Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Redevelopment Study Hearing Next Week

Disclosure: I had my blogger hat on when I went to the North Avenue rally tonight but then I got a call to file for the Courier News. So I will let you read about it there with more details on the blog later. The gist of it is that Latinos are forming a political action group and will seek more information on redevelopment plans that might dislocate the bustling North Avenue business community.

Meanwhile, Plainfielders will have to rest up over the long Labor Day weekend for a hectic short week to follow.

On Tuesday, the City Council meets at 7:30 p.m. in City Hall Library. Plaintalker will post advance notice Tuesday afternoon of interesting items. The regular Board of Adjustment meeting is on Wednesday and on Thursday there is both a Planning Board meeting and a City Council meeting, both at 8 p.m. The Planning Board meets in City Hall Library for a hearing on the Richmond Street/East Third Street redevelopment study and the council meets in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.

The “in need of redevelopment” study is on file in the Planning office. The study area includes several PMUA-owned sites, a large tract owned by RTN LLC of 930 Newark Ave., Elizabeth and several lots owned by LJ Real Property of Martinsville. The UCIA hired Remington & Vernick Engineers of Haddonfield to do the study.

The RTN holdings include the former Cozzoli Machine Company, which the engineering firm listed as a “known contaminated site” that was vacated in 2003. The report lists a case number, but Plaintalker could not locate it on the state Department of Environmental Protection web site.

The study found that all the properties were in need of redevelopment. The hearing Sept. 7 will detail the reasons and next step is for the Planning Board to recommend the findings to the City Council, which authorized the study. Then the council can ask for a redevelopment plan that broadly outlines the kind of development to take place there.

The speed and volume of redevelopment moves since the UCIA was designated in June to guide the city’s future will inevitably result in glitches. For example, there are two versions of the Richmond Street resolution floating around, both dated Aug. 23.

A version handed out to the public on Aug. 23 does not have exactly the same block and lot list as one on file in the Planning Division. Because some members of the public (and most likely some property owners) are struggling to keep up with the details, it behooves officials to double-check what is disseminated.

--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Let Sun Shine On Development

For those who don’t frequent City Council meetings, the difference between resolutions and ordinances may not be of high interest. And the difference between resolutions passed all together on a “consent” agenda and those separated out for a voice vote may be of even less interest.

However, citizens who want to follow the action on redevelopment may want to pay close attention to how decisions are approved by the governing body.

What’s at stake? Major city-owned tracts may be placed tentatively in the hands of a developer with little explanation to the public, or should we say to the couple dozen people who regularly bother to come to council meetings. The public at large in this city of more than 47,000 residents may never know nor care about such decisions, being busy with more immediate family concerns or just trusting the elected officials to do the right thing while the citizens aren’t paying attention.

In June, a far-reaching agreement between the city and the Union County Improvement Authority was added to the agenda session at the last minute and then passed on the consent agenda at the regular meeting. As stated in the explanation of the consent agenda, “All matters listed with an (asterisk) are considered to be routine and non-controversial by the City Council and will be enacted by one motion. There will be no separate discussion on these items unless a council member or citizen so request, in which event, the item will be removed from the consent agenda ...“

“Routine and non-controversial” matters have normally been stuff like refunds of overpaid taxes, allowing sidewalk encroachments, letting people put up banners, accepting grants and approving bid awards. Awarding entities redevelopment rights on city-owned land seems a little more weighty and perhaps deserving of more open discussion.

Given the city’s track record of failed development, it’s a touchy subject and it’s no wonder officials would rather keep things on the downlow until everything is just right.

But lumping these matters in with auctions of surplus police equipment or abandoned cars just seems wrong.

Plaintalker will attempt to decipher these moves and put them out for all to see so that anyone who has an opinion will be able to give it in a timely way.

--Bernice Paglia


By way of demanding respect, new City Council President Rayland Van Blake raised his voice and gaveled resident Murray Roberts Aug. 23 for talking after his time at the microphone was up.

Roberts had been reading a long editorial on squalid conditions in a house where Raynard Brown allegedly killed Orange Police Detective Kieran Shields. The house was a filthy hangout for squatters and street people and had numerous code violations, a subject dear to hearts of Murray and Helga Roberts.

Roberts tried to finish reading, but Van Blake made him stop.

“I’m really disappointed in you, Mr. Van Blake,“ Roberts said.

A few minutes earlier, Van Blake was applauded when the told Councilman Cory Storch, “I do not appreciate the way in which you brought your issue to the council.”

Storch had asked for a consent vote on a major redevelopment proposal to be a voice vote instead, saying the developer had not resolved all the issues connected with a prior project.

Democratic Party Chairman Jerry Green later rose to praise Van Blake for his hard line, saying, “It’s taken less than one meeting for you to grow up and be a professional.“

Green, a state Assemblyman, urged Van Blake to remain tough and said he himself never allows anyone to disrespect him.

“It’s time people stop embarrassing the city,“ he said.

Green told Van Blake, “As a young man, you have gained respect as never before.“

He said citizens should get behind Van Blake and “stop trying to destroy the city” with negative comments.

Van Blake succeeded the late Ray Blanco, who at his last meeting on July 21 removed from the agenda some late submissions from the administration.

“This administration will not be made fools of again by anyone,” Blanco said forcefully.

