Elmwood Gardens Renewal Proposed
Citing ongoing issues of crime and vandalism at the site, largely from outsiders, Housing Authority official Lewis Hurd told the Planning Board Thursday that the agency is considering demolishing the 1960s 120-unit complex in favor of 80 new townhouses with both back and front yards and individual parking spaces. The proposal is only in the earliest stages, but Hurd said the authority has concluded that Elmwood Gardens is an “albatross” it can no longer bear.
Despite an agreement with police to patrol the area, the current building configuration allows too many ways for criminals to elude police, he said.
Hurd met with the Planning Board to discuss possible issues that might concern the board as the plan goes forward, including density, parking, design and open space. The current structure does not meet requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, another concern.
William Reid, the City Council liaison to the Planning Board and a longtime Housing Authority executive in other cities, raised numerous technical questions about financing, HUD regulations and whether new construction would be better than the mid-20th century buildings. Ron Scott-Bey asked how the reduction in units would affect the city’s COAH obligation. Not all the questions could be answered Thursday.
Residents in place at the time of demolition would be eligible for relocation housing anywhere in the nation. The new slots would be open only to “residents in good standing,” Hurd said.
Board members said they did not want to see the buildings left vacant for any length of time, due to fear of more vandalism and crime. Hurd said if the plan is approved, construction could take between three and five years. The Housing Authority of Plainfield has established a community development group that can undertake both non-profit and market-rate development, he said.
Among the historical facts about Elmwood Gardens, former Mayor Rick Taylor once lived there. As a reporter, I recall several homicides taking place there. J.M. Benjamin, whom I interviewed as the author of several urban fiction books, used a façade of Elmwood Gardens, specifically 524 West Second Street, as the front cover image of his book about the drug dealing that landed him in state and federal prison. (Now he is a very successful urban fiction author with book sales downtown in the former Jesus Book Store on Front Street.)
City residents who see scrawled “116” tags on buildings should know that they refer to 116 Elmwood, a possible gang location.
Another anecdote is that there was once a community garden near the project that was productive until the lot became part of the “197 Scattered Site” redevelopment plan. A Westfield group that got special consideration to develop 67 of the sites eventually reneged and the site remained undeveloped.
All these concerns, both official and non-official, may play into the outcome of the Housing Authority’s wish for better things to come at Elmwood Gardens.