Thursday, September 14, 2006

Zoning Board Denies South Avenue Condo Project

Zoners unanimously rejected a 64-unit South Avenue condo proposal Wednesday (Sept. 13, 2006) after board members and residents disputed experts’ testimony on its viability.

Maxim Development Group sought to demolish an existing auto body shop to build the four-story complex, in what had been hailed as the city’s first major transit-oriented redevelopment project. The site, owned by Maxim principal Sal Carfaro, is within a quarter-mile of the Netherwood train station and has a New York bus stop across the street.

Based on the theory that purchasers of the condos would only need one car, Maxim sought approval for 107 parking spaces instead of the 148 required. The application also asked for relief from requirements for balcony and back yard space and to allow the residential use in a light industrial zone. The site is bounded by South Avenue in front, the Raritan Valley Line behind, the Plainfield Public Works city yard on the left and a home repair company on the right. One-bedroom units would sell for $325,000 and two-bedroom units would be priced at $375,000.

Speakers doubted that buyers would pay such amounts for a condo when full-scale homes with yards could be had in the city for about the same price. Some objected to the residential use, saying the city needs more industry, not housing. Others were dismayed by statistics based on formulas that said the project would produce only 16 new schoolchildren.

After planning expert Michael Jovishoff launched into a report on the project’s fiscal impact on the city, board Chairwoman Sally Hughes pointed out math errors and Jovishoff had to revise the numbers during a break. Once the errors were fixed, the estimated tax revenues less municipal costs to serve a projected 120 new residents dropped from $700,000 to about $200,000.

“The bottom line is that there is a net fiscal benefit to the community,” Jovishoff said.

But board member Lee Gallman objected to the calculations, saying, “The sample that you used does not reflect anything about Plainfield.”

Resident Tony Rucker challenged the formula’s premise that 20 one-bedroom condo owners would have only .099 children and 44 two-bedroom owners would have .314 children.

“Plainfield has a problem of overcrowding,” he said, saying there was nothing to restrict people from having “two children in half the apartments.”

Resident Dottie Gutenkauf asked why Jovishoff felt there was a strong market for condo purchases now, when major newspapers reported the opposite. Jovishoff said his answer was based on his experience.

Jim Jacocks, who has a business next to the site, said, “I’m totally against this project, because what Plainfield needs is more jobs, not more residents.”

Bill Hetfield, a real estate appraiser, broker and property manager, cited the lack of a marketing study to back up the projected $23 million in sales.

Others said the residents would lack shopping and personal services near the proposed site and objected to the developer’s outright rejection of a mixed-use project on the site.

Attorney Donna Jennings summed up for Maxim, saying, “It’s the first step – you’ve got to start somewhere.”

Jennings said retail development could be brought in later.

But Hughes led off the board members’ statements by calling Jovishoff’s report “woefully inadequate.”

"The quality of this report is atrocious," she said.

She praised residents for raising “excellent questions.”

“Yeah, you do have to start somewhere,” she said, but added the proposal did not fit the master plan or the zoning ordinance and she was not in favor of it.

Amelia Mapp, William McNeill, Gallman, Liz Urquhart, Melvin Cody and Claudette Lovely-Brown also gave reasons why they were not in favor and all voted to deny the application.

Carfaro had no comment on his next move, although some board members suggested he could come back with a new, revised application.

The new administration of Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs is counting on transit-oriented development and has endorsed another plan to put 62 condos on East Front Street on three floors above a new senior center. A Lakewood developer, Glen Fishman, said he will finance the $15 million proposal himself. The City Council agreed in August to let his company, Dornoch Plainfield LLC, make an environmental and geotechnical study of the city-owned site.

--Bernice Paglia


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