do in Plainfield tomorrow, Saturday July 30. There will be games and prizes, face painting, food, music provided by a DJ and other amusements. The festivities are free and open to all ages.

It will all happen at the new Washington Community School, 427 Darrow Avenue, noon to 5:00pm.

Since 2001, this nationwide event has been sponsored by the Boys & Girls Clubs, usually held the first Saturday in August. This is the fourth annual event for the Plainfield chapter of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Union County. The Plainfield Clubhouse is at 530 West Seventh Street. For more information, call 908-822-8672, x-103.

--Barbara Todd Kerr

KEYWORDS: children & youth

The national Kids Day website is here.
The NJ council's website is here.

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

Star-Ledger: Elizabeth and Plainfield losing school projects

Charter schools in Plainfield

Plainfield’s three charter schools are the only ones in all of Union County.

One has been operating for five years, one will open in September and the third is planning for a September 2006 opening.
A charter school is a public school that operates independently of the district board of education under a charter granted by the Commissioner. Once the charter is approved and established, the school is managed by a board of trustees with status as a public agent authorized by the State Board of Education to supervise and control the school. A charter school is a corporate entity with all the powers needed to carry out its charter program.
--Source: NJ Dept. of Education
NJ charter school fact sheet
Queen City Academy Charter School won state approval in 1999. It opened in 2000 with 177 children in grades K-8 and had 198 students in the 2004-05 school year. Having won renewal of its charter this year, the school is moving toward a maximum of 234 students.

Just as the school was moving last fall from a downtown office building to the former Temple Sholom building on West Seventh Street, it lost its founder, Paula DiVenuto, to an untimely death. But despite the setback, Queen City held its third graduation in June and Lead Person Cynthia Cone said the continued expansion will permit activities including chorus, a band and sports teams.

“The critical mass of kids is necessary,“ she said.

The new campus has trees, grass and parking that were all lacking downtown, she said. And teachers had to pay $250 a year to park in nearby city lots. Now the staff of 19 includes music, art, computer, Spanish and physical education teachers. There is still a waiting list of about 100 children, Cone said.

She is pleased to have another school opening this year. A previous school, Career Academy for Lifelong Learning, had its charter rescinded, leaving Queen City the only charter school in Plainfield for a while.

Cone said having new schools boosts the charter school movement.

“It’s good to have company,“ she said. “I like to think that we had a good, solid run.“ More schools “put the charter school in a good light,“ she said. “Charter schools are a wonderful option for parents and children."

Union County TEAMS (Technology, Engineering, Architecture, Math & Science) Charter School will open in September, executive director Sheila Thorpe said.

The school [link] will operate within the brand new Shiloh Baptist Church complex that opened in March on West Fourth Street. It will have 180 students in grades K-8.

Central Jersey Arts Charter School projects a 2006-07 opening with 248 students in grades K-5.

The Plainfield school district can approve or reject a charter school application and rejected them in the past to protest the loss of state per-pupil funding from the district. Charter schools receive 90 percent of state funding for each child enrolled. But the state Commissioner of Education has the final say on approvals.

As of January 2005, there were 55 approved charter schools in 14 of New Jersey’s 21 counties.

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: education

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

How do you spell R-E-L-I-E-F?

Here come the rain clouds ... and not a moment too soon.


State pension costs could increase city taxes

Increased pension costs levied by the state will drive a projected municipal tax increase from 2.1 percent to 2.76 percent, the City Council learned just prior to the council's evening budget deliberations.

At Tuesday's (July 26, 2005) meeting, City Administrator Norton Bonaparte said $425,582 will have to be added to the budget to cover state pension costs.

He said the council may also have to consider funding the position of assistant Public Works director, a post that Public Works Director Priscilla Castles can claim under civil service rules if she is not reappointed when a new administration takes over in January. The terms of all present appointed administrators and department heads will end Dec. 31 along with the tenure of Mayor Albert T. McWilliams, who lost the hard fought June Democratic primary to Sharon Robinson-Briggs.

If the council does not fund the position of assistant director, Castles will still have "bumping" rights under civil service to another city job, Bonaparte said.

The council is still in the early stages of examining the $61 million budget for fiscal year 2006.

A three-member finance committee presented new initiatives Tuesday to improve public safety, communication with the public, youth opportunities, cultural activities and code enforcement.

