Friday, May 04, 2007

Redevelopment Caveats Aired

The Planning Board agreed Thursday that parts of two blocks near the North Avenue redevelopment tract are also in need of redevelopment, but only after board members, merchants, property owners and residents voiced numerous concerns about the needs study’s findings.

Many of their concerns will be forwarded to the City Council as recommendations along with the board’s decision.

The sites may be added to the existing North Avenue proposal that calls for hundreds of new residential units, an entertainment complex, a 500-car parking garage and more in a sweeping overhaul of the city’s only commercial historic district, next to the main train station.

One area studied includes Municipal Parking Lot 6 behind stores facing on Front Street between Park and Watchung avenues, along with the former Elks building, Investors Savings Bank, a day care center, Planned Parenthood, a chiropractor’s office and a store. The other site includes the PNC Bank building and parking lots, an 1855 building formerly used as the bank’s community education center, Appliance-Arama and a couple of stores.

The needs study, conducted by George Stevenson of Remington & Vernick, found that the sites met four of eight criteria for redevelopment, including unsafe or unhealthy conditions, underutilization, being in an Urban Enterprise Zone and consistency with “smart growth” principles.

Stevenson, who said he intended to demonstrate “with enthusiasm and feeling” why the sites were in need of redevelopment, joked about a “log cabin” where someone was selling handkerchiefs.

“You could say you have a viable structure and business,” he said, but in fact it would be under-utilized and would not meet “the vision the city has for the central business district.”

Stevenson said six-story buildings are permitted downtown, but noted many existing ones are only one- or two-stories high and some are dilapidated.

“Intense development is anticipated,” he said, but noted, “Existing conditions are detrimental to the welfare of the city.”

Stevenson showed photos of what he deemed unsafe and under-utilized properties, including large empty parking lots and hazardous driveways, and described deterioration at the Elks building, among others.

Planners first questioned Stevenson about discrepancies in two versions of the study and went on to challenge some of the findings. The historic Elks building came in for special concern from board members who wanted to see it preserved.

Councilman Cory Storch, the governing body’s liaison to the Planning Board, said he hoped to see adaptive reuse of the building, but said its inclusion in the plan might be more of a safeguard than not having it under the redevelopment umbrella.

Others had similar concerns about the PNC Bank building, which goes back to the turn of the 20th century.

Even though the issue before the board was strictly to vote on the needs study, Planning Director Bill Nierstedt said it could add recommendations to the council.

In public comment, speakers said merchants should be consulted on redevelopment plans, as their livelihoods might be affected. Some of the study findings were more like code violations than blight, others said.

Al Pittis, the longtime manager of many downtown properties, told Stevenson he was “appalled” by the findings.

“You criticize every last piece of property,” he said.

Pittis objected to Stevenson’s finding that Investors Savings used only 50 percent of its lot, saying banks need space for parking and drive-in windows. On Stevenson’s negative contrast of the sites with the Park-Madison building, Pittis said, “I think with all the properties shown on this map, the city gets more revenue per square foot than it is getting from Park-Madison for the (payment in lieu of taxes).”

Property owner and real estate appraiser William Hetfield questioned whether Stevenson had made any marketability or feasibility study of the sites.

“Is the marketplace going to support this vision?” he asked.

Stevenson said no study had been done.

“I love the log cabin,” Hetfield said, repeating Stevenson’s comment that it might be viable and making money.

“But there is no marketability or feasibility study to take away that log cabin,” Hetfield said.

Hetfield said buildings were bulldozed down in a previous renewal effort that failed because it wasn’t economically feasible.

“I believe strongly that Plainfield’s future will be determined by what we do in the next two years,” he said, urging a bold move to go north and south of the train station.

“You will get 2,000 people downtown,” he said.

Flor Gonzalez, president of the Latin American Coalition, cited an influx of Hispanic businesses that since 1985 have restored the downtown district and cautioned against proposals that could drive them out.

Resident Maria Pellum echoed the need to keep Hispanics involved in redevelopment and for officials to be more cognizant of Hispanic culture.

“We need redevelopment, but we have to do it right,” she said.

Jeff Brand of Planned Parenthood said flatly that if his agency is displaced, “Twenty-five thousand of the poorest women will lose their health care.”

Resident Dottie Gutenkauf noted that a previous economic development official had listed all pending redevelopment proposals.

“The list was quite a long list and it didn’t include this,” she said.

At the time, she said, officials wanted to “slow down and take a good look” at all the plans “and see how they fit with each other.”

Gutenkauf warned against “permanent stagnation” if hasty redevelopment takes place.

Resident Sandy Gurshman also turned the log cabin allusion back on Stevenson.

“it’s not so bad to have one or two log cabins,” she said. “It reminds us where we came from.”

Gurshman said she didn’t want to see cookie-cutter construction and added, “I would not hold up Park-Madison as an example. It will not stand as an example of architectural history.”

In the end, the board approved the study with recommendations that it should be integrated with other development, community involvement should be increased, small businesses should be protected, adaptive reuse encouraged for historic buildings and economic impact should be assessed.


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