Addressing City Administrator Carlton McGee, Blanco thundered, “You are under orders to get this administration in order.“

Blanco said he had done everything in his power to make the administration look good and repeated, “I will not be made a fool of again.“

He praised the current council as having “the moral and political fortitude to withstand anything,” but said there were deadlines and rules for submissions to the governing body.

“Mr. President, we hear you loud and clear,” McGee said, adding there was “no disrespect intended.“

Given the range of perceived disrespect in the two meetings - governing body dissed by administration, a council member piping up out of turn and a citizen abusing his right to public comment - Plaintalker suggests maybe all involved need to find out what respect means to each party.

Blanco’s reaction came after repeated “walk-ons,“ last-minute submissions from the administration. Indeed, before Blanco came in late from a New York event, there was a request at the regular meeting to add an item on the spot, without the public having any chance to see it.

Van Blake’s actions, while setting a tone, made it seem unruly of Storch to speak his conscience and smote one citizen while others talked over the limit. Before the next regular meeting on Sept. 7, maybe everybody can think about respect - just a little bit.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Council Doings

By way of disclosure, I covered the City Council meeting tonight (Aug. 23, 2006) for the Courier News, specifically on the choice of a successor to the late Ray Blanco. For the blog, suffice it to say it was Harold Gibson.

Rayland Van Blake, who was named president pro tem Monday, was also named president pro tem again Wednesday before being named president to serve through the rest of 2006. The council observed a moment of silence in memory of Blanco.

The administration withdrew an ordinance that set new fees for Certificate of Compliance inspections, from $50 to $175 for residential units. Another ordinance that provided for higher fees for various building fees was also withdrawn for further review.

A resolution for the city to apply to the Council on Affordable Housing for regional contribution agreements had been withdrawn Monday. Resident Nancy Piwowar reminded the council Wednesday that the city had taken a firm stand in 1988 against accepting other municipalities’ affordable housing obligations in return for money.

Six resolutions related to redevelopment were up for approval by consent, but Councilman Cory Storch asked for one on the Marino’s tract to be voted on separately. Storch said the proposed developer, AST Development Corp., had done another project in the city (Park-Madison) but that there were “a number of significant unresolved issues” in connection with the project.
“I hope they will be resolved before they come back to us,” Storch said.
The resolution, which gives AST conditional designation as developer of the Marino’s tract, passed on a voice vote.

Flor Gonzalez, president of the Latin American Coalition, invited everyone to attend the Hispanic Heritage Festival which received council approval Wednesday to take place Sept. 9 on East Front Street between Park and Watchung avenues from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Gonzalez congratulated Van Blake and said he was one of the youngest presidents she has seen in 27 years. She also invited council members to go around the city with her and see what Latinos are all about, "how much we have to give and not to take."

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Code Compliance Fees Increasing

Fees for Certificate of Compliance inspections will more than triple under an ordinance up for first reading at tonight’s City Council meeting.

The meeting is 8 p.m. in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.

The city began the Certificate of Compliance program several years ago to ensure that at the time of purchase, either the buyer or seller would make repairs to bring a home in compliance with the property maintenance code. For apartments, it is the landlord’s responsibility to make sure a unit is in compliance before leasing it to a new tenant.

The present $50 fee will increase to $175, a 350 percent increase, under terms of the ordinance. For each additional unit, the inspection fee would increase from $25 to $175. Commercial and industrial inspections would go from $150 to $300. Mixed-use buildings now inspected for $150 would see an increase to $300, and fees per unit would also increase 350 percent from the current $50 fee.

The measure would have to pass on two readings with a public hearing before final passage.

The new schedule comes as the city anticipates several new condo projects and increased density around transit hubs.

Existing property is only subject to the inspection fees at turnover of occupancy. One hitch for rental property, which comprises about half the city’s 15,000 households, is that the landlord must request the Certificate of Compliance inspection. The city has no way of knowing when apartments turn over.

The City Council recently repealed an ordinance meant to guarantee safe housing and prevent overcrowding. That ordinance called for registration of dwelling units and annual inspection. A special seven-member inspections unit was created and inspectors were to receive new cars and computers for their work. But Public Works & Urban Development Director Jennifer Wenson Maier told the council the plan wasn’t working and most of the staff was gone.

Wenson Maier also informed the council in July that the city had sought advice from the state Department of Community Affairs on how best to run the Inspections Division, which former Mayor Albert T. McWilliams called the source of the most complaints from the public during his administration. She said the state advisers called for better work standards, like being on time for the job. None of the inspectors knew how to enter data, she said. A plan to extend inspections to weekend hours was not yet feasible due to the fact that City Hall was not open then, she noted.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Developers Gear Up

A prime element of city hopes, fears and campaign promises - redevelopment - came to the fore Monday (Aug. 21, 2006) as the City Council heard proposals for a new senior center, a shopping center and a makeover of the city’s historic business district.

The council agreed to vote Wednesday on six resolutions and two ordinances that will fuel progress on the projects. The new impetus follows a council agreement last month to let the Union County Improvement Authority do a lot of the bureaucratic heavy lifting while guaranteeing the governing body and city land use boards their full rights of approval at every juncture of redevelopment.

Some of the proposed legislation is just housekeeping, such as moving one parcel of land out of a previous redevelopment plan to another. But others give the UCIA the ability to start negotiations with developers.

In one resolution, the city recommends to the UCIA that Landmark Development Corp. be conditionally named the designated redeveloper of the North Avenue Historic District. Landmark proposes a new entertainment plaza and 415 residential units while retaining the ornate facades of the district’s 1880s buildings.

