Monday, August 31, 2009

A Villain in the Garden

One thing about weeding is that you have to be sure of what belongs and what does not belong in the garden. The plant in the forefront kind of blended in, but somehow didn't look right for a butterfly garden. Some sleuthing was in order.

A long time ago, I acquired the "Beginner's Guide to Wild Flowers" by Ethel Hinckley Housman.

Throughout 10 moves in Middlesex, Morris and Union counties, it has served me well, and it still does here in the Queen City.

Housman's line drawings are better than glossy photographic guides for identification, I have found.

The mysterious plant turned out to be Abuliton Theophrasti, known commonly as Indian Mallow or Velvetleaf. But my guide was published long before non-native plants were labeled as invasives, so Housman passes no judgment in her write-up. I'm guessing that a high percentage of these "wild flowers" would be scorned today, no matter how beautiful they might be.
Sure enough, a search turned up the modern-day dossier on this plant. In Washington State, it is a Class A Noxious Weed! Each plant produces hundreds to many thousands of seeds, which remain viable for half a century or more, even after passing through an animal's digestive tract. Evergreen State residents are warned to eradicate it at once and report it to state authorities.
New Jersey is not as aggressive about battling invasives as Washington is, but still it seems I better get over there and pull that fiendish plant out of the butterfly garden as soon as possible. The challenge will be where to put it, if indeed its seeds are so durable. Maybe in a block of concrete?
Such are the dramas in the natural world that go largely unnoticed as we deal with the ills of so-called civilization. Maybe I can't roll back pollution or even good old New Jersey corruption, but I will march today on the butterfly garden and disarm that evil interloper before it takes over Plainfield!
--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Preservation Funds Help Save City Churches

Consultant Annabelle Radcliffe-Trenner reveals findings of a preservation study at First Unitarian Society of Plainfield.

Note: This story was written last year but never published. Part Two will be an update.

PLAINFIELD – In the late 19th century, there was no lack of wealthy benefactors to help build city churches. But now congregations must look to preservation funding to keep the buildings standing.

In keeping with that trend, First Unitarian Society of Plainfield took the initial step in 2007 of seeking a grant from the New Jersey Historic Trust to assess the condition of the church that was founded with the help of the city’s first mayor, Job Male.

The church was fortunate to count as a member preservation consultant Stacy Spies, who prepared the highly detailed application.

“Putting together the nomination was very exciting for me, since I love combing through archives – the ‘detective work’ part of the job I love,” Spies said.

Among its highlights: First Unitarian Society is the oldest Unitarian society in New Jersey. It is within the boundaries of the Van Wyck Brooks Historic District. Its architect was Oscar Teale, described by Spies as an “important and prolific” 19th century designer of churches in Plainfield and vicinity.

Once the grant was secured, church officials were able to hire Historic Building Architects of Trenton to make the assessment. A team of preservationists examined early blueprints and then scoured every inch of the building in a probe that preservation consultant Annabelle Radcliffe-Trenner likened to a CSI forensic exam. The result was a 15-year plan to put the church “back up to where it should be in terms of care and maintenance.”

And that’s how the $54,000 initial grant led to the sobering $5 million projected tab to save the edifice.

Church leaders are hoping the assessment plus a report on the historic significance of the structure will help garner $450,000 in preservation funding to address the most pressing needs. The church will also have to raise many thousands of dollars through a capital campaign.

It is a scenario that several other city churches know well. St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, Grace Episcopal Church, Crescent Avenue Presbyterian Church and the Friends Meeting House have all received grants from the New Jersey Historic Trust.

The Rev. Robert Martin said Crescent Avenue Presbyterian church has just received a third grant to provide handicapped access to the Gothic cathedral that is a focal point for music programs, including those of the Plainfield Symphony. He described the grant process as arduous throughout.

“The paperwork is daunting,” he said. And once a grant is received, there are many proofs to be made of how the money was spent.

Crescent benefited from publicity of its need for restoration by the group, Partners for Sacred Spaces. The Philadelphia group gave no funding, but provided national attention to the church’s need. The church was also able to provide letters of support from numerous groups that use the building for educational, cultural and community health activities. Following a stabilization phase, Crescent is now ready to begin replacing failed cast stone this summer and fall, Martin said.

“We were able to raise almost $750,000,” he said

A matching grant would allow the church to restore about half the building, “which would be great,” Martin said.

Each additional grant triggers an audit of past use of the trust funds, he said. And the church must pay costs of the audit.

Still, both Martin and The Rev. Carolyn Eklund of Grace Episcopal Church lauded the opportunity and praised church volunteers who devoted countless hours to preparing the applications.

“I have been really impressed with New Jersey’s commitment to the restoration of historical properties, not just churches,” Eklund said.

She noted that urban churches are not just filled once a week for worship, but have become hubs for diverse community activities and services.

At First Unitarian Society, longtime member Gerry Heinzer is coordinator of the Property and Planning ministry and is in the forefront of the preservation effort.

“Nobody looks in the nooks and crannies where the nastiness is happening,” he said.

The assessment grant allowed Radcliffe-Trenner’s team to do just that.

She found the arch-enemy of historic buildings, water in the wrong places, had taken such a toll on the church that decidedly non-historic black plastic drains had to be strategically installed all around the building. Squirrels had chewed holes and stored up acorns inside the church. Vines, mold and other “biological growth” were attacking the exterior.

By the time Radcliffe Trenner finished a February 2008 slide show on what she called “a whole well-check” of the building, members who gathered in the Parish Hall sat in seeming stunned silence at the findings. The Robinson Window, a stained-glass marvel of images that summed up the denomination’s tenets, was installed in 1947, but by Radcliffe-Trenner’s reckoning, was likely to fail within three years unless it was professionally restored. A 1925 slate roof that should have been good for a century was “a bit dodgy on quality” and already at the end of its life, she said. Some walls and floors did not pass muster.

As church president Jody Hey announced that the board was launching a capital campaign, no one in the room could doubt the need.

The congregation now has a plan - and high hopes to join the ranks of other city churches which are saving their buildings not with the largesse of long-gone city millionaires, but with a helping hand from the New Jersey Historic Trust.

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, August 28, 2009

Parking Lot Permit Statistics

Plainfield has 11 city parking lots in the blocks bordered by the Green Brook, Central Avenue, Seventh Street and Roosevelt Avenue. They generate about $300,000 in permit fees and meter revenues annually and an unknown amount in parking fines. Users include commuters, business people, shoppers and tenants. According to a 2002 chart, there are 244 metered spaces and 785 permitted spaces, with 15 handicap spaces.


On a recent walk through all the lots, Plaintalker found that most appear to be underused and in need of maintenance.



On Friday, I picked up results of an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request to know the numbers of permit holders in the various city parking lots.

Monthly permits are $25 for businesses, $30 for residents and $35 for non-residents and must be obtained from the Parking Bureau on West Fourth Street.

According to my requested information, in August there were only 192 permit holders. Broken down by parking lot, here are the numbers:

Lot 1, behind the Strand Theater and between Watchung and Roosevelt off East Front Street: 152 permit spaces, 13 sold in August.

Lot 2, West Second Street and Central Avenue, 76 permit spaces, none sold.

Lot 4, behind McDonald's on Madison Avenue, number of permit spaces "unknown," 14 permits sold.

