Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Dornoch Starts, North Avenue Next

I covered the senior center groundbreaking for the Courier News Tuesday. Later I will give some blog thoughts on the experience. The project, with the senior center and a veterans’ center on the first floor and 63 two-bedroom condos on three floors above, is expected to be completed within a year. It is the first big project to get to the point of construction since Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs took office 18 months ago.

Next up is the North Avenue project. I actually had to review my own blog to remember what happened in May. The City Council held a closed executive session May 7 and an agenda session at which there was no mention of North Avenue. But on May 9, a redevelopment agreement for North Avenue was up for a vote. It was among nine items that were apparently discussed in closed session and then added to the May 9 agenda under Corporation Counsel items.

There is nothing sinister about this. Matters involving litigation or contracts are normally settled in closed session before a public vote is taken. It was just that the bland wording – “Resolution authorizing the execution of a redeveloper’s agreement with redeveloper for the North Avenue Historic District Redevelopment Area and designating a redeveloper” – told the public nothing about the significance of the vote. The City Council was about to agree to a proposal to place more than 400 residential units, a 500-car parking garage and an entertainment center next to the city’s original, historic main train station.

Councilman Cory Storch, perhaps for the benefit of the public, asked Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson to explain the nine items briefly. Besides some legal settlements and requests for legal defense for police officers, five of the items had to do with redevelopment. Several were of high significance, including authorization of an “in need of redevelopment” study involving almost 100 properties around the Netherwood train station.

Regarding North Avenue, two important additions may be made to the original redevelopment area. One involves the PNC Bank block and the other covers a city parking lot off East Second Street as well as buildings on Park and Watchung avenues, extending the North Avenue redevelopment area north and west.

I regret missing the mayor’s redevelopment forum, where I understand more was revealed about the scope of the North Avenue proposal.

The mayor has made a point of informing seniors every month about progress on the Dornoch Plainfield LLC senior center/condo proposal. The redevelopment forum may have helped the North Avenue merchant constituency understand the Landmark Development Corp. proposal. As Netherwood moves through the redevelopment process, starting with the needs study, business and property owners there deserve more information.

As a constituency, seniors are easily accessible. The mayor makes scheduled visits on first Tuesday of each month and 100 or more seniors are right there. For other constituencies, gathering for information is not so easy. Retail merchants and business owners don’t have a place to get together. So far, information has spread largely by networking on the phone, by e-mail or by distribution of flyers. Plaintalker tries to help out by sharing redevelopment news.

The forum appears to reflect the mayor’s increased desire to inform the public above and beyond the legal minimum of public hearing notices at stages of the redevelopment process. Future success in sharing details of each redevelopment scheme will most likely depend on the continued good will of the administration, the organizing power of the affected constituencies and the ability of news gatherers to research redevelopment documents.

--Bernice Paglia


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