The initiatives carry a price tag of $360,000.

The committee also began presenting its line-by-line proposed cuts that would lop off about $850,000. That presentation will continue from 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday (July 28, 2005) in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave.

Resident Dottie Gutenkauf said that the city should make sure the library is thoroughly wired for audio before undertaking the video-taping of council agenda sessions.

The first floor library in city hall is the room where the agenda sessions are held in addition to being the location for most board and commission meetings. It has a noisy air conditioner that sits atop a non-working one in a west window. Gutenkauf said residents who attend the meetings can barely hear the council members' remarks now and questioned how the city's public access television station would handle the sound problems. Gutenkauf also remarked that many programs on Channel 74 already have such poor sound quality that they are unintelligible.

The council proposal would allocate $56,000 for the taping.

Council members did not agree Thursday on the committee's proposal to increase police presence on the streets by moving out desk officers and using Urban Enterprise Zone (UEZ) funds to hire five more officers in addition to five hires included in the budget.

Councilman Don Davis said the issue was not adding officers but finding out how they would be deployed. He said a 22-member special task force now on duty in the city gave the council more time to work on the problem.

Councilman Cory Storch said deployment is strictly up to Police Chief Edward Santiago and also noted the council was told recently that of 121 active officers, 42 are superiors.

Budget talks will be held every Tuesday and Thursday, with a goal of introducing the budget by Aug. 10.

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: city council, budget, taxes

Related story: Star-Ledger--N.J. taxpayers face a pension bill of $383 million

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Council suspends 2 liquor licenses

The crackdowns continued on liquor establishments Monday night (July 25, 2005) as the City Council meted out two suspensions for a liquor store near City Hall and a West Front Street bar.

Acting as the local Alcoholic Beverage Control board, the council imposed a 30-day suspension on Apven-Bam Inc., trading as George W. Bantle Liquors at 438 Watchung Avenue and a 12-day suspension, to include two weekends, on Luigi Terraglia, trading as Pueblo Viejo at 311-17 West Front Street.

Frank Capece, the city‘s attorney for ABC matters, said the Watchung Avenue store had four instances of selling liquor to underage persons since 2002. Under ABC laws, he said, the fourth violation should have triggered revocation of the store’s liquor license. But because the violations dated back to 2002, the council chose the more lenient penalty.

Barbara "M." Maisto, a corporate lawyer for licensee Barbara "A." Maisto, said a July 2 auto accident had left the licensee totally incapacitated until mid-September and asked for an adjournment to that time. When a reporter asked about the relationship between the two similarly named women, the attorney refused to answer.

The attorney said the store was the sole livelihood of the licensee and it would violate her 14th Amendment rights to due process to hold the hearing without letting her respond to the charges.
But citing the violations, Capece said, “It’s rare that you ever get a case so black and white.”

Capece said holding a liquor license was a privilege that implied certain responsibilities.

“I can think of no more basic responsibility than that you don’t sell liquor to minors,” he said.
Police Captain Anthony Celentano said some of the charges resulted from “integrity checks,” in which undercover police officers under 21 attempted to buy liquor in so-called “sting” operations.

The Pueblo Viejo settlement came out of an agreement between manager Taufik Palacios and the Police Division that the nightclub would work with Celentano to screen security guards and monitor conditions at the club.

Palacios said gangs such as the Latin Kings and Salvadoran groups caused trouble at the club. He said management had installed 32 cameras to monitor activity in the club.

“That’s the best I can do,” he said.

Noting that most of the 27 police calls over six months about fights or narcotic distribution were from the management itself, Capece said the council should not use the volume of calls to decide the case.

City Council President Linda Carter and Councilman Cory Storch opposed the settlement.

Carter asked why the club was not getting 15 or 30 days‘ suspension. Capece said he asked for “what was defensible” if the matter was appealed.

But Carter said things shouldn’t have gone so far before the action plan was devised.

“There is more they could have done,“ she said.

“This is a dangerous place, right in the middle of the downtown,” Storch said.

Both license holders can appeal the suspensions to the state ABC board and Capece said he framed his cases with those appeals in mind.