Lot 5, on East Fourth Street across from Police Headquarters, 106 permit spaces, 37 sold.

Lot 6, East 2nd Street between Park & Watchung, 48 permits sold, although only 39 permit and 71 metered spaces are listed.

Lot 7, on East Seventh Street next to the Scott Drugs parking lot, 62 permit spaces, four sold.

Lot 8, behind the 100 block of East Front Street between Somerset Street and Watchung Avenue, 31 permits sold, although 29 permit and 90 metered spaces available.

Lot 8A, off Lot 8 on the Watchung Avenue side, 26 permit spaces, nine sold.

Lot 9, between West Front and West Second, off Central Avenue, 113 permit spaces, 10 sold.

Lot 10, West Fourth Street between Park and Arlington avenues, 116 permit spaces, 13 sold.

Lot 11, at Cleveland Avenue and East Fourth Street, 29 permit spaces, 13 sold.

Usage of permit spaces stands at about 25 percent, but may increase as recent land use approvals take effect. A church with no onsite parking proposes to use spaces on Lot 9, and several downtown apartment proposals will rely on city lots for parking. Still, except for signs at some of the lots, there is no advertisement of the availability of permit spaces or even of the location of the lots. The most popular ones are Lots 6 and 8, behind stores in the city's one-block prime commercial strip. Lot 5, just steps away from the main train station, has an antiquated sign directing potential permit holders to the nonexistent "Blue Swan Restaurant" to get them.

The very attractive map describing Plainfield as a "City on the Move" and "Your Neighborhood for Success" has no indication of the parking lots. Another map produced this year does not even reflect the city's east-west street designations, let alone parking lots.

Why bother with taking a hard look at parking lots? The most obvious reason is that revenues could be increased. Better signage and maintenance could make the lots more enticing to visitors and shoppers. With very limited on-street parking, the lots could augment private parking for businesses.

The City Council has just established an Economic Growth Committee and the city also has its own Chamber of Commerce and Special Improvement District. Surely parking and the best use of city parking lots must be part of the conversation on the city's future.

--Bernice Paglia

More on Painted Ladies

Every little detail is picked out in color on this facade. Can you spot the red dots?

Click here for more information on the Victorian tradition.

--Bernice

Time Out

Random image: Crescent Avenue "Painted Lady" at dusk.

A quick bus trip to Westfield's Trader Joe's has mellowed me out to the point of not having a thought in my head. Those culinary treats will do that.

--Bernice

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Get to Know Jackie

I don't watch television, so most of Jackie's TV Blog goes over my head or under my radar. But Jackie also keeps a close and talented eye on Plainfield as she travels. Click here for some views of Plainfield through Jackie's perspective.

I feel remiss at not reading Jackie's blog more often. I did not know her beloved 17-year-old cat, Scherzo, had passed away. My condolences.

--Bernice

Notes on Music in the Plaza

Despite the misgivings of some City Council members, the "Music in the Plaza" event is in its second year and Recreation Director Dave Wynn sees it as a permanent summer feature.

If it is to happen again, there are some aspects of the event that must be better handled.

Publicity: The event was publicized with colorful cards featuring the mayor's re-election image, a flyer on the city web site, this web site and other places. The information was not consistent. The movie time was listed as dusk, 9 p.m., 9:30 p.m. and 11 p.m. The car show was listed as 9 p.m., 5 to 9 p.m. or 5 to 11 p.m.
The location was listed as the plaza in front of the Park-Madison office building. But on Aug. 17, the council granted permission to close off an adjacent street, "East 2nd Street between Park and Madison Avenue" from 5 to 11 p.m. for the car show and movie. This location is, of course, on West Second Street.
The times of the two concerts were left off an initial printing of the cards, which then had to be reprinted with the times, noon to 2 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m.
The movie, "The Fast and the Furious," is rated PG-13 and was apparently not reviewed for content until bloggers raised concerns. An edited version will now be shown.

Logistics: One sticking point in council discussions of the event was the potential cost of setting it up, public safety coverage, dismantling the stage and seating and post-event cleanup. Given that it now spans 11 hours in two locations, these costs should be documented and be part of any discussion of future Music in the Plaza events. Also, while the plaza offers a clean line-of-sight for police coverage, the addition of the closed-off block to the south means extra coverage will be necessary. And where to park? Many people will come on foot, but for those who need to park, how about indicating the location of nearby lots? And since most are mainly permit spaces, how about waiving fines for the duration of the event?

Coordination: This event falls on the second day and evening of the final Downtown Summer Sidewalk Sale. Part of the reason offered for Music in the Plaza is to draw shoppers downtown, but there is no cross-publicity between the two events. Friday may serve as a test case on whether the Music in the Plaza event enhances downtown shopping or not.

All in all, the preparation for this event appears faulty. Dave Wynn is quoted as saying no taxpayer dollars are involved in the event. If so, then the sponsors have been ill-served by the confusing publicity.

The governing body attempted to get a bottom line on this year's event before giving approvals, but not all relevant details were offered up front. Obviously, city officials were determined to have the event no matter what. If it is to become a tradition, it must be better conceived and executed next year, with full disclosure of all aspects before the City Council is asked to grant permission.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

About the Butterfly Garden

My paltry computer talents so far have not allowed me to link slide shows with commentary. The Butterfly Garden depicted below is at Grace Episcopal Church. I had hoped to weed it before the Carillon Concert, but the heat and humidity did me in.

Maria and I took a look at it after the concert and I was guilt-ridden enough to clear it out today, while The Man Who Cuts the Grass was cutting the grass.

The garden includes Butterfly Weed, Butterfly Bush, Purple Coneflower, Impatiens, Asters, Turtlehead, Coreopsis, Alyssum, Blazing Star, Bergamot, Sedum and many others, although aggressive weeds tried to join in. Some of the weeds were so tall and impressive that one had to know their heritage in order to pull them up. Goodbye to Mares' Tails, Crab Grass and Yellow Oxalis!

The Rev. Carolyn Eklund wrote many months ago of her vision for a community garden where people could come and sit, meditate and enjoy nature. And here it is!

Most days I find the gate open to the garden, another gesture of trust in a community that is not always trusting. Sometimes we are so on edge that we can't relax and find peace in our city. This garden is a place of peace and a reminder to look for the good in daily life, while challenging the evils.

--Bernice

Butterfly Garden

Answers on the Red Box

From Plainfield Public Library Director Joseph Hugh Da Rold:

To address the question that came up at a recent meeting of the City Council, our contract with Red Box is part of a pilot program being done with libraries across the country. In fact, we were the first public library in the country to offer the service.

The key reason for us to participate in this program is to offer the community 24/7 access to DVDs, which is why the machine is located outside the main entrance to the library. This is in line with the Library’s mission “to provide all citizens of Plainfield full and equal access to information resources, technologies, and programs for a lifetime of learning and cultural enrichment.” We continue to look for cost-effective ways to expand our services to the Plainfield community.

This new service is a great help to those who work late and to adults who are looking for family entertainment at the last minute on a Saturday evening or a Sunday. Red Box not only provides multiple copies of new releases, they also offer the public currently popular titles that the Library would probably never purchase. This now enables us to spend less on acquisition of movies that will have a short “shelf life” and focus more on titles that have greater merit, e.g. award-winning films.