AST Development Corp., which built the new Park-Madison downtown office and retail complex, will receive conditional city designation to redevelop the Marino’s tract, named for an auto dealership that vacated the site. A 70,000-square foot supermarket is planned for the West End site.

Dornoch Plainfield LLC will receive “right of entry” permission to examine environmental and “geotechnical” conditions on the city-owned site of the proposed new senior center. Dornoch proposes three floors of market-rate condos over the ground floor senior center.

Council members questioned the presenters about timelines, costs, use of local labor, and whether the developers wanted tax breaks or other consideration from the city.

The developers talked in terms of months, not years, to get the projects going. Up until the past few years, city officials had been unable to achieve any development on the two major downtown tracts, Park-Madison and Teppers, for decades. Named for the former department store, the Tepper’s site now has 75 apartments with stores on the ground level.

Councilman Rashid Burney called the North Avenue district “Plainfield’s calling card” and asked Landmark to make sure the Historic Preservation Commission signed off on all the plans.

Councilman Don Davis said, “We’re looking for ownership, not renters.“

He asked the developers to “look at the vision of what we want for the city,“ saying past projects changed in midstream and the city had to settle for the results.

“We don’t want to settle any more,“ Davis said.

Wednesday’s meeting is 8 p.m. in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.

--Bernice Paglia

Ban On Pedophiles Mulled

City officials want to ban pedophiles from living or loitering near schools, playgrounds and other places where children gather.

A proposed new law is modeled on one passed in Cranford, Councilman Rashid Burney said. The Plainfield version calls for registered sex offenders to keep 2,500 feet away from 88 locations including day care centers, schools, parks, playgrounds and school bus stops. According to a map of the sites, pedophiles would in effect be banned from the entire city.

The council discussed the proposed map and ordinance Monday (Aug. 21, 2006) but after Burney requested some changes, it was withdrawn from the agenda for Wednesday’s regular council meeting and will be brought back at the Sept. 5 agenda session.

Burney said there are three categories of sex offenders and he wanted to eliminate the least dangerous Tier 1 offenders from the list. He gave the example of a young man, 18, who dated and had sex with a girl, 17, and because of parental objections was labeled a sex offender for the rest of his life.

Law enforcement guidelines place Tier 11 offenders at moderate risk of repeat crimes and Tier 111 at high risk .

Burney gave the council a list of 37 municipalities that had passed restrictions on sex offenders, mostly regarding residency, but a few also limiting their activities near sensitive sites.

Burney said the proposed law “does not make anybody move”

“They can stay where they are,“ he said. “It just can‘t be an open door to people who live in Cranford.”

He called it a statewide and even nationwide issue.

If the ordinance is passed on first reading at the Sept. 7 regular meeting, there would be a public hearing before final passage. More information on the Sex Offender Registry is posted at on the State Police web site.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, August 21, 2006

Two Corrections

The City Council's special agenda session to fill the citywide at-large vacancy will be 7 p.m. Wednesday in Municipal Court, preceding the 8 p.m. regular meeting.

The Board of Education will meet at 7 p.m. Thursday for its business meeting, not 8 p.m.

--Bernice Paglia

City Council Wants Pedophile-Free Zones

The City Council aims to ban pedophiles from loitering on foot or in cars near 88 schools, playgrounds, parks and day care centers.

An ordinance up for consideration at toniught's agenda session would keep known sex offenders 2,500 feet from those places and from school bus stops. The only exception would be an owner/resident of a city property. Fines for violations would range from $100 to $1,250 and/or imprisonment and community service. Subsequent violations would result in a $1,500 fine and 90 days of community service.

According to a State Police registry of sex offenders, about 34 live in the city and several more are in custody or at large.

The proposed legislation is sponsored by Councilmen Rashid Burney and Don Davis and Councilwoman Linda Carter. It would have to pass on two readings with a public hearing before final passage and would take effect 90 days after enactment.

Redevelopment matters will also be up for discussion tonight (Monday, Aug. 21, 2006).

The council will talk about three proposals where the Union County Improvement Authority would be involved. They are the new senior center on East Front Street, where Dornoch Holdings wants to build a ground floor center with three stories of market-rate condos above; the Marino's tract on West Front Street, where AST Development Corp. may receive conditional designation as the developer; and the North Avenue historic district by the main train station, where the city is recommending Landmark Development Corp. to the UCIA for designation as developer.

The meeting is 7:30 p.m. in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave.

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Board, Council Cram Schedules

It looks like a tough week ahead for those who want to keep track of what elected officials are up to.

On Monday (Aug. 21, 2006) the Board of Education will hold a special meeting at 7 p.m. in the Plainfield High School library to discuss the district’s test scores. At the same time, the City Council will be holding a special agenda session to select an appointee for the citywide at-large seat. Nominees to replace the late Ray Blanco are Harold Gibson, Hattie Williams and Sylvester Palin. The meeting is in City Hall Library. The council will then hold its agenda session at 7:30 p.m.

The Board of Education will hold its work and study session at 8 p.m. Tuesday (Aug. 22, 2006) in the Plainfield High School conference room.

The City Council’s regular meeting will be 8 p.m. Wednesday (Aug. 23, 2006) in Municipal Court.

The Board of Education’s business meeting will be 8 p.m. Thursday (Aug. 24, 2006) at the Emerson Swing School, 1700 W. Front St.

