Saturday, March 31, 2007

This campaign flier from 2005 bothers me for several reasons.

Note the two supporters who have since become the mayor's bodyguards. One is also now the "city official" on the Planning Board.

Another supporter heads the police union, whose contract expired Dec. 31. Granted three months after the expiration is early, when you consider it took three years to settle the contract the last time. But can the administration take a strong stand on contract terms when there is an implied obligation?

And how safe can citizens feel when the powers that be are dickering over who should be in charge of the police? According to press reports, this administration erred in taking action against the chief and had to postpone it. An earlier attempt fizzled.

Making a pact with lower-ranking officers suggests that somebody thinks the Police Division can be run from the bottom up instead of the top down. "To the victor belong the spoils" may be the way things have been done for a long time, but the current political climate is leaning more towards fair and ethical behavior instead of rewarding oneself and one's cronies for winning.

The really disturbing thing about seeing this flier was and still is the implication that the law might not be objectively applied to all citizens but that those on one side of the political ledger would have an edge over the others. Let's hope that is not the case.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Shedding Light on Corruption

A former city official used to have a great line when reporters started asking questions.

“Don’t go looking for trouble with a flashlight,” he said.

As it happens, he had good reason for not wanting the light of truth trained on his activities. He was working in another municipality while holding a fulltime paid position in Plainfield. Eventually his absence from City Hall became too much for the administration to explain and he was officially gone.

Is it possible that a similar situation existed in City Hall last year?

An official imported from another municipality was listed last year on that town’s web site in a related title to the one he held here. As of March 7, he is still listed on the state Department of Community Affairs roster of Municipal Code Officials as Construction Official for that municipality. Last fall, this writer used a telephone, not a flashlight, to confirm that he still worked in the other municipality.

Lots of people knew about this situation and grumbled mightily. The perception was that political powers outside the city mandated the situation and mere citizens could not overturn it.

But now on the state level, some of the mighty are in jail, others are indicted and laser beams are trained on more down to the municipal level.

U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie said in a press statement on charges against 14 low-level city employees, “Crimes like this affect the quality of life of ordinary people playing by the rules. We will not permit them to be exploited.”

If Christie’s flashlight for finding trouble was not in such good working order, grateful citizens might offer to get him another. But of course, being who he is, he would not accept any such gift.

Look here to read more about what happens to corrupt public officials.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Coin-op Goes Card-op

I am now a card-carrying patron of the new laundromat at Park & Seventh.

OK, so it doesn’t quite have the cachet of being a card-carrying member of the ACLU, but it has a nice ring to it.

I made my way over there with two small, dirty rugs and a $10 roll of quarters only to find that all the new Speed Queen machines work on swipe cards. The attendant showed me how to get an initial balance on the card to get the rugs cleaned. The price for a small load was $1.89, which seemed like an odd figure until I checked the web site of the card company later.

It seems that one advantage to the laundry owner is that the price to use washers and dryers can be exquisitely modified in case of increased utility costs or whatever else might affect the bottom line. No longer must it be increments of 25 cents.

And the computerized system gives the owner an instant accounting of laundry use. According to one web site, the card system also reduces service calls by about one-third, because most of the problems are with the coin slides.

For the user, the card does away with the need to get lots of quarters to feed into the machines. The user may even get bonuses for filling the card with certain amounts. I saw a customer put in a $20 bill and get a $2 bonus.

Given that half of Plainfield’s residents are renters and have to do their wash somewhere, the card thing seems like a benefit. Granted, I can do most of my wash in the top-loading machines in the basement of my six-family building, but there are those bulky items that demand a front-loading machine.

Even property owners may have odd items that will not fit in home washers and may necessitate a trip to the laundromat.

An online search reveals that many college dorms have adopted card systems a long time ago and some multi-family apartment buildings have switched over. But the industry is generally still called “coin-operated laundries” and I have never seen this newfangled card concept in person before.

Whatever the payment system, I must say that the new laundry is a big step up from the former operation where most of the machines were out of order and the place was filthy. The new laundry is clean and bright, and while you wait for the spin cycle you may glance out to Park Avenue as I did and see a police officer on a Segway, that equally new gizmo in Plainfield.