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: Liquor licenses, public hearing

Related story: Drink Up (6/28/05)

Final daze for the old "chiller-boiler" at the Plainfield Public Library

Yep, that's what they called it, the "chiller-boiler" -- a term that always made me laugh.

The old unit has been struggling for a few years. Eventually the cement-encased heating and cooling plant, planted in the rear parking lot, had to be supplanted. The old equipment could no longer keep up and chiller-boiler took on new meaning: it chilled library workers in winter and parboiled bibliophiles during the swoon of summer.

Yes, the chiller-boiler's days were numbered and the numbers ran out yesterday.

--Barbara Todd Kerr

KEYWORDS: library

In the shade!

Drink more water.

CITY COUNCIL: Finance committee presentation tonight

A three-member City Council finance committee is seeking full council approval for new initiatives that would cost $360,000 and increase the governing body’s own budget by 215 percent.

The committee’s line-by-line budget cuts totaling $890,881 and the new proposals will be up for discussion from 7 to 9 p.m. tonight (July 26, 2005) in City Hall Library. Time will be allotted for the public to speak.

Committee members Cory Storch, Rayland Van Blake and Ray Blanco developed their plans over several weeks of scrutinizing the $61 million budget the administration has proposed for the fiscal year that began July 1.

The committee proposes spending $56,000 to televise council agenda sessions so residents can “view the thought process” of the governing body. Another $52,500 would be split equally among the seven council members to improve communication with constituents through newsletters, television programs or local community organizers.

The “College Scholars Public Service Initiative” would provide each member with a full-time trainee “to nurture the next generation of public servants” at a cost of $52,500.

The committee recommends an increase of $70,000 for youth employment after school, $7,000 to support and recognize senior citizens, $50,000 for new trees, $42,000 for the arts, $5,000 more for Pop Warner Baseball and $25,000 for an outside management consultant for the code enforcement program.

The council began budget deliberations two weeks ago, starting with capital improvements. Members have also interviewed Public Works Superintendent John Louise, Deputy City Administrator Pat Ballard Fox, Public Safety Director Jiles Ship, Acting Police Chief Steven Soltys, City Engineer Carl Turner and Inspections Division Director Jocelyn Pringley.

Tonight’s meeting is scheduled to be solely devoted to the Finance Committee’s report.

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: city council, finance, budget


Proposed FY 2006 Budget: $61,805,876

Budget increase over FY 2005: 4.5 %

Total tax levy: $5.163
County: $0.700
School: $1.390
Municipal: $3.073

Increase in Total Tax Levy over FY 2005: $.098 (1.90%)
Total Tax Levy Impact on Average Homeowner: $109.82

Municipal Tax Levy Rate: $3.073
Increase in Municipal Tax Levy Rate over FY 2005: $.063 ($2.09)
Municipal Tax Levy Impact on Average Homeowner: $70.60

Source: City of Plainfield, Administration & Finance Department

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Technical difficulties

The best of intentions can be dashed on the rocks of technology when a small but important part of one's computer decides to go on strike.

I made a phone order (vs an online purchase) Thursday and a replacement should be winging its way toward Plainfield. We'll be back soon ... maybe Monday, maybe Tuesday ...

--Barbara Todd Kerr
(with many thanks to Liz McCraven for the use of her home "technology center")

Thursday, July 21, 2005

CITY COUNCIL: Bond ordinance passes 4-3 on first reading

A $16.5 million bond ordinance won preliminary approval Monday (July 18, 2005) only after residents and council members voiced concern over its size.

The bond ordinance includes funding for a new senior center, roads, technology improvements in municipal buildings and roof repairs at police, fire and administrative buildings. The City Council will hold a public hearing before a final vote at a special meeting 8 p.m. August 8 at City Hall Library.

Councilman Cory Storch
strongly supported passage of the ordinance, saying the city had deferred maintenance of roads and buildings too long.

Several of the items had been authorized in previous bond ordinances, but funding was never carried out, Finance Director Ron West said.

But numerous speakers said the bond ordinance was too big and its repayment would burden generations to come.

“My concern is with the amount of money,“ former Councilman Malcolm Dunn said, calling it “a tremendous long-term burden.”

Dunn asked whether the repayment plan would adhere to guidelines that former interim Finance Director Robert Casey recommended for debt management. Officials assured Dunn that the debt service would not exceed Casey‘s $5 million annual limit.