Some observers of the city and school scenes had to ferret out the information by scouring the legal notices. Normally, as indicated on the school district’s web site, the board meets on second Tuesdays of each month for work-and-study and on third Tuesdays for business meetings. The city’s web site has finally been corrected to show the actual meeting schedule, but makes no mention of the special agenda session.

Now that many people get their news online and expect official web sites to have definitive information, it seems like a step backward to have to pore over pages of fine-print legal notices to find out when the decision-makers on millions of tax dollars are meeting.

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Ray Blanco's Blog

When the City Council resumes meetings next week, many people will relive their emotions on learning of the untimely death of Ray Blanco.

The council must necessarily pick a replacement for the city-wide at-large seat and a new City Council president. For many, the transition will just be a reminder of losing Ray.

Ray paid Plaintalker a great tribute when he decided, based on our blog's example, to start his own. It is called "Communicating With Plainfield" and can still be seen at for the time being.

It is worth a look. Ray's many sides, from informing to persnickety, come out in his blog posts. He also tries to set a tone for the city as well as a standard of performance.

Plainfield has lost a great advocate as well as a great promoter of public dialogue in Ray. It would be wonderful if everyone who closely watches the city would put information or opinions up on a blog for all others' edification or argument.

--Bernice Paglia

Who Is Christian Estevez?

At the Aug. 4 Plainfield Democratic City Committee meeting, Chairman Jerry Green said he received three resumes for the City Council vacancy caused by the untimely death of Ray Blanco. One person, Julie Jerome, was not able to appear, but Harold Gibson and Christian Estevez gave speeches regarding their wish to serve.

Gibson’s remarks detailed what a lot of people already knew. He is the brother of former Newark Mayor Ken Gibson, he served 22 years in the Newark Police Department, he served in past Plainfield administrations in several roles and now he is the Union County public safety director. In all, Gibson, 72, claims 50 years of public service. Informally, many know “Hatch” as a splendid cook, a jazz lover and as he said at the meeting, a person “dedicated to the city.”

On the other hand, Christian Estevez is not known to many.

But as he detailed his personal history, his Plainfield ties were significant.

Estevez said he is a Plainfield native who was a teen volunteer at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church and who early on developed a strong sense of social justice. He did community service while in college and later worked on Ray Blanco’s political campaigns.

His labor studies led to work with the AFL-CIO to recruit and train women and minorities to attain high-paying construction jobs and he also advocated for unions to include Plainfield in job opportunities.

Estevez said many of his family members came here from the Dominican Republic and bought homesin Plainfield.

Calling himself a “proud Democrat,” Estevez said he would work with Green “to make the city successful.”

He declared himself not only Hispanic, but “a proud Plainfielder, a union leader and an activist.”

Estevez said he worked in campaigns at all levels, including that of Gov. Jon Corzine.

He said Blanco called him often to get his help and support for efforts to reduce crime, support economic development and increase youth empowerment.

Green said, “Everything Chris said is true,” but he said while the nominee had done a “tremendous job at the state level,” Green wanted to make it clear that the effort starts “at home.”

“I’m offering an olive branch to you or anyone else at that level,” Green said.

After Gibson spoke, a slate naming Gibson, Hattie Williams and Sylvester Palin was put up for a vote and passed, effectively excluding Estevez. Other slates including Estevez were not considered.

Next week, the City Council will choose one as a replacement for Ray Blanco, even though many feel he is irreplaceable.

A city faction that feels that Blanco’s successor must be Latino may protest the slate excluding Estevez, even though Green offered a “farm team” approach to political entree.

Letters to the Courier News have already protested the process. The play-out next week may pit party loyalists against those who feel there is a need for progressive change.

The City Council agenda session is 7:30 p.m. Monday (Aug. 21, 2006) at City Hall Library and the regular meeting is Wednesday (Aug. 23, 2006) in Municipal Court.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Random Notes

Here’s a random roundup of comments from my notebook:

Aug. 4 Democratic City Committee Meeting, Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs on Senior Citizen center proposals: She cites “one really serious proposal“ and states, “I am in favor and look forward to speaking further to the City Council about this.“

The mayor referred to the Dornoch Holdings proposal presented to seniors at a July 11 meeting for a four-story building, with a senior center on ground level and three stories of condos, 63 two-bedroom units in all, above.

Also on Aug. 4 at Democratic City Committee meeting to pick nominees for the citywide at-large vacancy, Chairman Jerry Green states, “There is no such thing as an independent thinking person in the state of New Jersey.

“You have to be part of the structure,“ Green explained.

Also from Green, “As far as I’m concerned, I don’t use the race card, but we cannot allow anyone to separate us,” referring to an attempt by Latino activists to get a Latino replacement for late City Council President Ray Blanco.

Aug. 10 Planning Board meeting, board member Siddeeq El-Amin on “transit villages” as mentioned many times in draft master plan revision: We’re making all kinds of references to something that doesn’t exist yet.”

Planning Director Bill Nierstedt in same meeting, ”As you know, I have many bosses in the building.”

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, August 11, 2006

What Is A Transit Village?

A nine-page draft of master plan objectives and policies, liberally peppered with “transit village” references, brought reactions Thursday (Aug. 10, 2006) from both citizens and planners who want the term defined.

The document was the centerpiece of a discussion and hearing held by the Planning Board in City Hall Library. The board is re-examining the master plan that sets goals for how the city should address its physical, social and economic development. Once the plan is complete, the city’s Zoning Ordinance will be revised to uphold the goals.