Red Box rentals are $1, which is the same amount we formerly charged for our own DVD rentals. (We no longer charge for library DVDs.) To answer the question about “who gets the money?,” we get 3% of the dollar volume, which includes rentals, purchases, and late fees. Based on the current volume of rentals, this would bring us about $150 to $200 per quarter. This is similar to the arrangement libraries have long had with copier machine vendors. We do not view these as fundraising ventures; it is about providing better service to our public.

In the case of Red Box, they provide us with weekly activity reports, enabling us to see the number of rentals and which titles are most popular. Activity levels are increasing weekly, showing that this service is being well received by the community. It is interesting to note that the free-rental circulation of the library’s collection of DVDs continues to increase as well.

Monday, August 24, 2009

A Nice Carillon Crowd

Peach desserts attracted my young neighbors Samir and Ryner, along with a lot of church people and visitors.

Upside-down peach cake, ice cream with peaches, peach tea and more tantalized the guests.
Cleveland Avenue offers the best hearing for the carillon concerts and these people were ready for the concert. Keep this event in mind for next year.
--Bernice Paglia

Cleveland & Fourth Parking Lot

This lot is just down the hill from the main train station and therefore a potential prime location for permit parkers.

Unfortunately, it is a bit dicey, as these glass fragments from a break-in attest.

It seems the lot needs a bit of maintenance.

How long has this phone been out of service?

The City Council approved a demolition contract for 401-407 and 409-411 Cleveland Avenue, which would seem to pertain to this location.

At some point, it was a gas station. As one can see, the larger building is accessible by vagrants through the unsecured opening at the lower left.

Given the level of decay, the demolition contractor doesn't have to strain himself to get rid of these buildings.
At the City Council meeting where the demolition contract was approved, resident Nancy Piwowar expressed the concern that no historic structure would be demolished.
While not historic in some ways, the fate of the slate roof on the structure should at best be a recycling of the slates.
A while ago, my neighbor and I took a walking tour of the blocks between East Seventh and Front Street and Park and Watchung avenues, finding many concerns about illegal usages of stray buildings and embarassment about the dilapidated conditions.

Who knows what goes on in a building like this, so out-of-sight, out-of-mind? At least now we know the city intends to demolish them.
More of these hidden places need to be documented and removed.
--Bernice Paglia

Film Made Here To Be Released in November

Woody Harrelson's film "The Messenger," which was produced in part on Block 832 in Plainfield, will be released in November and has a Facebook site with lots of details.
Click here to see the Facebook page.

Plaintalker reported on the filming in May 2008. Click here for the blog post. Block 832 is partly in the Crescent Area Historic District and includes a number of Connolly properties, some of which were used for the filming.

--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, August 23, 2009

A Once in a Lifetime Thrill

I was chuffed to bits, thrilled silly, tickled pink and deeply honored Sunday when carilloneur Jeff Spelman included a "Special for Bernice" on the program at the annual Peach Festival and Carillon Concert at Grace Episcopal Church. The song, unnamed on the program, turned out to be "Yes, We Have No Bananas," an allusion to this blog post from May:

It might be time for a break when on a Saturday the Grace Episcopal Church carilloneur is practicing and you think he is playing, "Yes, We Have No Bananas."

Jeff did an admirable job of rendering this pop song on the historic bells. I wish I had had the foresight to record it, because it really was one of the nicest gestures in my recent life, even better than various mix tapes I have received from friends over the years.

The concert was well-attended by a diverse group of people who enjoyed both the peach desserts and the music. A good time was had by all, but I think the best time was had by me!

Thanks, Jeff!

--Bernice

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Carillon Concert, Peach Festival Sunday

One of my favorite Plainfield events is the annual Peach Festival and Carillon Concert at Grace Episcopal Church. It will take place at 6 p.m. Sunday next to the church on Cleveland Avenue, off East Seventh Street.

This year, it has a special interest for me, because I recently came across a book about the maker of the original bells in the carillon, which was one of the first in the United States and is one of just four in New Jersey. The book is “England’s Child: The Carillon and the Casting of Big Bells” by Jill Johnston, the daughter of English bellfounder Cyril F. Johnston.

Well-known as a writer on dance and art as well as her own personal odyssey through the 1970s and beyond, Jill Johnston was the unacknowledged child of one of the most prominent bell constructors of the 20th century. The firm of Gillet & Johnston supplied carillon bells to major locations in North America, including Princeton University and Riverside Church.

The book alternates between a scholarly history of the carillon movement and a recounting of Johnston's quest to link to her father and his legacy.

As soon as I received the book, I read it straight through and passed it along to The Rev. Carolyn Eklund, to share with the Grace Church carilloneur Jeff Spelman, who will perform Sunday. I’m hoping that the Pittis family, donors of the carillon, will also get to enjoy the book.

Click here to see the church announcement of the event. See you there!

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, August 21, 2009

Hot, Hot, Hot

Pussycats normally avoid water, but after several days of 90-degree weather, Mousie allowed himself to be misted. Just don't mention the idea of a B-A-T-H.

--Bernice

Thursday, August 20, 2009

About the Slide Show

To see the lot numbers, run the cursor along the bottom of the slide. I laboriously put them up in numerical order, but the Slide thing rejiggered them to the order in which they were taken.

I started with Lot 7, on East Seventh Street between Park & Watchung. Two churches rely on this lot for parking on Sundays and it may also serve a new state office building that is under construction at 110 East Fifth Street. Next is the long, narrow Lot 5 along the railroad tracks across from the Police Division. Lot 6 is behind Bill's Luncheonette, across East Second Street from the old Miron's warehouse (now aka "Luxury Condos"). Landmark Developers has purchased the Romond Jeep building across the street. Click here to read about his plans and his views on parking needs downtown, especially his opinion that a proposed six-story parking deck on Lot 6 is no longer needed.

Lot 1 is behind the former Strand Theater. The theater's last major use was to show Indian films, but the lot was very dark and lighting had to be added for the crowds that parked there. Eventually the shows stopped. A man who was walking his dog there told me a group of homeless men live under the nearby bridge over the Green Brook. On to Lot 8 across Watchung Avenue. This is a very busy lot behind stores and restaurants on the north side of the block between Somerset and Watchung. Edison Garcia, chairman of Latinos Promoting Plainfield, has received city permission to have the lot closed from noon to 7 p.m. (Correction: Saturday, Sept. 19 and Sunday, Sept. 20 - incorrect dates were on agenda-fixing session information) on Sept. 20 and 21 for the city's first "Downtown Fiesta Day" celebrating the independence of Central America. It's possible that people can park in Lot 1 those days either to go shopping or to go to the fiesta, although Lot 1 only has 14 metered spaces and 152 permit spaces.

Lot 4 is along the Green Brook between Somerset and Madison. Some of the spaces appear to be reserved for residents of Horizons at Plainfield, 75 apartments in the former Tepper's building. There is a memorial closer to the Madison Avenue side for a young man who was killed in the lot.

Moving along the Central and West Front, there is quite a large lot listed as having 113 permit spaces and 25 metered spaces. Most people know it as a gathering place for day laborers.

Across West Second Street, there is a newly-constructed lot alongside a very nice little park, with lovely landscaping and new playground equipment. It is Lot 2, but has no markings as such.