A washday anecdote: In the mid-20th century, my Aunt Kay lived in a small coal-mining town in eastern Pennsylvania where the tyranny of custom was strictly enforced. Respectable women had their wash out on the line early Monday morning. Any lapse was duly noted and clucked over by the town matrons. Aunt Kay eventually confounded the system by getting a washer and dryer, and no one ever knew whether Aunt Kay or Uncle Lou did the wash, or on what day, or at what hour. All praise to Aunt Kay!

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, March 26, 2007

Why No Cable Talks?

Freelancing as a reporter has definitely put a crimp in my blogging and everything else I like to do. Right now my lack of blog thoughts has caused the obnoxious Microsoft Office Assistant to take a snooze while awaiting my next keystrokes. That’s a first.

Part of my blog malaise also has to do with the paucity of council news. The last City Council meeting had 16 resolutions that were approved in a single vote and one ordinance that required a roll call vote. That part was all over in eight minutes.

More residents came out for the meeting than in past months and some had questions, mostly about the overpayment issue that was reported in the Plaintalker. But I know there are lots of other issues out there that could use a little attention by our elected representatives.

One such issue is the cable television franchise. As reported in Plaintalker last year, the city could have begun the ascertainment process in August. This preliminary process is meant to assess the current delivery of cable services to Plainfield customers, among other things. One person at Wednesday’s meeting asked about the 2 percent cable franchise revenue that is supposed to come back to the city for the operation of its local cable channel. There is also supposed to be a board that oversees the local cable channel, but it only has a few members.

City Administrator Marc Dashield assured the resident after the meeting that the local channel will soon improve. The larger question may be whether the city intends to pursue cable franchise renewal or will it adopt another technology. And if so, will there still be a local channel?

About 11,000 of Plainfield’s 15,000 households have Comcast cable. Verizon’s FIOS is not yet available in Plainfield, according to a check just now at their web site. But it probably will be by the time the Comcast franchise is up in August 2009. The company won a statewide franchise last year and is working on making service available to all municipalities.

So is anybody looking into this? Where’s the discussion? If all these proposed condos get built, there will be a lot more households affected by a franchise decision. Comcast representatives appeared at a City Council meeting last year to answer questions and to remind the council it was time to start the ascertainment process. Maybe Verizon representatives should be invited to explain what they can do for Plainfield.

A March 25 Courier News article reports on Somerville’s concern that its local channel is not yet available to residents who switched to Verizon. Read here.

If anyone has questions about the future of cable service and the local community channel, please let your elected officials know. Maybe it’s a good question for candidates who will file April 9 to represent you on local, county and state levels.

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, March 23, 2007

SID Needs Support

A Crescent Avenue property owner came to the City Council meeting Wednesday to ask why her four-family residence was on the Special Improvement District list.

The list of 447 properties is supposed to include only commercial buildings on which a special tax is assessed to help fund activities to improve the downtown and South Avenue business districts. The extra property tax is matched with Urban Enterprise Zone funds for an annual budget to make the shopping districts cleaner and safer.

However, since it was established by city ordinance in 2004, glitches have marred the group’s ability to do its work.

Among the problems, an expansion resulted in the mistaken inclusion of several apartment buildings on the assessment list. That was supposedly cleared up, but the plight of the Crescent Avenue owner shows it was not.

The Special Improvement District board realigned its budget to match the city’s fiscal year, which begins July 1. But the SID budget was not approved until December and the list of those to be assessed was only published March 11. It would have given the proper 10 days’ notice before a March 21 City Council vote, but the $1,370 legal notice was lacking one important column – the amount each owner was to be assessed.

The legal notice must be re-published and the vote may take place in April. By the time the money comes in, the fiscal year will nearly be over.

The victory for merchants of achieving formation of a Special Improvement District has proved to be a hollow one in terms of city support to help it work. Last year, the late City Council President Ray Blanco took issue with its management and called the board’s presentation to the council a “dog and pony show.”

This year, the support from those in City Hall has fallen short. The group itself has no power to make the assessment but must rely on several city offices to each do their part. Only upon receiving the funds can the group carry out its plans.

If this were a personal relationship, Dear Abby or another columnist might judge it harshly. Two entities agreed on a partnership, but one partner keeps messing up, so the vows mean little or nothing.

