Thursday, May 10, 2007

Property Owners Voice Redevelopment Fears

As the City Council prepared to vote on several redevelopment matters Wednesday, residents and business owners urged the governing body to make the process more open to those it will affect.

Speakers cited long-term investments in Plainfield and one person noted he had just received land use approvals for a project that now might be in limbo.

The main concern was a proposed “in need of redevelopment’ study of more than 90 properties around the Netherwood train station. The study is related to the “transit village” concept endorsed by Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs since she took office in January 2006. It calls for high density development around two existing and two defunct rail stations on the Raritan Valley Line.

On Wednesday, the council approved a redevelopment agreement for the North Avenue tract by the main train station. That plan calls for more than 400 residential units and retail and entertainment space around the main train station.

But the Netherwood proposal brought out most of the comments.

“Do we have a vision?” resident Maria Pellum asked. “Do we have benchmarks?”

Business owner Gery Ventriglia asked whether his business of 45 years would have to clear out and questioned how much residential redevelopment would take place along the railroad tracks.

Attorney Barbara Schwartz, speaking for her client, Hyper Harry’s, raised numerous questions about the impact of development, including job loss and impact on minorities and low-income residents.

Dave Wuest, executive director of the Plainfield Chamber of Commerce, offered to do whatever he could to facilitate communication between the city and the business community

Resident Tony Rucker, who is challenging incumbent Councilman Cory Storch for the Second Ward seat, said, “It all comes down to what kind of city we want to live in.”

Rucker said he wanted to distinguish between “development and economic development,” citing education cost that could arise from adding 500 residential units.
Rucker noted that 85 percent of the city’s tax revenues currently come from residential properties and asked why more burden should be put on tax payers.

Reacting to a consultant’s recent comment that downtown buildings should be built higher, Rucker said, “We don’t need six stories.”

Rucker and other predicted that developers will build, take their profit and leave the city with increased need for services and other problems.

Several speakers voiced concern about the scope of the Netherwood study.

“It looks like we are enlarging the concept of the transit village,” Jim Uffer of Truck Tech said. “I know if you put in a transit village, a lot of industries will be displaced.”

In all, 15 people came to the microphone to speak out before the vote.

Dashield reminded them often of the mayor’s concerns for business owners and for making sure everyone has input. Council members took time to assure speakers that they would be heard at every step of the process .

Storch, who is council liaison to the Planning Board, said there is a transit village vision.

“The problem is, it’s not a shared vision with the community.”

Storch said a lot of things coming from the administration are “pieces of the puzzle.” He called for creation of a more inclusive process.

“Our problem right now is that residents and the buisiness community don’t feel they are part of the vision.”

Storch said he and others on the council’s Economic Growth committee may seek a moratorium on sending recommendations to the Planning Board “until we have created a process for community input and have gone through that process.”

His comment drew applause from the residents and business owners.

All current redevelopment tasks – studies, plans and agreements – are in the hands of the Union County Improvement Authority, which the city designated in August 2006 as its redevelopment arm. The work is being done at no cost to the city, Councilman Don Davis reminded the public. At every step, there are public hearings, but speakers complained they don’t know about them because only small legal notices are required to publicize them.

Plaintalker, Pellum’s Crescent Times and Dan Damon’s Plainfield Today blog have all put a spotlight on the process recently. In general, the administration’s communication with the public has been a sore point. The city has not been able to fix its web site and many residents feel the city’s local cable channel is underutilized, despite increased staff.

--Bernice Paglia


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