Sunday, September 24, 2006

RX for Development

COMMENTARY: I don't know anyone in Plainfield who opposes development in the city. Judging from the gaggle of developers hovering inside and outside meetings at City Hall lately, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that development will happen, and soon.

From the meetings I've attended over the past few months, not to mention the flurry that have been held in the past two weeks, it's clear that the city administration has been in talks with developers for quite some time. What's cookin'? To date we have only seen fleeting glimpses of the construction projects the Robinson-Briggs administration would like to realize.

What is missing from the public's view is The Plan. Call it the "vision thing." Residents I've been talking to want to know the administration's vision for the city and they are entitled to it. Unfortunately what manages to pop to the surface are several spot projects, yet no concrete overview has been presented to show how all the proposed new construction will come together to make a better city.

The absence of solid proposals publicly displayed makes it difficult for residents to form an opinion about the development direction the administration is taking. This week many decisions and votes were ram-jammed through council and boards -- often at overlong meetings with last minute additions to the agenda that pushed scheduled discussions into the wee hours. Given all that I've witnessed, it's my reluctant conclusion that obfuscation IS the plan.

At yesterday morning's (Sept. 23, 2006) "emergency" city council meeting one resident said, "Where's the fire?" The administration gave a justification for the lack of legal public notice for the 9:00am meeting -- forward progress needs to be made -- but to my mind that was hardly convincing. Over the past week it has become clear that members of the City Council, the Planning Board and the Board of Adjustment (Zoning) - are also concerned about the truncated process.

Thoughtful development is good and necessary for Plainfield, nevertheless the manner in which various projects are being pushed into the city without decent public review is, in my opinion, an appalling insult to all residents.

Thursday night's orchestrated presence of dozens of seniors in support of a new senior center felt a lot like bullying. The Planning Board had a full and important agenda of Master Plan review and decision-making but that work had to wait while grandstanding ensued about the supposed lack of respect for seniors.

In several different meetings one very active senior has urged "haste" in getting the senior center built. That falls in line with the interests of Dornoch Plainfield, the developer, who is giving the city the center for free in exchange for being able to build 64 condo units above it. Their stated intention is to break ground this winter. That may be good for Dornoch's business imperatives, but what does it mean for the public good?

Thursday night looked like a 'gotcha game.' After all, who wants to deny our seniors, especially when the city is now paying increased rental costs to the new owner of the current East Front street space? Furthermore, when Planning Board members raised serious questions about infrastructure issues like parking and traffic, several seniors bluntly pooh-poohed them. "Start (building) tomorrow." "You can work out the parking problems later," was typical of the comments. For development in any town, anywhere, that's a prescription for disaster.

Clearly the administration had been working hard to bring developers into town, but the result of those efforts so far have not been good. The mayor must be smarting over the Carfaro condominium project on South Avenue that went down in flames at the Zoning Board hearing on September 13. It was embarrassing to witness the developer's slip-shod presentation. The lawyer for Maxim Development fought to present additional information to follow-up questions raised in an earlier meeting only to have the new data prove to be riddled with bad math. It was a sorry showing with the hired planner continually apologizing to the board as he and his team yanked out calculators on the spot to figure out the accurate numbers.

Enough about the machinations in City Hall. Since we don't have an understandable city vision, let me offer some ideas for the administration, elected and appointed officials, and residents alike to keep in mind:

  • Demand excellence from all parties. That includes the Union County Improvement Authority (UCIA), individual developers, builders, architects, planners and any other key players brought into each project. City board and council members, too, should continually demand excellence within their own process.
  • The Robinson-Briggs administration should immediately release a detailed timeline on the city web site so that residents can see for themselves the Big Picture of development. Given everything in the pipeline I cannot imagine that such a calendar does not exist. Make the private public. This action will also help to explain the rare necessity for "emergency" meetings.
  • Residents and city representatives should reject initiatives that are merely "suitable," "adequate," "an improvement," or "good enough."
  • Mandate exceptional design and architecture that will ADD to the outstanding architectural character of the city. That's what brings new residents to the city's single family homes despite the school system and our reputation, deserved or not, for crime.
  • Council and boards should be vigilant for shortcuts in concept, design, construction methods, and building materials.
  • Pay attention to all the details: features like set-backs, garden areas within complexes, and the necessity for mixed use support businesses within or adjacent to new housing.
  • Do not short-change future residents by short-cutting state-mandated parking requirements.
  • Remember that deal sweeteners can have a downside and that "free" has always has a price.
  • Be wary of buzz words that may be employed to justify substandard or inappropriate use requests. The most abused term of late is "transit village."
  • Be sensitive about the impact of redevelopment on existing, thriving businesses whether they be retail or industrial. Involve them in planning. Work to avoid condemnation and forced seizure of property through eminent domain.
  • Do not be pressured to make hasty decisions. Poor judgment in development matters now will haunt the city for generations.
  • Anticipate the future of each piece of the development plan. Will the building become an asset or an albatross? Poorly thought out projects can quickly become a public blight.
  • Be extra vigilant when it comes to condominium proposals targeted for the urban heart of Plainfield. They won't be an easy sell, especially in a down-turning real estate market.
  • Require developers to provide a professional real estate analysis to understand specific local market forces.
  • Where is the green space? Make sure there is adequate parkland adjacent to new residences. "Peripheral green areas" and narrow side yards along property borders are not an adequate substitute for humans beings to enjoy the outside environment.
  • For large buildings, require private outdoor space in the form of balconies or terraces, for each residential unit.

    Council and boards have a difficult job to do in weighing the right course of action for Plainfield. We can't afford any shoddy projects. As my grandmother would say: Haste makes waste. Free has it's costs. Measure twice, cut once.

    Do we want the development work done right, or right now?

    Barbara Todd Kerr

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