Can this marriage be saved? The goal of a more attractive experience for shoppers will only become more desirable if the downtown goes more upscale. But if the SID can’t effectively do its work to make Plainfield more inviting, the city will lose out. It’s time for the city’s effectiveness to become a closer match with the SID’s enthusiasm if the partnership is to be viable.

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Council Rejects War, Wants Greener City

What better way for activists Joe and Dottie Gutenkauf to celebrate their 43rd wedding anniversary than to go to a City Council meeting and commend the governing body for taking a stand against the Iraq war?

The couple received applause Wednesday from those in Municipal Court for the meeting.

As they did at Monday’s agenda session, the Gutenkaufs spoke forcefully against the Bush administration’s policies that plunged the nation into a war that has produced thousands of American military deaths and injuries. Monday was the four-year mark for the war.

Councilman Harold Gibson said it was appropriate to make a city resolution against the war, invoking Congressman Tip O’Neill’s comment that all politics are local.

“All wars are local, too,” Gibson said, noting the chance of a neighborhood person being killed or injured in a war.

Gibson said he served as a U.S. Army draftee many years ago and did not see combat, but he said reservists with children are now in the front lines when all they expected was weekend training. And many do not come home, he said.

Gibson said the Iraq war is the first where more women have been killed and injured than in previous wars.

The City Council also passed a resolution against global warming. At first sponsored by council members Cory Storch, Linda Carter and Rayland Van Blake, the resolution passed with unanimous approval of the seven-member council.

The resolution backed state legislation against global warming but also offered local measures against increasing greenhouse gas emissions, such as city use of hybrid vehicles and energy-efficient light fixtures.

The City Council’s next agenda session is on April 2, with the regular meeting on April 4.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Teacher Absentee Rate Cited

Among comments Tuesday night, Schools Superintendent Paula Howard mentioned a high teacher absentee rate – 25 percent - as part of the problem in managing students at Plainfield High School.

The topic was a student’s attack on a teacher and its aftermath in the media, where accounts of the situation ranged from isolated incidents of misbehavior to chaos in the hallways.

If the absentee rate is now that high, it is a precipitous drop from the previous rates of 95 to 96 percent. In the 2005-06 school year, the faculty attendance rate exactly matched the state average of 96.2 percent, according to the school report card on the state Department of Education web site.

“This is not a blame game, but a factual account of the issues,” Howard said, noting the high absentee rate means more substitutes trying to conduct classes.

All this is going on just as a state team is conducting a review of the district under a new process with the unwieldy title, “New Jersey Quality Single Accountability Continuum,” or NJQSAC. The state Department of Education is looking at five aspects of district functioning - instruction and program, fiscal management, operations, governance and personnel.

City residents are invited to make comments on the school district at a forum from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday at Washington Community School. A state team will take the community input into account as part of the review.

In a district with 1,100 employees and 6,662 students, there are lots of issues and points of view. Eventually the monitoring process will sharpen the focus to what must be improved. It’s not exactly on the list, but one hopes the general level of acrimony can be reduced.

At the same time on Friday, there will be a Golden Gloves event in Plainfield. Board members were urged Tuesday to attend. It may also attract city residents who just want to see something where there is a clear winner instead of a dizzying array of ongoing concerns. If parents, students, teachers and the community at large can’t pull together soon, is it possible that the state might declare the district down for the count?


Monday, March 19, 2007

Unclaimed Overpayments Result in City Windfall

About a year ago, former Tax Collector Constance Ludden tried to get the City Council to agree to put into surplus $809,984 in overpayments of taxes. All the taxpayers involved had been sent letters about the overpaid amounts, but had not responded.

When one of those taxpayers turned out to be Councilman Cory Storch for a $3,000 overpayment, Storch insisted he would have noticed a letter stating the case.

The council agreed to one more round of notification.

But on Monday, the council was asked to approve a new resolution to allow $780,065 to be placed in surplus due to various overpayments.

That means only $29,919 came back to those who overpaid, less than 4 percent of the total sought in February 2006 to roll back into surplus.

If anyone can prove they overpaid, there is still a chance to get the money back.