A small but vocal group attended the meeting and raised many questions about the transit village concept.

The new administration of Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs unveiled a plan in April to have four so-called transit villages, two around existing train stations at Netherwood and North Avenue, and two more at former train stops on Grant and Clinton avenues.

Throughout the discussion, Planning Board members probed the meaning of “transit village” status and whether it meant just rail access or other transportation, such as buses.
The implications for transit village status are that the areas around transit hubs can have increased density. But the city has not yet been designated as a Transit Village under strict criteria of a state program involving 11 agencies.

Planning Director Bill Nierstedt said the city could make a local designation and then try for the state designation.

Planning Board member Siddeeq El-Amin, also a city police captain, said the state program designates the municipality, not just an area, as a “transit village.”

Planner George Stevenson, a consultant on the master plan review, offered a definition of transit village that contrasted with El-Amin’s findings.

In public comments, resident William Michelson said the definition should state that a transit village should be within a quarter-mile of a rail passenger station. He disagreed with language in the document that referred to development along the rail line. He also disputed the notion that the former Grant and Clinton railroad stops could be restored, given possible concerns of NJ Transit about insurance for the locations.

Michelson said given the unlikelihood of the defunct stations opening, the last thing he wanted was people building along the train tracks on speculation that the stations would open.

Other residents, including Barbara Kerr and Dottie Gutenkauf, echoed Michelson’s concern about a lack of definition of the “transit village“ term.

“I’m getting to the point where every time I hear the term, transit village, I want to reach for my revolver, “ Gutenkauf said.

She cautioned against using “buzzwords and fads” and recalled the term, “urban renewal,” that prevailed in the 1950s.

Several speakers said a transit village must include access within walking distance to food stores, dry cleaners, restaurants and pharmacies to be effective.

Planning Board Chairman Ken Robertson said the document was still being revised.

The Planning Board has set its second meeting each month to consideration of the master plan review. At Thursday’s discussion and hearing, both planners and residents said they did not want to vaunt new economic goals over historic preservation considerations, because the city’s history is its greatest legacy.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Residents To Have Say Tonight

Residents with views on goals for city planning and redevelopment should find time to attend a meeting at 8 p.m. tonight (Thursday, Aug. 10, 2006) in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave., to speak out. The meeting will be a “discussion/hearing on the Master Plan and areas in need of redevelopment,” according to an Aug. 4 legal notice.

The Planning Board is presently revising the master plan, which sets goals for the city’s future in terms of zoning, density and other land use issues, including redevelopment.

The board held an earlier open session to gather resident input and members also decided to devote their regular second meeting each month to revising the master plan.

Since the new administration of Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs took over Jan. 1, the focus of planning and redevelopment has shifted from about a dozen previous redevelopment plans to projects emphasizing “transit-oriented” development around rail and bus hubs.

One such proposal involves demolition of a South Avenue auto body shop to make way for a four-story, 64-unit condo complex within a quarter-mile of the Netherwood train station. The Board of Adjustment will resume hearing the application for that project at 7 p.m. on Sept. 13, 2006 in City Hall Library.

The applicant, Maxim Development Group, has projects in New London, Conn. to renovate a 1921 landmark theater and in Seneca Falls, N.Y. to build 27 three-bedroom town homes. Partner Patrick Gawrysiak is also proposing to renovate the Gould Hotel in Seneca Falls.

Readers can learn more about Maxim Development Group in online newspapers, The Day in New London, Conn. and the Finger Lake Times in Geneva, N.Y. For prior Plaintalker articles, use the search feature at the top of the blog to look up Maxim or site owner Sal Carfaro.

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Justice, Diversity, Education Are Blanco Legacy

The stories about Ray Blanco had two main themes - passion and conviction.

In a memorial service Tuesday (Aug. 8, 2006) for the late City Council president who died unexpectedly at ago 50 on July 28, speaker after speaker recounted Ray’s love of life and his desire to see justice achieved. Among those who crowded the auditorium of the Queen City Academy Charter School were gays, straights, people of all races and status, exactly the diversity that Ray Blanco envisioned coming together to make a better world.

Blanco was an uneducated Cuban immigrant who came to America as a child, but won prestige as a film maker and activist in his adult life.

The building itself was a testimony to his fight for educational choice. At first seeming an unlikely site for a memorial service, the former Temple Sholom at Grant Avenue and Seventh Street was in fact a perfect example of the kind of effort he put forth when he was convinced of a cause.

Both new board president Julie Jerome and the Rev. LaVerne Ball of Rose of Sharon Community Church spoke of their meetings with Ray, who until recently served as board president. Ball described Ray’s intense drive to get the charter school into the church-owned building, a step up from constricted space in a downtown office building. Jerome tearfully said she took on the board presidency recently expecting to have Ray as a counselor for some time into the future.

In a special tribute, Jerome announced the establishment of the Ray Blanco Charter High School in the late councilman’s honor.

Speakers recounted how Ray escaped Cuba as a child and went to Spain with his family before coming to the United States.

In other stories, Union County Democratic Party Chairman Charlotte DeFillipo said when she met Ray, “He wanted to know everything.”

Blanco wanted to pick the brain of Union County’s political mainspring on how the process worked, and brought Cuban sandwiches to facilitate the progress.