Going south and east to West Fourth Street, one comes up on Lot 10. The Parking Bureau building is adjacent to the lot, which spans the block to West Fifth Street.

There is no Lot 3 and Lot 8A is a small section off Lot 8. A chart in the Planning Division lists Madison Park and Cleveland & 4th as two other lots, but there is now a county office building on the Madison Park lot. A parking garage was also constructed, but it is not open to the public.

I may do a separate post on Cleveland & 4th, a small lot listed as having just 29 permit spaces, presumably attractive to commuters using the main train station.

When I first came to Plainfield, lots had booths with parking attendants. As I recall, there was a self-sustaining Parking Authority that was disbanded at some point. The Parking Bureau now issues permits and checks meters on the street. On a breakdown of revenues in the SFY 2009 budget, an item titled "Parking Meter Permits" is listed as bringing in $294,310.62, but is unclear whether it means all revenues from meters and permits, or something else.
Any parking fines would be lumped under the $1 million or so in miscellaneous fines and penalties collected by Municipal Court.

Among reasons why I looked into this subject, I was checking the Downtown Westfield Corporation web site and noticed that there was good information on where to park. Even though I been here 26 years and was a reporter for 16 years with assignments all over the city, I really had to wrack my brain to identify the Plainfield lots. Most are just a few steps off the main drags, but not obvious to visitors or even residents. About one-third of the spaces are metered and permits are currently required for the rest, except for a handful of handicap spaces.

I am hoping to get more information on the number of permits currently held and other data that would help illuminate the subject of Plainfield parking lots. Dating back to the days of razing for urban renewal, numerous parking studies were done. I am not advocating another formal study, just a commonsense look at what we have and how things are going.

--Bernice Paglia

Parking Lots

Curious Parking Lot Signage

A City Council item about a parking lot closure for a September event set me off on an exploration of city lots Wednesday.

Despite the heat, I traipsed from Seventh Street to the Green Brook and from Roosevelt to Madison to get a look at all but one of the lots. The one that will be closed on Sept. 20 and 21 from noon to 7 p.m. turns out to be Lot 8, north of East Front Street buildings between Watchung Avenue and Somerset Street. The event is a celebration of the independence of Central America and the location was described only as Block 317, lot 19, not by parking lot number.

I always get Lot 1 and Lot 8 mixed up, so I decided to research the lots. Recent applications to land use boards for apartments have provided no parking for residents, claiming there is ample parking in city lots, another reason to look into the facts.

As usual on my walks around the city, I found some oddities. The sign pictured above directs people to obtain parking permits at the Blue Swan Restaurant. There is a Blue Swan Luncheonette listed in the 1976 city directory at 316 Watchung Avenue, but it is long gone. Why permits would be issued from a luncheonette is a bit curious. Nowadays permits must be obtained from the Parking Bureau on West Fourth Street.

Another thing I found out is that the lots are not posted with signs identifying them, except for Lot 9. An official map of the parking lots, with a chart on the number of metered, permitted and handicap spaces, may be seen in the Planning Division, but copies are not available. I took some photos and worked from them to document the lots. Unfortunately, the statistics are out of date.

These parking lots generate revenue, both from permits and from fines. Lot 7, next to my building, has 62 yellow-lined permit spaces, but only one or two car owners park there with $30 monthly permits. Only five of nine meters remain, the rest having been vandalized. The hapless church volunteer or person running an errand at Park & Seventh gets slapped with a $38 fine for parking in a permit space.

There are more than 700 permit spaces in all the lots, compared to about 200 metered spaces. Many meters are missing. Obviously, parking in a white-lined space with a missing meter is the best bargain.

This may sound like a real dog-days story, not much news content, but these currently underutilized parking lots could become an important factor in downtown residential and business development. More to follow.

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Homage to Fortuny

For some reason, this seed capsule reminded me of the designer Fortuny, renowned in part for his pleated silk gowns.

Once I looked him up, there was much more to share.

I am tempted to replicate, in a more simple form, his jacket shapes.

It was quite interesting to learn more about the man whose name is an icon. His vision for design was tremendously appealing and influential in his time.

Here is the official Fortuny web site.

Even though I am more of a chambray and denim sort, I really love and appreciate beautiful textiles and fashion design. The only thing is, it does not suit my other great love, working in the garden.

--Bernice

City Plans Study of Transit Oriented Development

One of the two "walk-on" items at the City Council's regular meeting Monday was a resolution to seek $80,000 in UEZ funds for a visioning study of development along the Raritan Valley rail corridor that spans the city east to west.

A major premise of transit-oriented development is that there should be greater residential density around train stations. There is a lot more to it than that, and because Councilman Cory Storch has been the primary advocate for a study, I will defer to his blog posts on the subject for background.

As for Monday's discourse on the resolution, Storch and Councilman William Reid offered contrasting viewpoints. Both have served as liaisons to the Planning Board, but while Reid said there was already a study by the city's engineering firm, Storch said the master plan specifically calls for a visioning study. Reid unsuccessfuly attempted to have the resolution tabled, then took offense at Storch's comment about "irony" in a failed move the same night to table a controversial $140,000 resolution for an outside engineering firm. Storch had wanted to cut the amount in half and to seek competitive bids in coming months.

Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson said the negotiated engineering contract could not be amended without both parties agreeing to it, but Reid's reaction to Storch's comment was to state firmly that he did not "do the business of the city with irony."

Anyway, Storch said the study would be done by "leading experts in the state" and suggested that "where development has become politicized," the use of graduate students would keep the study better focused.

Now that four of the seven City Council members have blogs or web sites where they provide information and insight on their views, it may be best to read what they have to say on major issues. Plaintalker will continue to report on City Council action and to provide background based on documents available in City Hall, but as for you, the readers and the electorate, knowing what your representatives are thinking is quite valuable. Those with blogs are Annie McWilliams, Cory Storch, Adrian Mapp and Rashid Burney. Dan Damon posts links to all on his blog, CLIPS.

--Bernice Paglia

Those Pesky Disclosure Forms

What does the incumbent mayor have in common with both Gov. Corzine and Chris Christie?

The governor and his challenger both left off information they should have put on state Ethics Law statements of financial disclosures. Those pointing the finger at Christie remind us it is a fourth-degree crime in New Jersey to file a false financial disclosure statement.

But as Plaintalker noted earlier this year, the mayor left out her $35,000 salary on the 2007 financial disclosure statement. See the evidence here.

Unless she simply decided to forego the $35,000, it seems she is in the same boat as Corzine and Christie.

--Bernice Paglia

New IT Ordinance Approved

The city took a step closer Monday to its much-discussed goal of having an information technology division with City Council approval of a new salary range for the lead person.

The salary ordinance for a “Manager 1 of Information Processing” now carries a range of $70,000 to $110,000, down $20,000 from a previous ordinance that never saw final passage. The measure passed on first reading Monday and will be up for second reading and final passage on Sept. 14.

City Administrator Marc Dashield said a recent phone outage at City Hall was not the reason for bringing back the ordinance, noting he had made a presentation on the need months ago. The city converted to a Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone system that failed for nearly a week.

Speakers Monday objected to the vote for several reasons, one being the appearance of the ordinance as a new item without having been discussed at the Aug. 10 agenda-fixing session. Another concern was that the IT director was being proposed before parameters were set for a new IT division.