From the Plaintalker archives:

"The overpayments date back to 1996 and range from $5.40 to $18,292. Owners of property in the 907 accounts can claim the money if they can prove the overpayments. The 18-page list contains several well-known property owners, including Storch, a city inspector, library director Joe Da Rold, Walgreen’s, The Salvation Army, Leland Gardens, Union County College, PNC Bank and Interfaith Council for the Homeless."

--Bernice Paglia

Crime Cameras Needed

A man who saw a police officer use himself and his patrol car to shield youths from gunfire called on the city Monday to install video cameras in police vehicles.

Speaking to the City Council, Dave Morales said he witnessed the act of bravery from his porch as seven or eight shots rang out right in front of him at Stebbins Place and West Third Street on March 14.

“It was really traumatic,” Morales said, adding, “I was impressed by his professionalism.”

Morales said one or two of the youths may have been shot, but the officer’s act prevented all from suffering harm. He said a camera in the vehicle could have served both to identify the perpetrators and to “increase validity for insurance purposes.”

Council President Rayland Van Blake said the officer should be identified and honored as a good example. Councilman Don Davis asked Police Chief Edward Santiago and Public Safety Director Martin Hellwig to find out the officer’s identity.

Councilman Elliott Simmons, who represents the 4th Ward where the incident occurred, endorsed the idea of putting cameras in police cars. When Davis asked about the cost, Simmons said he would not want to put a dollar sign on the life of his daughter or anyone else.

Community activist Flor Gonzalez also spoke in favor of cameras in police vehicles and said her organization, the Latin American Coalition, is working with city taxi companies that want to put cameras in their vehicles for similar purposes. She said cameras could cost about $900 each.

Gonzalez also talked about the March 13 fatal shooting in Municipal Parking Lot 6, where an innocent bystander was killed in crossfire between youth groups. She said her group was working with the family to cover funeral expenses for the victim and commended Santiago for helping the mother to deal with the loss of her son.

The death of Bukhtiar Katchi was the first homicide in 2007.

The city has made plans to have street surveillance cameras downtown for years, but issues of how the cameras would be monitored have kept the program from becoming a reality.

--Bernice Paglia

Another Redevelopment Deadline

The City Council is scheduled to hold an agenda session at 7:30 p.m. tonight in City Hall Library. Check back later for an update on what’s on the agenda.

One possible item may be an extension of a redeveopment designation.

A 90-day deadline for conditional designation of Capodagli Property Company as redeveloper of the East Third/Richmond tract expired earlier this month. The developer proposes 352 residential units in five buildings at East Third and Richmond streets, with 700 parking spaces at ground level. The Pompton Plains company plans to phase in development, starting with the former Cozzoli Machinery site.

Blog readers may recall the confusing Sept. 7 Planning Board meeting when the board approved a needs study while a full-blown redevelopment plan dated Aug. 23 was at each member’s place the same night. Normally, if the board approves the study, it goes to the council, which may then ask the board to prepare a redevelopment plan.

The board sent the study to the council, where it was rejected because certain Planning Board recommendations were not included. A flurry of meetings ensued, including an emergency Saturday morning council meeting without prior public notice. The meeting notice was published a week later.

Both the study and the plan were then approved.

After the Capodagli Property Company made its presentation to the council in October, it came out in the wash that a principal in the firm was on the state’s debarment list under another company name. Debarment means a firm cannot do public works or Economic Development Authority projects. The three-year debarment expires next month.

At the time of the conditional designation in December, Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson said the council had received information clearing up the matter in regard to the local proposal.

Other issues regarding the East Third/Richmond project include what will happen to the west portion of one target block and the Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority’s plans for property it owns on the designated site.

--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Grammy Storm

My mother, who would have been 97 Thursday, told us there had been a storm every year within a week of her birthday. When the temperature hit 80 degrees earlier in the week, I figured there might not be a "Grammy storm" this year to remind me and my children of this feisty woman who died in 1992.

Wrong! I got to walk to Maxson Middle School Friday in a raging sleet storm. When the hood of my coat fell back, I got ice pellets down my neck. When I put my hand up to hold the hood against the wind, I got little ice balls up my sleeve. Grammy, a force of nature unto herself when her Irish temper took hold, was duly remembered.

