Monday, April 09, 2007

Redevelopment Needs Public Scrutiny

Every time I feel like abandoning the blog, I am reminded why it even began. The key element in 2005 was a lack of reporting in the mainstream media on redevelopment that could transform the city, for better or worse.

At the time, an ambitious concept called “Downtown Station South” was under discussion. It involved a large area between the main train station and East Seventh Street, but was attracting little public notice. I was paying attention because the needs study included the building where I have lived since 1992. In the end, my building was not declared in need of redevelopment, but most of the target area was and still is considered in need of redevelopment based on certain criteria which open it to taking by eminent domain.

After the June 2005 primary, redevelopment plans went into abeyance until the new administration took over in January 2006. By mid-2006, redevelopment activity was entrusted to the Union County Improvement Authority, whose executive director is Union County Democratic Party Chairman Charlotte DeFilippo. Several new proposals soon joined the dozen or so left over from the previous administration, most involving condo development near train stations.

Certainly the blog had other topics of interest to Plainfielders over the months since June 2005, but redevelopment in all its phases has remained a centerpiece.

A private proposal to build a senior center topped by three floors of condos has advanced through site plan approval. Other proposals are following the state redevelopment process with steps that can lead to use of eminent domain to clear a tract for an approved project.

In these days of hard decisions for newspapers, Plaintalker has an advantage in being able to commit the time necessary to follow redevelopment closely and report on it in detail. Of course, it is all voluntary and is still driven by this writer’s feeling that the public needs to know what is going on. Public hearings are part of the redevelopment process, but can become an empty formality if residents are uninformed on the proposals.

So how does anyone find out what is going on with redevelopment? City Council and Planning Board agendas offer clues. Legal notices alert citizens that they may examine applications on file at City Hall. Documents available under the Open Public Records Act give more details. Once a developer is known, his track record can be looked up. Residents can attend meetings to hear what the developer has to say. Eventually, larger concepts such as smart growth or transit-oriented development emerge as themes.

Only a few citizens have the time or inclination to do all that. But these proposals to add hundreds of new condos – and cars – to the city could drastically alter daily life as we know it.

Since June 2005, Plaintalker has posted more than 550 entries on various aspects of life in the Queen City. Currently, it is a solo operation. Right now, this writer needs a break.

But then along comes another legal notice. It's about a hearing on a possible expansion of the North Avenue redevelopment tract to include most of the PNC Bank block and the south half of the block bordered by East Front and East Second streets and Park and Watchung avenues. I’m interested because both of my downtown banks may be affected. I’ve also seen a reference to a 500-car parking garage in an expanded North Avenue tract. The company that has conditional designation to redevelop the blocks by the main train station has proposed hundreds of new condos as well as an entertainment center to draw visitors from all over the metropolitan area.

The hearing is 8 p.m. April 19 in City Hall Library "at which time any interested person or any person who would be affected by a determination that the delineated area is a redevelopment area may be heard."

Hmmm. Guess I better check it out for the blog.

--Bernice Paglia


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