Former Mayor Rick Taylor was more outspoken, calling the ordinance “a cavalier plan to bankrupt the city.”

Resident Dottie Gutenkauf read a long list of items included in the bond ordinance and said, “It looks to me like the city is going to pay off $5 million forever.“

Even though City Administrator Norton Bonaparte said it was a “very common practice“ for cities to take on debt for long-term items, Councilmen Ray Blanco and Don Davis also objected and tried to have the ordinance tabled. That vote failed, with Blanco, Davis and City Council President Linda Carter voting “yes“ and council members Rashid Burney, Rayland Van Blake, Joanne Hollis and Storch voting “no.“ Then with only Blanco, Davis and Carter opposing, the measure passed on first reading.

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: city council, ordinance, budget

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Talking tough on the 2006 budget

City Council members are taking a tough stance on budget requests this year, demanding to know that administrators have tried everything to reduce costs.

The council has begun to hear division and department heads explain their requests for the fiscal year that began July 1. Members are meeting on Tuesdays and Thursdays to deliberate on Mayor Albert T. McWilliams’ proposed $61 million budget. Finance Director Ron West said the mayor’s budget is up 4.5 percent over last year and includes funding for 12 more police officers on the street . Taxpayers would see a 2.1 percent increase to $3.07 per $100 of assessed valuation, or $70 [updated figure] for the average homeowner, West said.

Even though the mayor’s New Democrats now dominate the council, they were not rubber-stamping his administration’s budget requests. Councilman Ray Blanco responded to a $23,000 capital request for office furniture with one word: "IKEA."

City Council President Linda Carter and Blanco repeatedly grilled city staffers on whether they had sought grants to offset municipal funding.

"Have we searched high and low for funding?" Blanco said in a discussion of capital costs for a new senior center.

West said the city sought Urban Enterprise Zone funding and asked Senators Jon Corzine and Frank Lautenberg for help.

Blanco asked whether West had sought state redevelopment funds, but West said he hadn’t seen a way to do so. He did look into whether banks could apply Community Reinvestment Act funding, he said.

Carter said the city’s new Community Development Director, Al Restaino, needed to look at "whatever funding we can get from whatever source."

The talks on July 12 and 14 revealed some new plans.

  • Public Works Supervisor John Louise said his division is seeking new equipment that will allow in-house street repairs to preserve roads that are in good to fair condition. Because of deferred maintenance in past years, the city faces having to pay $75 million over 15 years to fix roads in poor or very poor condition.

  • City Engineer Carl Turner said new state storm water regulations will mean extensive costs to amend ordinances to comply. The stiff new regulations may also mean residents will have to bag all leaves, because the city can’t guarantee that leaves raked into the street will be removed within seven days.

  • Computers in all city buildings will eventually be linked the city in a "technology infrastructure" upgrade, starting with City Hall, City Hall Annex and public safety buildings.

  • Five new cars will be needed for inspectors hired recently to enforce a safe housing program that will focus on overcrowding.

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: city council, budget

Monday, July 18, 2005

Bomb scare empties City Hall and YMCA

Watchung Avenue between 5th and 6th Streets is blocked at 10:15 am.

According to our first report, there is a suspected bomb in the mailbox in front of City Hall.

City workers wait patiently behind the building.

Children evacuated from the YMCA across the street stand in line along Cleveland Avenue.

--Barbara Todd Kerr
[UPDATE - Bernice reports:] A mid-morning bomb scare emptied City Hall and the YMCA Monday (July 18,2005) and drew a swift response from city and county public safety agencies.
The huge Union County Bomb Squad truck, with its round blue container and its robot, dominated the scene as police held people back from City Hall. Smoke from a mailbox led to the investigation and officials found charred letters and a watch inside.
Plainfield police and fire personnel, postal officials and Union County Haz-Mat and Emergency Response trucks converged on the scene at 515 Watchung Avenue.
Plainfield Postmaster Richard J. Firstmeyer said the evidence collected by police will be turned over to U.S. Postal Service inspectors to check for fingerprints.
About a dozen singed letters and a yellow greeting card envelope with charred corners were strewn on the brick plaza in front of City Hall as the bomb squad left. A gloved police officer put the damaged mail into a large, clear plastic bag and a Public Works employee swept a small pile of ashes into a dustpan.