After my press assignment, I decided to take a four-minute train ride back to Watchung Avenue rather than walk another half-hour through the storm. At Netherwood, I saw a robin looking very out of place in the ice-covered parking lot. Once home, I saw another one in the driveway looking perplexed as the layer of sleet deepened between him and the worms he was hunting for lunch.

On Saturday, sunshine brought out the crowds to go shopping at Park & Seventh. But the aftermath - slush, ankle-deep icy pools and hard, slippery patches of coagulated sleet - made getting around a challenge for pedestrians.

The old girl, as my sister Jane and I irreverently called my mother, has been long gone from such earthly tribulations. She had a hard life, losing her mother to the Spanish Flu and being raised by relatives in a small coal-mining town in Pennsylvania. Her father took another wife and raised that woman's children. My mother could be bitter sometimes, and with due cause. The fury of nature matches her often-expressed anger over those early losses and the hardship of childhood as a virtual orphan.

Rest in peace, Mary Teresa "Jean" McLaughlin Fortune.

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, March 16, 2007

No Snow Day!

This writer was as crushed as any third-grader to find out school was open today. Many calls to the district's school closing hotline brought only busy signals for an hour until finally the phone rang and a male voice announced all schools were open.
That means a trudge to Maxson for a press assignment.
At least it gave me insight into what happens when about 7,000 people are all calling the hotline at once.
--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

OK, when it gets up 80 degrees in March, can't I trade in my fedora for a garden hat?

Motorcycle Patrol

Police Officer Harold Carmen and Sgt. Troy Edwards pause briefly for a snapshot while on patrol Wednesday on Watchung Avenue. Plainfield now has a Segway human transporter, motorcycle and bicycle patrols, foot patrols and police cars to keep the streets safe.

Roof Collapse

Firefighters use an aerial bucket to inspect a roof collapse on West Sixth Street. Note the buckled wall at the rear. See my report in the Courier tomorrow.

Planners Will Mull Redevelopment's Fiscal Impact

Planning Board Chairman Ken Robertson has asked for a review of the fiscal impact of redevelopment projects at Thursday’s meeting, Planning Division Director Bill Nierstedt said Tuesday.

The Planning Board meeting is 8 p.m.Thursday (March 15, 2007) in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave.

The question of fiscal impact means balancing tax revenues from new developments against the costs of providing increased city services.

Plainfield in mid-2005 had more than a dozen redevelopment proposals in the works when Robertson called a halt to talks on the projects, partly because there were too many and partly because by then it was evident that a new administration would be coming in, with ideas of its own.

At the time, this writer rather saucily read off a list of the proposals, which seemed like more than a platter-full.

As Robertson decreed, nothing happened until the administration of Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs and her mentor, Assemblyman Jerry Green, took hold. But then there were more and more, up to the point where everything within one mile of a train station, real or defunct, might become a transit village.

Developers presenting condo projects along the Raritan Valley Line transit village corridor have insisted that few or no additional school children will result, instead pointing to empty-nesters and childless professional couples who might like to inhabit the condos.

The reality remains to be seen.

But the number of possible new condo-dwellers – several hundred or maybe more than 2,000 - will surely impact traffic and mean more demand for public safety services.

Robertson is prudent in asking for an upfront tally of possible costs. Developers have downplayed the school impact, citing studies that show their targeted buyers will produce only a few children. But some may recall that the Tepper’s project won approvals based on its population being independent seniors. Later, when financing proved elusive, the target population became low- to moderate-income families. City officials only learned late in the game that there was no provision for air conditioning in the 75 apartments, let alone a study of the revised plan’s fiscal impact.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Still Changing Hats

You can see my byline in the Courier News this week while I continue to fill in on the Plainfield beat.

So far I have been able to file all my stories without using a car. Yesterday my travels on foot took me to the basement of the former Mirons building for a press conference. The foyer of the building offers a forbidding view of the hulk that was once the Mirons warehouse. Its boarded-up windows and general state of disrepair make it a good reminder of the need for redevelopment.

Plaintalker got a glimpse of the future in a document that was included in a recent City Council packet. Between where I was standing last night and the ugly warehouse, a 500-car parking garage may arise. The structure would give future North Avenue transit village people a place to park their vehicles while they explore the neighborhood on foot.