Dr. Harold Yood agreed on the need for a director, but said the division should be created first. Dashield said the ordinance was “not reactive” and so did Councilwoman Annie McWilliams, a member of the council’s Information technology subcommittee.

“The administration and council have found common ground on something that will work for the city,” McWilliams said.

City Council President Rashid Burney, also a member of the IT committee, said the new ordinance was just the latest version of proposed legislation going back to May.

“At this point, I am comfortable with this,” he said.

The administration had pushed for passage of the previous ordinance within the budget year that ended June 30. Dashield said Monday the full cost of an IT division could run to $250,000. The administration plans to combine its present communications functions, including operation of the local TV channel, under the IT director.

Resident Jeanette Criscione said she didn’t think communications should go under IT, as a different “skill set” was involved, but said she “thrilled” that the city was moving forward with information technology.

Resident Gayle Jones asked how the proposed division would relate to a newly-formed citizens’ IT committee.

“It doesn’t,” Burney said, calling the 10-member citizens’ IT group a “review committee.”

Burney said the IT committee could have as many as 14 people and invited anyone interested to apply.

Last year, the council had a citizens’ budget advisory committee. A new one has 11 members to review the FY 2010 budget for the fiscal year that began July 1. In addition, the council approved formation of a 15-member economic growth committee. Members are Andrea Kee, Cleveland Burton Jr., Marie Pase, Joylette Mills-Ransome, Vivette Abdel-Montes, William Hetfield, Jeffery Dunn, Peter Faynzilberg, Shanda Laws, Thomas Glynn, Sean Hendriques, John Vignoe, Franklin Madison, Dr. Harold Yood and Natasha Boone.

--Bernice Paglia





Sunday, August 16, 2009

On Muhlenberg

I have not attempted to report on the Muhlenberg issue for the following reasons: For one, the Courier News has a far greater advantage in reporting, over a self-limiting pedestrian blogger who can not go far afield on foot.

Plainfield Plaintalker has never tried to compete or replicate the work of a daily newspaper, but exists to provide City Hall and development news that might otherwise not see daylight.

That is not to say that Plaintalker is not interested in health care issues.

Some may remember when the Plainfield Health Center was touted as a primary care facility. Primary care doctors today are in scarce supply. My son's PHC experience has been that he gets a different doctor each time after a really long wait at the health center.

Both of us have been able to get various tests at Muhlenberg, even though my endocrinologist has moved to Summit and his neurologist has moved to Warren. Almost all of our health providers are now outside Plainfield.

In past years, in other locations, my family could depend on the kindly Dr. Foley in Millington, just a few steps fron our house in the former Passaic Township, for health care. My current mainstay is the formidable Dr. Chen, formerly of Muhlenberg but now of Summit, for my thyroid problems. I only have to visit once a year now and was lucky to get a ride in April for the checkup.

Recently, I have heard tales of seniors who felt ill but decided to tough it out rather than dial 911 , because the arrival of an ambulance now might mean an expensive trip to an unknown facility. In fact, I feel the same way. This situation may save on health costs because elders don't want to make waves, but please folks, if you are hurting, get help, even if it has a governmental tag.

--Bernice Paglia

Will Tax Abatement Plan Resurface?

Developer Glen Fishman at the July 2007 groundbreaking for "The Monarch."

Although there was not a consensus on Aug. 10 to move a tax abatement proposal forward for the condo buyers at 400 East Front Street, it is expected that the measure will reappear Monday for a vote. The regular City Council meeting will be held at 8 p.m. in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.

"The Monarch," as the senior center/condo complex is known, is the only major project under construction in the city and the administration says its success is important to attract or encourage other development. But in the current housing market, the project needs inducements to buyers, and officials want a five-year, 40 percent tax abatement that has become controversial since its announcement last month. An ordinance paving the way for negotiations with P&F Management LLC received City Council approval on first reading on July 20.

Since then, a public outcry and second thoughts by some members of the governing body have resulted in a standoff between the administration and the council. Some argue that the developer has already sweetened the deal for buyers by lowering the price of the condos, and first-time buyers also can apply for an $8,000 tax credit if they act before Nov. 30. Others call it unfair to single out new condo buyers for an unprecedented tax break while many longtime homeowners are suffering financial distress.

Glen Fishman at the May 20 one-day grand opening of the senior center.

Unless the developer gets a tax break, administration officials say, the project could turn into rentals, an undesirable prospect that would lessen the tax return. The senior center and veterans' center on the ground floor would be tax-exempt and the only revenues would come from the 63 two-bedroom condos on three upper floors. Tax Assessor Tracy Bennett gave figures on Aug. 10 that placed taxes at $5,432 per unit if sold, but only $3,000 if rented. The abatement would lower taxes paid by owners.

Council President Rashid Burney has said he wants the project to succeed, but asked for an independent appraisal of the condos to determine whether they were priced properly.

"If not, what is a tax abatement going to do for us?" he asked.

Councilman Adrian Mapp, who opposes the proposed tax abatement, held a town meeting Thursday to gather opinions of residents on the matter. A large turnout is expected Monday, when residents will be able to speak before any council action on the proposal.

--Bernice Paglia

Dunn Family Fosters Business Opportunities

Businessman and former Councilman Malcolm Dunn is well known for his tireless efforts to advance minority entrepreneurship and employment. With a new tunnel under the Hudson River looming as one of the biggest job opportunities ever, Malcolm and his son Jeffery have created a portal of information that is interesting even to those who just want to learn more about "THE Tunnel."

Click here to link to the B.O.S.S. Tunnel Vision web site. It has profiles of businesses interested in getting contracts for the project as well as links to project information.

Within the NJ Transit information there is a page on Business Diversity assistance. This is a key element of the Dunn family's work over the years, helping minority business owners learn how to navigate the system in order to access opportunities. As anyone who has ever dealt with governmental or public agencies knows, there are many, many steps to be accomplished before the doors open.

The B.O.S.S. Tunnel Vision Team is a natural outgrowth of what has gone on for many years in the building at 320 Park Avenue. Early on, it was the headquarters of Dunn & Sons Maintenance, one of the first firms to benefit in a big way from minority enterprise programs. More recently, it houses a variety of business support programs and is known as "The Incubator." Here is a link to Business One-Stop Services, Jeffery Dunn's enterprise in The Incubator.

While Malcolm Dunn was on the City Council, he kept awareness of minority entrepreneurship in the limelight locally and also worked with legislators at higher levels to advance the cause. Jeffery Dunn's work has been highlighted on the city's local access Channel 74, among many other places.

Starting or maintaining a business has never been easy, but the Dunn family has undoubtedly increased the chances of success for many minority firms, both through advocacy and practical instruction.

This is just a brief look at these subjects. Comments are welcome.

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Plainfielders Told Early of Tunnel Opportunities

Several Plainfield names are on a list of contractors that were invited to an Oct. 16, 2007 conference on "The Tunnel," aka the Trans-Hudson Express Passenger Rail Tunnel project of NJ Transit and The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey.

Click on this link and look on pages 8, 9 and 10. People that have been here for a while will recognize some of the names and their affiliations.

