Sunday, July 30, 2006

Condos: A Tough Sell?

In a July 26 Board of Adjustment meeting, planning expert Michael Jovishoff described Maxim Development Group’s proposed 64-unit building as “the first transit-oriented residential project in the city.”

“It is the pioneer,” he said later, when board attorney Richard Olive asked why Jovishoff wanted it as a “star project.“

The building would be a quarter-mile from the Netherwood train station and the developer expects to sell the units to single persons and couples without children, who want to commute to work by rail.

But if site owner Sal Carfaro gets a use variance for the project in the 800 block of South Avenue, he said he intends to seek approval for a second four-story building in the 900 block. Another developer, Dornoch Holdings, unveiled a plan July 11 to build a new senior center with 64 condos upstairs within walking distance of the main train station

While Maxim’s project may be a pioneer in transit-oriented development, several residents questioned how Carfaro would prevent the building from turning into rental units if it doesn‘t attract buyers willing to spend $350,000 for a 1- or 2-bedroom condo. In light of a city plan to increase residential density around two existing train stations and two defunct station sites, some observers seem to be anticipating a glut of similar proposals that may or may not pan out.

Carfaro said he plans to include amenities that will attract buyers, such as an onsite gym.

The residents’ worries may have been premature, since the hearing had to be carried over to Sept. 13 and no use variance approval is yet in sight. Then Maxim will have to gain site plan approval before construction can begin.

But just out of curiosity, Plaintalker examined tax records for a condo conversion that took place in the late 1980s. Meadowbrook Village in 1938 was the first garden apartment complex on the East Coast. It later deteriorated and became not just run-down, but dangerous. Police Officer Abigail Powlett was killed there in the line of duty.

It was later cleaned out and completely refurbished. The renovated units were put up for sale for under $100,000, touted as a way to gain home ownership.

According to tax records, about half of the 180 units have private owners. Eighty-two are owned by New Meadowbrook Associates, the redeveloper. Several others are now on the tax rolls as exempt, because they are owned by non-profit social service agencies.

Overall, Plainfield households break down into half renters and half owners, according to census figures.

Questioners put Carfaro on the spot July 26 over the issue of rentals, but he refused to speculate on what might happen in the future. He pointed out that once a person buys a property, it can be rented out.

“So there is no way of preventing 70 percent of the units to be rental property,” Olive said.

Resident Sandy Gurshman asked whether Carfaro had done a marketing study on prices of the condos versus freestanding 3- and 4-bedroom homes.

“I’m risking my money and my capital,“ Carfaro said, noting if he sold the units for $100, everybody would buy one.

“I recognize that it’s your money,” Gurshman said, “but we have to live with the consequences."

The next hearing will allow further questions and comments from residents. It will be at 7 p.m. Sept. 13 in City Hall Library.

--Bernice Paglia


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