The Mirons building is an example of a concept that was a favorite of planners before the term “transit village” inflamed their minds. It was called “adaptive re-use” when the former furniture store was turned into 19 condos many years ago. Turning the former Tepper’s department store into 75 apartments is another example. Now will somebody please make those downtown second stories into artists’ lofts?

I read somewhere that Plainfield’s famous author, Adele deLeeuw, used to leave her home to write in a nearby location where the quotidian demands of the household (such as deciding what to have for dinner) would not interfere with the creative process. Wouldn’t a little writer’s studio be a downtown treat!

For now, with the computer just steps from the stove, blogging is still interspersed with steaming the asparagus and cooking the gemelli. An added benefit in this building is channeling the ghost of Joseph Yates, one of the city’s first councilmen. It was his home in the late 1800s before it was carved up into six apartments. I wonder what he would make of current council doings and the present state of the Queen City, not to mention someone blogging about it.

--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, March 11, 2007

All My Peeps

Every time I see a pack of marshmallow Peeps around town, I am reminded of a springtime contest in the city of my dreams, Seattle. The Seattle Times encourages readers to assemble Peeps in sugary tableaux and publishes photos of the winning entries.

Here's a glimpse of last year's entries:

For the next few days I will have stories in the Courier News, many of which would otherwise be blog entries. Or at least blog topics. There may be blog takes on these subjects later.

Meanwhile, the Courier is looking for bloggers on certain subjects, such as food, shopping, parenting and dating. The news biz is changing, with DIY publishing and photo galleries and even cartoons. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has taken up vlogging, another DIY news form. What does it all mean? Send Plaintalker an e-mail with your views.


Saturday, March 10, 2007

News Roundup

Easter eggs, in the computer world, are hidden surprises that pop up as jokes or to give credit to programmers. With the June primary filing date falling on Easter Monday, politicians will be on guard for any “Easter egg” surprises. More later on that topic.

As you may have noticed, this writer has been called on to report for the print media lately. This phenomenon may continue until somebody steps up to cover the Plainfield beat, which this writer formerly covered for 16 years before retiring in 2003.

The Special Improvement District’s budget received City Council approval in December but the taxes assessed to support its activities have yet to be collected. The City Council voted approval Wednesday (March 7, 2006) to publish the list of property owners affected and amounts they will be assessed for the SID, and also to hold a public hearing on the assessment roll on March 21. Paramount Property Management, which recently acquired the Pittis Estate, appears to be the largest contributor among the 447 SID properties, coming up with 8 percent of the total $125,607 assessment. That amount is matched with Urban Enterprise Zone funds for the total SID budget.

Who’s watching the city like a hawk? Why, it’s a real hawk, as seen through a screen window on East Seventh Street. But the big fellow is more interested in pigeons than in people-watching. He’s leaving that to the bloggers.

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, March 09, 2007

Brevity is the Soul of What?

City Council members smile at each other lately over the brevity of their meetings.

An hour for agenda sessions, fifteen minutes or less for regular meetings – it seems that’s all the governing body needs these days to do the city’s business. And the audience has dwindled as well. On Wednesday, Rasheed Abdul-Haqq came into Municipal Court for the meeting and saw not one other member of the public. By the time Frank D’Aversa strolled in a while later, the meeting was over.

It’s not as if there is nothing going on in the city that deserves a little more public discussion or interest from elected officials. There are lots of redevelopment plans, but they mostly get a quick show-and-tell, then they sink from sight until a final vote. One company has bought up mostly all the commercial real estate in the city and another has acquired 25 apartment buildings, the bulk of the city’s rental housing. Not a peep from merchants or tenants, let alone the governing body.

The city could have begun preliminary cable TV franchise renewal activities back in August, but only a few people got appointed to the board that is also meant to monitor the local channel. There is no one on the Hispanic Affairs Commission or the Environmental Commission and other boards have only a few members, not enough to do business. Granted, appointments mostly come from the mayor, but having voted these bodies into existence, doesn’t the council wonder why they are not being constituted with members?