One company is Oveter's Construction. Surely this company is better equipped to haul dirt in its trucks, as opposed to using PMUA trash packers. But is the Bruce Watson listed the same one who is the brother of Eric Watson and a past campaign operative of Jerry Green? I don't recall what year it was, but at an election night celebration, Green hailed two Bruces - Bruce Watson and Bruce Morgan - as the organizers of his successful re-election campaign. Does anybody recall that night?

Anyway, Plainfield contractors were apparently made aware of the opportunities in this massive project early on. Green's very recent outreach to NJ Transit seems to be a lot more than a day late.

--Bernice Paglia

Friday, August 14, 2009

Picture PMUA Trucks Hauling Tunnel Debris

Here is a snapshot of a new PMUA truck arriving at the East Seventh Street Connolly Properties site.

Here are the words of Jerry Green from his blog:
"Also, I had an opportunity to talk to leadership at New Jersey Transit in terms of exploring ideas and ways that we can use the services of municipalities like the City of Plainfield for example, utilizing the PMUA trucks when digging out the tunnels. This is just an example of the different sort of services the City can offer, facilitating economic growth within the City."

Not only does Jerry mix municipal government and an autonomous authority, he apparently overlooks the difference in usage of these vehicles. And now that the vehicles are leased and not owned by PMUA, what would the leasing agency think about the change of usage? How far afield would they have to travel to carry out this operation? Where would they take the dirt?

The whole thing reminds me of a past scheme in which dirt was removed from the Muhlenberg site, allegedly stored illegally on a South Second Street lot and then allegedly trucked to the Plainfield Health Center site for fill. Who made money and how?

As soon as I heard about the tunnel project, I recalled the Schools Construction Corporation, where millions went down a rat-hole with no accounting to date. Given New Jersey's spotty history of oversight and accountability, how do we know that this project will not have a similar outcome?

--Bernice Paglia

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Two Stormwater Ordinances Up Monday

As we see here, some folks think stuffing bottles down a storm sewer is good citizenship.

Not!

Anything that goes down the sewer affects stormwater quality. One new ordinance up for second reading Monday will provide for new storm drain inlets that prevent litter intrusion.

Another ordinance will require that garbage containers or Dumpsters be free from leaks.

Would that somebody would also decree a rule for the regular washing of garbage trucks, so that the stench does not knock pedestrians flat as they walk around the central business district! When Chris Christie came to visit recently, the predominant aroma downtown was Eau de Trash.

PMUA trucks regularly leave a puddle or trail of pungent garbage juice in our driveway. It dries up eventually, but while it lasts, it's a killer.

When it rains, all sorts of pollutants wash into storm sewers. To learn more about control of these pollutants, click here to read information from the state Department of Environmental Protection. The city is also planning a special vehicle washing station to reduce stormwater pollution.

--Bernice Paglia

Nine PILOTs Last Year

Dr. Harold Yood was asking about Payment in Lieu of Taxes plans in the city. The list is in budget documents and was also laid out on an analysis of revenues that was handed out at a budget session last year.

First of all, click here for a New Jersey League of Municipalities overview on property taxes, including PILOTs.

The fiscal year that began on July 1, 2008 is called SFY 2009. Here is the list of PILOT revenues for that year and the changes from SFY 2008, which ended June 30, 2008:

- Presbyterian Homes, $139,879.72, a decrease of $7,120.28.
- Netherwood Gardens, $95,337.06, an increase of $5,438.06.
- Cedarbrook Apartments, $125,097.47, an increase of $31,644.47.
- Liberty Village, $63,989.06, a decrease of $29,672.94.
- Leland Gardens, $226,953.28, an increase of $18,953.28.
- Covenant House, $25,368.10, an increase of $1,569.10.
- Horizon at Plainfield, $56,641.42, an increase of $20,425.42.
- Park Madison, $428,487.30, an increase of $17,113.30.

And then there was the astonishing increase of 893.154 percent for Allen Young Apartments, which of course was the infamous $1.7 million typo. The actual SFY 2009 revenue was $184,266.20, not $1,847,266.20.

For a complete analysis, the terms of the agreements, number of units and duration of the PILOT would have to be known. For example, Horizon at Plainfield is the residential portion of the mixed use conversion of the former Tepper's building. First presented as luxury housing for active seniors, it ended up as 75 apartments for low- to moderate-income tenants.

Plainfield has tended to be lacking in fiscal analysis of such tax arrangements, which may be one reason citizens are suspicious of the proposed five-year tax abatement for the new senior center/condo project.

(FYI - Plaintalker did not attend the Third Ward Town Meeting on the proposed abatement, going instead to the Cable Television Advisory Board meeting. I expect there will be coverage by other sources on the tax break proposal.)

At present, Plainfield has no permanent chief financial officer and a brand-new finance director, representing the seventh transition in less than four years for the post. A meaningful analysis of the impact of PILOTs and other tax breaks here would most likely require either an outside consultant with high expertise or the eventual grasp of the new director on the matter.

Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see whether the ordinance resurfaces on Monday.

--Bernice Paglia

Mapp Calls For Tax Year Change

Reverting to a calendar tax year would solve several problems and end confusion, Councilman Adrian Mapp said Monday as he advocated change from the current fiscal year schedule.

Plainfield was among municipalities that took advantage of a one-time opportunity in the early 1990s to switch from a tax year beginning Jan. 1 to a fiscal year beginning July 1. The plan allowed municipalities to issue bonds for uses not normally permitted and involved establishing a six-month transitional tax period.

Mapp said of 51 municipalities that made the switch, several have recently gone back to a calendar year. A key issue would be to determine whether any fiscal year adjustment bonds are still outstanding. However, tax bills would be simplified, as the quarterly schedule would then match those of the state and county. The change would also allow a municipality to anticipate state aid and to avoid a cap on the tax levy. For the tax year that began July 1, 2008, the city only came in under the cap by deferring state pension payments, he noted.

The change would also align the tax year with election cycles, map said, noting when he took office Jan. 1, the city was in the middle of a budget year and he had to vote on a budget that he had no hand in formulating.

The transition process would include adopting an ordinance and applying to the Local Finance Board for approval.

Mapp, who previously served on the City Council and the Union County Freeholder Board and ran for mayor against incumbent Sharon Robinson-Briggs in the June primary, is also a certified chief financial officer. Despite his expertise, his presentation got a cold shoulder from City Administrator Marc Dashield, who said the change would just not be feasible with the FY 2010 budget. Ironically, Dashield cited Plainfield’s lack of a permanent chief financial officer as a major difficulty in making a transition.

Plainfield has not had a permanent chief financial officer since former CFO Peter Sepelya retired at the end of 2007. Robinson-Briggs sought council advice and consent in July to her nomination of James Mangin for the post, but the council took no action. Robinson-Briggs, who won the June Democratic primary and faces Republican Jim Pivnichny and Independent Deborah Dowe in the November 3 general election, said Monday she will be sending residents a letter on the tax process.

Mapp insisted the benefits of a tax year conversion would far outweigh the costs over time, but Dashield, a former chief financial officer in Franklin Township, disagreed.

--Bernice Paglia

Street Closing Sought for Car Show

The mystery of how 200 cars could fit on the Union County Plaza site may now be solved.