The buildings were evacuated around 9:45 a.m. and people were allowed to return to City Hall and the YMCA about an hour later.
The event disrupted a normally very busy day for City Hall staffers.
“It‘s a Monday - I was banging off my tasks right and left,” Deputy City Administrator Pat Ballard Fox said as she stood outside waiting for the all-clear. “Productivity is shot.”
But in light of current security concerns, Ballard Fox said, “They had to do it.”
Bicyclist Michael Moore, 21, found his way blocked on Watchung Avenue but was less perturbed by the bomb scare than by the city‘s rash of 11 homicides.
“They still ain‘t doing nothing out here,” the lifelong resident said.
At the YMCA, front desk supervisor Annie Williams-Crouch said , “The evacuation went well. We got the children out of the building in less than two minutes and the residents less than three minutes.”
The building houses children’s programs as well as a residence for single men and a homeless shelter. Williams-Crouch said maintenance worker Patrick Smith alerted staff to the emergency and she and administrative assistant Theresa McCoy led the evacuation

--Bernice Paglia
KEYWORDS: City Hall, bomb, police

Sunday, July 17, 2005

CITY COUNCIL: Bond ordinance, senior center funding to be in Monday's vote

Funding for construction of the new senior center will be voted on at Monday’s (July 18, 2005) City Council meeting. That vote will be part of the proposed $16.5 million bond ordinance that includes $4.3 million to build a new senior center.

Officials held a ceremonial ground-breaking for the center on a vacant East Front Street lot in May at which former basketball player Jayson Williams attended. Although Mayor Albert T. McWilliams lauded Williams for launching the effort to get a new center built through the Jayson Williams Foundation, that organization has since bowed out of the project.

Back in December 2003, the City of Plainfield and the former New Jersey Nets player signed a “memorandum of understanding” for the development of a senior center and performing arts complex. The city was to acquire properties on East Front and adjacent lots on East Second Street and would retain rights to the land and would lease it to the foundation for $1 a year. After 12 years, the land and buildings would have reverted solely to the city.

Jayson Williams was empowered to choose a contractor and get financing, but the project stalled. Now rather than start from scratch, West said, the city will use engineering firms hired by Williams to proceed with the project. Subsequently, two of those firms have turned to the city sending invoices for work already done, he said.

At last Monday’s (July 11, 2005) council agenda setting meeting, Administration & Finance Director Ron West said the city is now working with the Foundation to arrange a transfer of rights to the project. When asked about a timeline West said the city could begin construction on the center by late September or early October.

Seniors have consistently demanded their own brand-new center to replace rented quarters at 305 East Front Street. The annual lease is more than $90,000. They previously rejected the offer of space in the basement of the renovated Tepper's building. They have also turned aside suggestions that the Plainfield Armory at East Seventh Street and Leland Ave and could be converted for their use. The armory is on the market for $1 million but would need extensive rehabilitation.

The bond ordinance will be up for a council vote on first reading at the July 18 regular meeting, 8 p.m. in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave. Other major items in the ordinance are $8 million for roadway construction and $1.2 million for "technology infrastructure."

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: City council, senior center

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Charter school: community + a building = TEAMS

Empty hallways lead to empty class rooms, but that will all change come September when Plainfield’s newest charter school to receive state approval opens its doors for the very first time.

“We are community builders,” says Sheila Thorpe, executive director of Union County TEAMS charter school.

The founders chose the name TEAMS, an acronym, because it stands for two aspects of the school‘s theme--Technology, Engineering, Architecture, Math & Science--and the teamwork that goes into new development.

One of the motivations for bringing the school to life was answering the question, “How can [we] work in our community to make it better?” Thorpe explained. “Young people need to understand--very early--how they can be a part of that.”

The school cleared its last hurdle July 6, when the Plainfield Zoning Board of Adjustment gave approval for it to open in the new Shiloh Baptist Church building on West Fourth Street.

Although the school and church are separate, the school will have an advantage over many charter start-ups in that it has access to a full gymnasium, music room and nurse’s office that are all part of Shiloh’s new Community Life and Cultural Arts Center, a multi-purpose complex. Next year, Thorpe said, the school will be able to use a state-of-the-art kitchen in the center for food preparation. The school is leasing its space from the church.