Plaintalker is not advocating a return to those days of endless and sometimes pointless discussions that used to take place when a few garrulous public servants dominated the governing body, but can life in the Queen City be so wonderfully bland nowadays that there’s nothing to say?

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Dashield Introduced to Seniors

In her monthly visit Tuesday to the Senior Center, Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs introduced new City Administrator Marc Dashield.

Dashield was formerly the chief financial officer in Franklin Township. The City Council approved his appointment Dec. 6, but he did not take office until Jan. 15. He has a strong background in municipal government and should be able to manage the city well. He is responsible for day-to-day operations and the city's three charter-mandated department heads report to him.

Asked after the meeting when Dashield will be introduced to the world at large on the city's web site, Robinson-Briggs referred the question to Ray Daniels, director of Administration, Finance Health and Social Services. Daniels said the web site is being repaired in phases and Dashield's name could appear in about two weeks.

The web site at broke down last year and has not been updated for months.

--Bernice Paglia

Monday, March 05, 2007

New Development Proposal, More Deadlines

An East Hanover developer proposes filling in a gap on the Tepper’s block with a 12-unit condo project with three commercial units at ground level.

Clay Bonny showed a rendering of his proposed building to the City Council Monday (March 5, 2007) and said his target buyers will be young professionals, empty-nesters and divorced dads who might use a second bedroom as an office or a place for the kids on weekends. The last category showed up as a marketing niche, he explained.

A second-floor interior landscaped courtyard would give upper floor residents a view and each two-bedroom unit would have ample storage, a “full appliance package” and other features to make living comfortable.

Bonny said no price had been set for the condos, but his “gut feeling” was that the cost would be about $300,000. Parking would be behind the West Front Street building, mostly in a city-owned lot, he said.

Bonny said the proposal is his fourth solo project after years with major development firms. He has previously built rental properties in Rahway, Butler and Morristown, he said.

The presentation was just for council information, as Bonny had answered a request for proposals for the city-owned site. As in mostly all recent development discussions, parking was a concern. Bonny said accepted standards call for two parking spaces per unit, but that one of the spaces could most likely be shared by tenants at night and employees and shoppers by day. One 24-hour parking space would be dedicated for each unit.

In other redevelopment news, a 90-page agreement for development of the North Avenue tract was in the council information packet, anticipating a vote at Wednesday’s regular meeting. But the item was pulled Monday and the developer, Landmark Development Corp. of Jersey City, will be given another 60-day extension of the conditional designation first granted in August.

Landmark’s proposal is perhaps the most extensive of all among more than a dozen or so in the works. Developer Frank Cretella, renowned as a restaurant entrepreneur, proposes making the blocks by the main train station a mecca for entertainment, along with extensive residential and retail development. Besides encompassing the city’s only commercial historic district, the plan may extend north and west and may add a 500-space parking deck. Part of the plan is to retain the historic facades along North Avenue between Park and Watchung avenues, but to build up behind them to yield more than 400 residential units in the tract.

The agenda already included a 60-day extension for AST Development Corp. of Lavallette for the Marino’s tract on West Front Street. That plan includes a supermarket, but recent talks between major chains Pathmark and A&P may complicate the negotiations. AST also received 90-day conditional designation in August and along with Landmark received a 60-day extension in December.

Meanwhile, Plaintalker had noted a looming closing deadline for Dornoch Plainfield’s senior center and condo development on East Front Street. Not to worry, the closing took place in late January, Union County Improvement Authority attorney Ed Boccher said. Dornoch has already received site plan approval for the center and 63 condos on three floors above the center. The developer will finance the project and is not seeking any tax breaks from the city.

--Bernice Paglia

Fleeting Beauty

A brief snow squall with high winds Monday March 5, 2007) frosted every branch and twig of this tree, etching it against the sky.
Then the sun came out and in a few seconds the show was over.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Time for Tough Love

City Council meetings are scheduled this week for Monday (March 5, 2007) and Wednesday (March 7, 2007).

Monday’s agenda session is 7:30 p.m. in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave.. Wednesday’s regular meeting is in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave., at 8 p.m.

There is also a Board of Adjustment meeting Wednesday in City Hall Library.