For the Aug. 28 event, Recreation Division Superintendent Dave Wynn is now asking for West Second Street between Park and Madison avenues to be closed from 5 to 11 p.m. for a car show and movie viewing. Never mind that the request states a closing of East Second Street instead of West Second Street, we know what you mean.

The item was under “communications and petitions” and would have to be approved by resolution at the Aug. 17 regular City Council meeting. The meeting is at 8 p.m. in Municipal Court, 325 Watchung Ave.

The car show and movie are part of the Music in the Plaza event. The first two concerts, from noon to 2 p.m. and from 6 to 8 p.m. were to take place July 31, but apparently bad weather advisories caused them to be postponed. However, the new date was only announced on the same day of the rescheduled concerts.

Besides the car show and movie, there will concerts in the plaza from noon to 2 p.m. and from 6 to 8 p.m. on Aug. 28.

--Bernice Paglia

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Online Council Meetings Pitched

Monday’s City Council meeting was both tiring and tiresome. Once again, somebody was permitted to give an unannounced business pitch. This occurred at about 9 p.m. as people were still awaiting the Monarch discussion.

The service being pitched was production of live or on-demand council meetings online. The company, Granicus, even posts agendas and supplementary documents. Viewers can click on specific items of interest rather than plowing through one long agenda.

The company has 500 clients, regional sales manager Hilda Stevens said, including Somerville and Brick in New Jersey. Early signup carries discounts, she said, noting Brick got a 50 percent discount.

The cost is based on community population. Stevens cited for Plainfield a one-time $12,000 fee and $900 a month, before discounts.

Keyword searches, Twitter and Facebook are other options for users.

Stevens said Plainfield could be eligible for discounts from 15 to 40 percent.

But when she mentioned that the service had to be validated with the city’s IT team, the audience in City Hall Library broke into laughter. There is no “team” at present.

As with past presentations, it was unclear what the governing body was expected to do except to listen. There was no resolution up for consideration and if there had been, it would have had to come from the administration to the governing body. On at least one similar occasion, City Administrator Marc Dashield challenged the rationale for having such a presentation at a council meeting.

The company is based in San Francisco and Atlanta and its goal is advancing transparency in government. If Ms. Stevens traveled all that far for Monday’s meeting, bless her heart, as my late father used to say.

--Bernice Paglia

A Lesson from the Garden?

As pretty as Purple Loosestrife is, it is one of those plants with outlaw status - the invasives.

Before we knew any better, many such plants were sold at nurseries. That was the case with this plant, not too many years ago. But now along with English Ivy, Butterfly Bush and many others, it is being rooted out of parks and gardens in favor of native species.


The bees and the butterflies don't seem to mind its nefariousness. They show up in droves to delve in the many blossoms on each stalk. But invasives have changed the environment here permanently.

Maybe it's a stretch, but this change in perception of common garden plants makes me think of how many other shifts in thought we have had to deal with lately. Risky business, accepted as the norm, led to many a personal and institutional financial debacle in recent months. George Bush once told us it was patriotic to go shopping, but pocketbooks snapped shut so tight this year that the federal government had to think up inducements to spending.

Nobody saw trouble coming when one landlord gradually acquired almost every multi-family building in the city. Then all of a sudden, tenants' complaints turned into headlines. Now we have even worse news about the company and concerns about tenants just having a place to live, let alone proper living conditions.

In parallel fashion, another company is now dominating commercial buildings downtown. Rents tripled and many merchants have been displaced. Some new businesses have not lasted. Do we really know what is happening in the business district? Early on, the company projected a shift to more upscale stores. But the latest opening was for another dollar store.

My point is, things are not always as they seem to be. Hindsight, as they say, is 20-20, whether on garden invasives, unregulated financial practices or big shifts in property investments. The city only took a really close look at Connolly Properties in the last few weeks. There is still time to examine the downtown situation and call the players to account regarding their overall plans for Plainfield. An open partnership and shared vision may be possible. Could this be a future topic for the Economic Growth Committee?

--Bernice Paglia

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Two Committees Formed, One Pending

Background material in the documentation for Monday's City Council meeting listed names of members for the new Budget Committee and IT Committee.

Budget:

Ellsworth Williams, Joann Macaluso, Jeanette Criscione, Jan Massey, Fred D. Ellis, Alan Goldstein, Carrie Faraone, Lisa Casey, Shari Effman, Susan Kilduff.

IT:

Pui Evans, Greg Meyers, Gayle Z. Bayse, Amanda Smith, Nicholas Stevens, David Williams, Jerry Gainey, Wayne Armor , Susan Kaercher, Donald Robinson.

At the meeting Monday, Councilman Cory Storch said the governing body was "swamped" with applicants for the Economic Growth Committee, but besides residents, he suggested inclusion of non-resident members of the Special Improvement District, the Chamber of Commerce and other local business people. But Councilwoman Linda Carter asked how did the council know whether nominees may have had past business experience. Council President Rashid Burney said extra people could serve on the committee.

The plan was to have two nominees for each of the seven council members, but Councilman Adrian Mapp pointed out a high number of nominees were from the Second and Third wards. Councilman William Reid, who represents the First Ward, said people there told him him they were too busy or they felt the committees were a waste of time.

Last year, the council revived a citizen budget committee, which made several recommendations but also heaped criticism on the administration and council. The council also has a committee structure of its own and each one is supposed to report back to the full governing body. In addition, council members serve as liaisons to various boards and commissions. On Monday, Storch reported on the Planning Board, saying the board had recently done a capital review of road projects. He said sometimes sidewalks were included in the cost of a road project and sometimes not. A written policy is needed, he said, as funds projected for the 15-year plan could probably not cover sidewalks. City Administrator Marc Dashield said there is a policy, but not in writing, He said he would have it put in writing and forward it to Storch.

Although not mentioned at the meeting, there is an ongoing need for residents who want to serve on boards and commissions. The city web site has a downloadable application form that can be filled out and returned to the mayor's office. Most vacancies occur at the beginning of the year. A complete list of impending vacancies was supposed to be compiled as part of the Civic Responsibility Act passed several years ago, but it was never done. However, each year a couple of seats on major boards expire and vacancies may also occur when people move or resign.

--Bernice Paglia

Condo Tax Break Sidelined

City Council members split 3-3 Monday on whether to move forward a controversial ordinance on a 40 percent tax abatement proposal for a 63-condo development at 400 East Front Street. The lack of consensus meant the measure will not be up for a final vote at the Aug. 17 regular meeting as the administration had hoped.

The inducement of reduced taxes to attract buyers was offered to ward off possible conversion to rentals. But since the ordinance was passed July 20 on first reading, residents, bloggers and council members have raised many concerns about the proposal.

On Monday, council members Adrian Mapp, Cory Storch and Annie McWilliams declined to move the item to the Aug. 17 agenda. Council members William Reid, Rashid Burney and Linda Carter approved, but a consensus of four was needed. Councilman Elliott Simmons was absent. The outcome brought applause from residents attending the meeting.

The consensus tally took place only after a very lengthy discussion on points such as whether the tax abatement would apply only to condo owners for the full five-year term of the tax break, or whether it could be carried over to new owners on shorter terms.

The issue of ultimate tax revenue benefits to the city was another subject of debate. Tax Assessor Tracy Bennett offered figures for both rentals and owner-occupied condo units.

Bennett said condos would produce $5,432 in annual taxes per unit, but rentals would only produce $3,000 per unit.