New Jersey Attorney General Zulima Farber, also a Cuban immigrant, spoke of her long relationship with Ray and how he had no qualms about conscripting people into his films on the immigrant experience, even if the end product was just a few seconds of film time.

Another Cuban refugee, Freeholder Angel Estrada, said of Ray, “He fought dearly to ensure that people get heard.”

Estrada was among many who said the best legacy to honor Ray was to carry on his goals of justice for the voiceless.

Martin Perez, the president of the Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey, thundered out a call for commitment to diversity in honor of Ray.

“He was one of our best,” Perez said.

Others recalled Ray as a free spirit, an adventurer, a risk-taker and one given to escapades.

His partner of 33 years, Ken Edwards, recalled noting him early on as a “person worth knowing” after he witnessed Ray’s ability to organize independent film awards ceremonies showcasing the likes of John Cassavetes and Gena Rowland.

Ray sacrificed some personal opportunities to make way for others whose talent he felt was worth promoting, Ken said in a statement read by Ray’s old friend, Larry Munroe.

Ken recounted many “misadventures, escapades and laughs” along the way as Ray pursued his career in independent film-making and promotion.

Decades later, Ken concluded that Ray was still a “person worth knowing.”

The task now for all who knew Ray is to carry on his legacy by striving to give a voice to the voiceless, by celebrating diversity and by seeking the best education for all children, speakers said.

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, August 04, 2006

Block Associations Get Support

Residents interested in forming or strengthening a block association can get expert help on Saturday (Aug. 5, 2006) at Rushmore Field.

The event is the kick-off of a year-long effort to increase the number and activity level of block associations in the city, said Assistant Prosecutor Tiffany Wilson of the Union County Prosecutor’s Office. It will take place from 1 to 4 p.m. in the park at West Third Street and Rushmore Avenue.

“We want to make it easy on people,“ Wilson said, noting the many commitments that residents already have.

Her office will provide technical training and mentors to new and existing groups. A packet on how to get started will be available at the event.

Plainfield once had more than 100 block associations, she said, but changes over the years have caused the number to dwindle. Presently representatives of 15 to 20 block associations meet monthly at the Union County Prosecutor’s Plainfield offices in the former St. Mary’s School on West Sixth Street.

Wilson said the groups each develop their own interests and styles. The child-oriented Parkside Road-Lakeview Terrace group tends to get together for block parties and holiday celebrations, she said, and its longevity gives it consistency.

Another group that was formed to address a rash of neighborhood burglaries uses a member-only message board as well as a public information portion to keep residents in touch. Wilson said once a crisis passes, such groups may have to find an ongoing focus to stay together.

The new effort to strengthen block associations includes the chance to help other neighborhood groups, such as historic district associations and organizations that include many blocks, such as the Friends of Sleepy Hollow. Wilson said her office wants to be a resource for all groups that want to improve their leadership, meet city officials and learn strategies for better neighborhoods.

For more information, call Wilson at 908-791-7130.

--Bernice Paglia

Dems Favor Gibson For Vacancy

Faced with providing three nominees for a City Council vacancy due to the untimely death of Ray Blanco, Democrats will field a slate that showcases former city administrator Harold Gibson.

At a meeting Friday (Aug. 4, 2006) the Democratic City Committee observed a moment of silence for the late City Council president, who had an apparent heart attack a week ago at age 50.

Blanco was the first Hispanic member of the governing body, but Democratic Party Chairman Jerry Green said a push for another Latino to fill the position was embarrassing. He cited a press conference Monday (July 31, 2006) in which the Latin American Coalition called for an Hispanic successor to Blanco.

Green called the timing inappropriate and said, “We will not be used or intimidated by anyone.“

Green said he received three resumes for the vacancy, from Julie Jerome, Christian Estevez and Gibson.

Jerome was not present to make a speech, but Estevez cited his lifelong ties with Plainfield, his devotion to social justice and his active participation in campaigns not only of Blanco, but Sen. Frank Lautenberg and Gov. Jon Corzine. He said his education was in Latino and labor studies. In the AFL-CIO, he works to recruit and train women and minorities.

Gibson spoke of his 50 years in public service in Essex and Union counties as well as in Plainfield. He served dual roles at city and county levels while only receiving one salary, he said. He is presently the county's public safety director.

Just before the vote, former Mayor Harold Mitchell offered a slate that excluded Estevez.

Mitchell offered the names of Hattie Williams, Gibson and Sylvester Palin.

Some other slates were offered, but the committee first voted on the one that excluded Estevez and it won, with 45 of 68 possible committee members present. The vote was 34-11 in favor of the slate.

After the vote, Green brought Estevez up to pledge allegiance to the party, meaning he would not file as an Independent by Sept. 20 to be on the November ballot. Green referred several times to a “farm team” approach whereby candidates would serve locally and learn the ropes of politics before running for office. He suggested that Estevez could gain experience in time for future elections.

Whoever wins among the three nominees will only serve until the Nov. 7 general election. Then the public will vote for anybody who filed as a Democrat, Republican or Independent by Sept. 20.

Flor Gonzalez, president of the Latin American Coalition, said there may well be a Latino candidate filing to be on the ballot, but she refused to say more.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Interim AD Emerges At Confusing Meeting

While searching for a new athletic director, the Board of Education has approved hiring Daniel Cone as interim athletic director.

Cone will be in charge of 54 sports programs in the middle and high schools. He will received a pro-rated salary of $87,300. Cone said he has been working in the district for eight years and has been both a paid and volunteer coach in various sports for the same period. He has coached 16 years in all, counting work outside the district, he said.