Besides some important deadlines for redevelopment proposals, next week will also mark the closing date for the Dornoch Plainfield senior center and condo development. If the closing does not take place, the agreement signed Jan. 4 by Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs, the Union County Improvement Authority and Dornoch may be terminated.
But that doesn’t seem likely. Dornoch has moved right along, from the midsummer unveiling of the plan to site plan approval and signing the agreement for the $1 sale of city-owned land.

Meanwhile, AST Development of Lavallette, which still hasn’t met all the Planning Board conditions for the Park-Madison project, has had two deadlines for a proposed supermarket development on the old Marino’s tract on West Front Street. Landmark Development Corp. has also had 90- and 60-day periods to complete its agreement to redevelopment the North Avenue tract by the main train station. Now the tract may be expanded to include the PNC Bank block and part of the block bounded by East Front, Watchung, East Second and Park.

The 90-day time frame for Capodagli Property Company of Pompton Plains to forge an agreement with the city and the UCIA for the East Third/Richmond tract is up soon as well.

My old souvenir Valentine’s Day alarm clock from Macy’s features Cupid pulling back his bow. Instead of numbers, there are letters spelling out “A Time for Love.”

Let’s hope it will be tough love for developers to make sure these deals are solid and good for the city.

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, March 03, 2007

The Changing Downtown

A bank's images of prosperity, trust.
A message from the Beatles.

Deities downtown.

An officer waves from his Segway.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

New Treats at Park & Seventh

Despite the admonition never to smile at a crocodile, this writer couldn’t help laughing at the sight of this cocodrilo made of pastry with sharp sugar icing teeth.

The wily beast and a companion snake were signs of new ownership at the former doughnut and ice cream shop near Park & Seventh. In the same case by the window was a magnificent Tres Leches cake studded with cherries. Another case held an assortment of croissants and assorted Spanish pastries.

Ice cream and doughnuts are still on the menu for the less adventurous, but owner Arturo Marroquin is determined to awaken the palates of Plainfield’s diverse population with his new offerings.

Marroquin said the novelty snake and crocodile cakes can be filled with jelly, cream or fruit for an added treat.

He is calling his business Breadbasket Bakery and said he will be creating and selling “all kinds of cake.”

For those not familiar with the Tres Leches or Three-Milk cake, it is made with evaporated milk, condensed milk and whole milk. It is sweet, moist and popular throughout Central America, according to this recipe.

Marroquin, who is from Guatemala, said family tradition led to his career.

“My daddy was a baker,” he said.

Pointing to a loaf of bread with a funny little face, he said sometimes a baked creation may be kept as an artifact. He said special cakes may be varnished “to keep forever.”

“I have one from 12 years ago,” he said.

As this writer marveled over the array of enticing baked goods, Marroquin said, “We like a lot of sweet things.”

According to a signboard outside, the bakery will also offer beverages and snacks with a Latino flair.

Stop in and welcome a new entrepreneur to Park & Seventh!

--Bernice Paglia


School Tax Reckoning Coming

On a chart in Tuesday’s Courier News, the Plainfield school district was conspicuous among the 62 districts listed. It was the only one with a zero increase in state aid for 2007-08.

Assemblyman Jerry Green has been warning residents for quite a while that property owners may see an increase in school taxes. In 1999-2000, state aid was $55 million. It is now just under $100 million. And yet the local tax levy, year after year, has stayed below $18 million.

In a 2005-06 comparison of the three Plainfields, North Plainfield received 40 percent of its budget in state aid, 3 percent in federal aid and taxpayers came up with 56 percent. South Plainfield residents paid79 percent of the school budget, while state aid accountedfor 18 percent and federal aid was 3 percent.

But in Plainfield, state aid was 82 percent of the budget, federal aid was 4 percent and local school taxes made up only 13 percent of the budget.

The district has seen state aid increases as high as 17 percent in recent years, but with the new emphasis on helping suburban districts, Plainfield’s share is likely to flatten or decrease.

The only new local tax revenues on the horizon are those from proposed condo developments. Presenters of condo proposals stress that they are looking for seniors or childless professionals to inhabit these pricey digs and so the developments will not likely add to the school population. But will these double-income-no kids households become the front line in combating rising school taxes? Time will tell.

--Bernice Paglia