We toured the school a week after the final approvals were granted. Thorpe said that the spark that launched the charter school came in planning the church’s reconstruction. The old church had been built in the 1930s with money raised by the congregation, but actual building had become too small and outmoded for the needs of the 21st century. It was razed to make way for the expansive new $12 million church.

The opportunity to rebuild the church led congregants and community members to form a think tank on how to use the experience.

“What better way to do it than with a charter school?‘ Thorpe said. “The building itself was a learning.”
But it doesn’t stop there. The 180 incoming students will learn all their academic subjects with a special emphasis on “understanding the built environment,” Thorpe said, noting that proficiencies required by the state Department of Education are the same ones desired and needed to redevelop communities.

The school will have nine full-time and five part-time teachers. The principal will be Sandra Harrison, a former principal at Hubbard Middle School. Thorpe and Harrison said the K-8 structure will afford a sense of community that is missing in the current K-5, and 6-thru-8 grade divisions.

For those who are unaware, charter schools are public schools and receive public funding. The school will start with a $1.8 million budget from state and local funding, Thorpe said.

Union County TEAMS will join Queen City Academy, which has been operating for five years and has received their charter renewal for another five years. A third charter school, Central Jersey Arts School, is still in the planning phase and is scheduled to open in September 2006.

To date, the three approved charter schools in Plainfield are the sole charter initiatives in all of Union County.
When Union County TEAMS opens this September it will also mark a new chapter in Sheila Thorpe’s long career in education. She began teaching 36 years ago in New York and joined the Plainfield district 2 years later. After 20 years of teaching she became an administrator and on September 1 she will celebrate her retirement as the Plainfield school system’s director of staff development.

--Bernice Paglia and Barbara Todd Kerr

KEYWORDS: education

Friday, July 15, 2005

Feeling the heat?

No, it's not in Plainfield, but residents needing fuel on Washington Ave in Piscataway were confronted with this blazing extortion message.

We recommend staying in town or sticking to Route 22 for a 20-cent-per-gallon savings.

--Barbara Todd Kerr

KEYWORDS: Around town

Seen on South Ave - high and very dry

Four orphaned auto rugs were seen hanging out at the car wash in the 800 block of South Avenue patiently waiting for their owner to return. It had been a while...the pavement in the washing stall was well on its way to dry.

--Barbara Todd Kerr

KEYWORDS: Around town

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Done Deal: Zoning gives it to Abbott in a 5-to-0 vote

Residents lined the walls of the City Hall Library tonight waiting for the impending vote by Plainfield's Zoning Board of Adjustment on the Abbott Manor construction project. When the application passed by a unanimous role call vote, Plainfielders reacted unanimously - in disgust - many saying "Shame on you," as the entire group got up and walked out of City Hall and gathered in the parking lot.

The long-awaited vote was preceded by the reading by the board's attorney of a previously prepared document. It set out general and specific conditions the applicant must abide by should the many zoning variances required be approved. As the list of points stretched toward 20 items, the restlessness in the room intensified.

During the reading there were repeated references made to a July 1 letter sent to the board by Steven C. Rother, Esq. the nursing home's attorney, however no details of the letter were made public during tonight's proceedings.

There was little additional discussion by the five board members present - David Graves (Chair), Sally Hughes, Linda Hines, Sandy Lawrence, and Bill McNeill - and so the vote was taken.

The Rev. Carolyn Ecklund of Grace Episcopal Church invited the group that assembled to relocate from City Hall to the Rectory for refreshments. The Rectory is next door to the open lot that is a key piece of the expansion plan. [See parcel #30 in the adjacent property map.]

Many of those who showed up for the impromptu get-together expressed feelings that the outcome had been - in some way - predetermined. The clue, they said, was one of the items on the list of conditions -- that Abbott Manor's corporate parent would indemnify the city against future litigation.

COMMENT: Given the tenaciousness of Abbott Manor/CPR Holdings' pursuit of this case, not to mention the seeming endless well of money they had to spend to get their way. The indemnifiation alone could easily "save" the city a million bucks. Is that protection money against angry citizens' lawsuits?