“I’m just excited,” he said after the vote on Wednesday (Aug. 2, 2006). “Excited to start the year, and see what tomorrow brings.”

Meanwhile, a group of residents, teachers and others were waiting to see what the evening itself would bring.

According to a very small legal notice published on July 31, the board would be holding a closed session to discuss “the superintendent’s contract.” The notice indicated action might be taken, which would mean the board would come out and vote in public. The executive session began at 6:30 p.m. in the Plainfield High School conference room, but a public portion, expected at 7:30 p.m., did not start until 8:40 p.m. By then a small crowd had assembled in an outer office.

An agenda was passed out as members of the public took seats on brand-new furniture in the conference room. There was no mention of the superintendent’s contract.

Several people spoke out on the difficulty of finding out about the meeting, which was not posted on the district web site. Resident Simone Peterman noted the irony of having new tables and chairs when teachers were being terminated, but Schools Superintendent Paula Howard said the purchase was made in February with money that could not have been applied to teachers’ salaries.

Teacher David Cullen said he was one of the unnamed persons who were being terminated that evening, and made an emotional pitch to be kept on.

“I’m willing to pledge my future to the district,“ he said.

“We have been working diligently to cut down that list,“ Paula Howard said.

The district gave termination notices to all non-tenured staff members after being forced to cut more than $14 million from its budget. Although the school budget passed in April, Gov. Jon Corzine ordered the Abbott districts in May to submit “flat” budgets with no increases. The revised Plainfield budget is still under state review, clouding plans for September.

On Wednesday, 16 positions were up for termination. But teacher Tiffany Corbett, who was present for the vote, said only 15 were terminated after the board emerged from yet another closed session.

Earlier, the board approved hiring Cone and also payment of stipends for 20 coach assignments. The board also passed the last item, elimination of a pre-school disabled class at Woodland School, Corbett said.

No public action was taken on the superintendent‘s contract.

The degree of confusion about the meeting was apparent when one of the board‘s attorneys said he only heard about the 6:30 p.m. meeting at 4 p.m. that day.

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Old Urbanism, New Urbanism

In the 1940s, my family lived in an apartment in East Orange with stores on the ground floor. Within mere steps, there was a deli, a butcher shop, a grocery, a laundry, my elementary school, a hardware store, newsstands, bus and trolley stops and my favorite corner store where I could get school supplies, comic books, milkshakes, candy and counter lunches. People sat on the back stoop in the evening. My mother walked to department stores on Central Avenue to buy our clothes and I bought little books and trinkets at the 5 & 10.

We had no car, no supermarkets and no malls.

Comments at a recent Board of Adjustment meeting made me realize, as the song goes, “Everything Old Is New Again.“

“Have you heard of the term, ‘New Urbanism?‘” Zoning Board attorney Richard Olive asked planning expert Michael Jovishoff.

Jovishoff was explaining why he felt a proposed 64-unit building a quarter-mile from Netherwood train station was the harbinger of transit-oriented development in Plainfield.

“Is that not where you can walk from your residence to businesses?” Olive pressed, asking whether Jovishoff had researched the retail uses within a quarter-mile of the proposed project.

Jovishoff knew the concept, but admitted he hadn’t studied the retail uses around the site at 803 South Avenue.

Olive was making a case for Board Chairwoman Sally Hughes’ suggestion that the applicant, Maxim Development Group, should consider having stores on the ground floor of the four-story building. In further questioning, he brought out the fact that examples of transit-oriented development in other towns did have either ground-floor stores or were in downtown districts full of stores.

Briefly, New Urbanism calls for residential development clustered with stores and community resources around transit hubs in such a way that a person would not need a car. For more details, see or the Wikipedia entry on New Urbanism.

Porches are an important element and streets would foster outdoor cafes and places to sit.

“Green architecture” was another term Hughes used in asking developer Sal Carfaro whether he would consider solar panels and other alternatives to traditional energy uses.

It behooves Plainfielders to do a bit of homework on all these concepts, because the new administration is committed to transit-oriented development. Even if the Maxim project can’t get a use variance to build in an industrial area, all future development will likely have to meet the goals outlined in a two-page addendum to the Planning Division’s report on the Maxim proposal.

Olive would not allow the memo to be read into the record at the July 26 meeting, saying the whole report would have to be read aloud. But it is on file in the Planning Division and Plaintalker took a look.

The June 28 memo from Planning Director Bill Nierstedt notes that the transit village concept was showcased at a meeting for the 100-day report of Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs.

“The lynchpins (sic) of this new comprehensive plan are the revitalization of the four transit stops that once existed in Plainfield, and the adoption of smart growth, energy sustainable development standards for construction associated with high density Transit Village development,” Nierstedt wrote.

The city has two existing train stations, Netherwood on South Avenue and the main station on North Avenue. Two others, at Grant and Clinton avenues, were demolished many years ago. Nierstedt said the city is not seeking to have them rebuilt by NJ Transit, but wants to revive the locations as transit hubs. Types of transit suggested for the two West End locations are cross county trolleys, light rail stations, bus/taxi/jitney/bicycle hubs or other related transit facilities.

The hearing on the Maxim proposal will continue at 7 p.m. on Sept. 13 in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Chad Remembers Ray Blanco

On a Friday night a little over a week ago, Ray Blanco called me around 9 p.m. to talk about the previous few days.