--Barbara Todd Kerr

KEYWORDS: Abbott Manor, historic district, Van Wyck Brooks Historic District, zoning

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

ClayMaster Carlos:
Portrait of the artist as a young sculptor

“You’re a clay master!” Kevin Marquez, 9, exclaimed as he watched his friend Carlos Vela placing intricate sculpted figures on star-shaped wooden platforms.

At the age of 11, Carlos has five years of sculpting under his belt. On Saturday, he plans to branch out from the Young People’s Room at the Plainfield Public Library, his informal studio, to take part in the 42nd Plainfield Outdoor Festival of Art at Library Park.

Councilman Ray Blanco and Flor GonzalezMost of his creations are modeled on Pokemon characters, but Carlos said he has also made a replica of his hometown, Bogota, Colombia. Because he prefers a soft oil-based clay that he gets at a nearby dollar store, his figures are easily damaged. Carlos said he returned from a trip to the shore this week to find his young cousin had mashed up her favorite characters with over-enthusiastic handling.

Over time, Carlos says, he has made as many as 1,000 figures.

“But most of them got wrecked,” he said.

To make the figures more stable, for the art show, he said, his sister Michelle, 10, volunteered to paint the wooden stars to use as bases.

If by any chance schoolmates at Maxson Middle School or other fans don’t see a character they like, Carlos will custom make one on the spot.

The figures are unique for their detail - claws, fins, wings and markings in brilliant, contrasting colors. To make them more distinctive for the art show, Carlos said, he is modifying some of their poses. Instead of standing four-square on its little hooves, a gray horse-like creature raises one hoof in greeting to the viewer.

Not everyone has a lifetime goal in mind at age 11, but Carlos does. He’s sticking with sculpting.

--Bernice Paglia

KEYWORDS: Plainfield Art Festival, art, youth

COMMENT: Carlos uses regular modeling clay that he buys at toy stores. He likes it because of the colors available and it's pliability. Problem is, it's very fragile -- a fact that will make his ability to sell, or even to preserve, his art very difficult. Here is an opportunity for a local potter or clay sculptor to give a young artist some advice, or even become a mentor. - BK

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Meetings this week: Council tonight and the Abbot Manor vote on Wednesday

TONIGHT - TUESDAY - July 12 - 7pm - City Council, budget meeting - City Hall Library

To get a ringside seat on the city's budget hearings, be at City Hall Library from 7 to 9 p.m. And mark your calendars for many more Tuesdays and Thursdays to come.

Budget hearings, in which department and division heads make their pitches to the City Council for funding in 2005-06, began July 7 and are scheduled to continue through Oct. 27 on Tuesdays and Thursdays. All the budget sessions are from 7 to 9 p.m. in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave.

Comment: The budget was a big issue in last month's primary elections. There was a lot of finger-pointing during the campaign but citizens had no way of separating truth from spin. Citizens need to be present in order to understand decisions and how they were made.

WEDNESDAY - July 13 - 7pm - Zoning Board of Adjustment - City Hall Library

A BIG decision: The Abbott Manor project, a five-year-long (or thereabouts) series of public hearings, is coming to a vote (though it may not be the end of the story).

The corporate owners of the Abbott Manor nursing home at 810 Central Avenue have requested a multitude of variances for their Central Avenue property and for an adjoining West 8th Street lot next to the Episcopal Church Rectory. Abbott Manor is located in the Van Wyck Brooks Historic District. One of Plainfield's stately homes, it was converted from that use decades ago; the building is an architecturally contributing structure for the district.

There is no proposal to tear down the original structure, however the size of the addition Abbott wants to build into the backyard and extend onto the side lot remains substantial.

Over the course of time this project has been opposed by many more Plainfielders than it has been supported by city residents. The Abbott organization has made and submitted numerous revisions to their original plan, but their fundamental desire for major construction and expansion of the existing facility has not changed.

Public comment has ended; Wednesday night the Board will vote after years of testimony and legal wrangling. I expect this meeting could be standing room only thus my advice: Get there early.

--Barbara Todd Kerr

DISCLOSURE: I rented an apartment for 14 years in the Van Wyck Brooks House on West 8th Street. I have attended many of these zoning meetings over the years. I personally oppose this construction effort and it's previous this location. And I have testified before the Zoning Board about my concerns.

KEYWORDS: Abbott Manor, historic district, Van Wyck Brooks Historic District, zoning