I had put in my last day at the Courier News a few weeks earlier, after three years as the reporter assigned to cover Plainfield and two other neighboring towns, but Ray wasn’t about to let me go so easily.

It seemed he rarely let anyone go so easily.

We were in the habit of talking informally, off the record, once a week or so, which hadn’t changed after I’d left the newspaper. We talked constantly about meeting for dinner or a drink, but our schedules interfered and we never got the chance.

As City Council president, Ray was brutally honest about himself and others, sarcastic, witty, charming and insightful. Somehow, he could be mocking without being mean-spirited. And he was possessed of what might be described today as an almost anachronistic sense of devotion to his role as an elected official.

That night, we talked about my new job and his high-profile work as director of public affairs for UPN 9 and Fox 5 in New York. We talked about the latest little storm he’d created while presiding over a City Council meeting a few days ago.

It had been the typical disagreement about procedure, and – as was common for him after political flaps like this one – he privately worried that he’d given offense or burned bridges with his tough talk. As many people know, he could be blustery and dramatic when confronted with a situation he found exasperating, but most often that was because he knew he had right on his
side, as was the case this time.

As we spoke, he also told me he’d just been persuaded to accept the Democratic nomination to run for Union County freeholder next year. Reluctantly.

He felt another Plainfield councilman, his good friend Rayland Van Blake, had earned the chance to run instead. Given the county’s voting calculus (heavily Democratic), the nomination is more or less a de facto anointment to higher office, but even with the odds on his side he was hesitant. Ray was politically ambitious – anyone who knew him knew that, or suspected it – but his aspirations were, as far as I could tell, subordinate to his sense of honor in every case.

Ray wanted higher office, but he didn’t want to sacrifice himself to get it. And besides, he had his sights set above freeholder. (But no, he didn’t want the state Assembly seat held by Jerry Green.)

We spoke for a while that night, as my girlfriend rolled her eyes in smiling disbelief that I would waste more than an hour late on a Friday night talking to a former source. But it wasn’t a former source. It was Ray. He was a friend.

That was the last time I talked to him. He died one week later of a heart attack at the age of 50.

As human beings, we collectively tend toward hyperbole when speaking of the dead. It’s a tendency that is ungenuine and rarely serves the memory of those who are gone as much as it does our own sense of loss. I think Ray would have agreed with me about that. He didn’t seem the type of person to go in for a lot of “Alas, poor Yorick!” hand-wringing.

But Ray was the kind of person you could say those exaggerated things about and mean most of them. He was an unbelievably busy guy who packed every minute with work and community service.

He was an unabashed name-dropper with a childlike delight for it. He was a fierce advocate for those he felt needed protection. He loved Plainfield. Damn, did he love Plainfield. He was constantly shooting barbs at the Courier News and Star-Ledger, demanding they give the city better coverage. He felt residents deserved that much.

His love of life was enormous, and he seemed to squeeze laughter from every moment. His standard greeting to me was an impish, drawn out, “Y’know ...” as he wagged a finger in my direction.

His death came as a shock because he was so full of life and energy. All of us who have known him are poorer individually for having lost him, as is the entire city of Plainfield.

--Chad Weihrauch

NOTE: The Plaintalker is pleased to offer Chad this opportunity to publish his unique reflections about Ray and Plainfield.

Officials Must Fill Vacancies Due To Blanco's Death

The process to fill a vacancy caused by the death of City Council President Ray Blanco will begin soon with a meeting of the Democratic Committee to select three nominees, Democratic Party Chairman Jerry Green said Monday (July 31, 2006).

While it is necessary, officials are trying to keep the process low-key out of respect to Blanco, who died at age 50 on July 28 of an apparent heart attack. A memorial service will take place next week.

The names will be offered to the City Council, which will select an appointee to serve until the November general election. Whoever wins the Nov. 7 election will take the seat immediately and serve the balance of the term, to Dec. 31, 2008.

Green said he is having legal staff research the procedure to fill the unexpired term by election. As city-wide at-large councilman, Blanco represented all four wards. Candidates who file for the vacancy will appear on the ballot alongside two Democratic incumbents seeking re-election to four-year terms, 2nd & 3rd Ward at-large Councilman Rashid Burney and 1st Ward Councilman Rayland Van Blake. Republican Angela Perun is challenging Burney and Arlington Johnson is Van Blake's GOP opponent.

Blanco‘s unexpected death will trigger another selection, that of City Council president for the balance of 2006. Green said he is leaving that decision up to the six remaining council members.

As president, Blanco was responsible for meeting with City Clerk Laddie Wyatt to set the agenda for council meetings. The president’s role includes other powers. At the last council meeting in July, Blanco invoked his power as president to toss out numerous appointments sought by Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs, because the names were submitted late.

Blanco was the first Hispanic council member. In 2005, he sponsored legislation to establish the Plainfield Advisory Commission on Hispanic Affairs, Among its charges are to advise the mayor and council on issues affecting the diverse Latino communities within Plainfield, to foster communication between Hispanic residents and the city administration and to educate them on ways to serve on boards and commissions. However, its seven seats are still vacant.

Green, also a state Assemblyman representing District 22, said the council will most likely choose one of the nominees for the temporary appointment at the next council meeting. The council is on summer hiatus and will hold only one agenda session this month, on Aug. 21, with the regular meeting on Aug. 23.

--Bernice Paglia