It was unclear why rental returns were even mentioned, if as some officials stated, the only viable option is condo sales. The condo development also contains a senior center and veterans center on the ground floor for city use and is the only large development nearing completion. Its success is necessary, officials say, to attract other developers to Plainfield.

But council members questioned the pricing of the condos and called for an outside assessment. If the price was not right, members argued, offering tax abatements might not make any difference.

Other questions included when exactly tax abatements kicked in, whether at the time of sale or upon issuance of a certificate of occupancy.

Corporation Counsel Dan Williamson and Councilman William Reid both stressed the two-part process involved, meaning the ordinance under question only opened the way to negotiations whose details would come back to the governing body for another vote. But uneasiness over the unanswered questions Monday apparently killed the initial approval.

Meanwhile, Mapp is holding a town meeting Thursday on the issue. Click here for details.

Williamson asked Mapp to open the meeting to “the other side” to “bring balance” to the forum.

Mapp asked why other homeowners could not get a similar tax break, but Williamson said the five-year tax abatement law pertains only to developers. Dubbed “The Monarch,” the condo/senior center project was approved in 2007, but developer Glen Fishman missed three stated deadlines for completion. The condos finally went on sale just as the housing market collapsed. Allowing buyers to pay only 40 percent of taxes for five years was supposed to boost sales.

--Bernice Paglia

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Song of the Irate Taxpayer

To the tune of "Row, Row, Row your Boat":

Roll, roll, roll them back,
Roll my taxes back.
I need a break! Give me a break!
Roll my taxes back!

One can almost envision residents on the two sides of Municipal Court singing a round on Aug. 17 unless there is some really good explanation of why condo buyers at The Monarch should receive a five-year tax abatement when many longtime homeowners are facing economic stress as bad or worse than the developer who is trying to unload the condos.

News of the proposal has sparked lots of comment on blogs, though it has yet to be covered by the print media. Plaintalker broke the story in July and has attempted to add more facts to the discussion, such as the rate at which the condos may be assessed and the corresponding tax break if in fact condo buyers are allowed to pay only 40 percent of taxes.

City Council members have also weighed in with their viewpoints.

The matter will be discussed at Monday's agenda session, 7:30 p.m. in City Hall Library, and will be up for a vote on Aug. 17.

Councilman Adrian Mapp has announced a Thursday town meeting on the topic. Click here for details.

While the success of The Monarch has center stage right now, there are broader concerns for development and economic growth in the city. Councilman Cory Storch's call for a visioning study is one avenue to be pursued. At this point, a public review of the status of all development and redvelopment projects on the books seems to be in order. In addition, the city's workings with Paramount Assets regarding commercial rental space and Connolly Properties regarding residential holdings, both approaching monopolies, must be publicly discussed.

Whether the current administration prevails in November or there is a new one, this assessment is necessary for the future of the city. In the past, handoffs of administrations have been hostile and unproductive. Either way, an objective bottom line must be determined for future success of the city.

--Bernice Paglia

Radio Show Probes Christie Success

In an interesting bit of timing, a re-run of a "This American Life" episode ran this weekend.

Titled "The Arms Trader," it was about Hemant Lakhani's alleged attempt to sell a shoulder-fired missile to anti-American forces and U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie's successful prosecution in the case. Here is a link to the program, which first ran in July 2005.

The question of entrapment is discussed and whether Lakhani was no more than a clueless dupe. Christie comes off a bit defensive as he responds. Click here for a press release on Lakhani's eventual sentencing.

The TAL episode is worth a listen.

I like the program so much that every week I listen online at 11 a.m. on Saturdays and at 4 p.m. on Sundays. It would probably be easier just to download it, an option that is always available.

Host Ira Glass noted this weekend that Christie is now a New Jersey gubernatorial candidate, which I suppose makes a re-run timely. Whether it is a liberal radio thumb of the nose to Christie is up to the listener.

--Bernice

What Is VoIP, Anyway?

City Hall's "Voice over Internet Protocol" communications system was not working for most of last week. Both phones and e-mail were down. A home outage is annoying, but a governmental communications breakdown over several days is a minor disaster.

To learn more about VoIP and its advantages and disadvantages, click here.

Some officials used the occasion to point out the need for an information technology director, but it was unclear whether having such a person in place would have solved the problem. One commenter pointed to a possibly faulty electrical system. Whatever the reason, the fact that such outages can happen means there needs to be some rudimentary backup plan. For example, when my land line goes out (which is happening often lately), I can dial a number on my cell phone to listen to my messages and can then respond to any important ones. VoIP by its very nature may not have a similar option, but the question should be asked.

Maybe at Monday's agenda session City Administrator Marc Dashield will be able to give a brief report on the outage. The meeting is at 7:30 p.m. in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave.

--Bernice Paglia

Saturday, August 08, 2009

The Old CN

To commenter 7:06 a.m.:
Click here to see the "ghost" sign on the Park Avenue building.
The Courier News was there and also for a time at what became the UCC building.
When I started in 1987, there was a small CN satellite office in the Atlas Building at 120 West Seventh Street. That was soon closed and the outpost became my laptop at home.
The Atlas Building also housed WERA and a United National Bank branch at the time.
When I worked at the weekly, Plainfield Today, it was right across the street from the Church Street office. The weekly's office later moved to North Avenue, where I racked up dozens of parking tickets while working past 2 a.m.
As you may know, the Bridgewater CN building was sold and now CN's office is in Somerville.

--Bernice

Board on Retreat

The Board of Education is holding its annual retreat today starting at 9 a.m. in the Plainfield High School conference room, 950 Park Ave.

After a month off in July, the board will resume its meeting schedule Tuesday with work and study session at 8 p.m. in the Administrative Building at 1200 Myrtle Avenue. Even though the left-hand link on the school district web page says there are no current meetings, the information was published last week and can be seen on the right-hand side of the page. The agenda is also posted there, although the Board of Education link says there is no current agenda.

The business meeting will be held at 7 p.m. Aug. 18 in the auditorium of the Administrative Building, 1200 Myrtle Ave.

Plaintalker is not routinely covering school board meetings but will attempt to highlight district issues when possible. Congratulations to Schools Superintendent Steve Gallon III and Plainfield High School Principal Brian Bilal for overcoming last year's state designation of PHS as a "persistently dangerous school" based on events that preceded the two administrators' advent to the district.

--Bernice Paglia

Downtown Woes

One of the Landmark Developers applications was on the Zoning Board of Adjustment agenda Wednesday, but due to the phone outage I could not call to check whether it was still going to be heard. I walked over to City Hall and found out the developer had requested a postponement.

This was the second postponement for the application to put 12 apartments inside the former Courier News building, with retail uses on the ground floor. Developer Frank Cretella had been very actively pursuing approvals from the Historic Preservation Commission, the Planning Board and the Zoning Board of Adjustment throughout the early part of the year. Landmark had been designated as developer for the North Avenue Historic District in 2006, but began seeking approvals more recently for various projects including a commercial office building on West Front Street, housing and commercial uses on East Second Street and conversion of two Park Avenue buildings to apartment and retail uses. Most recently, the City Council withdrew a proposal to seek $15 million in funding for more than 100 apartments on the PNC Bank block.

Walking downtown Friday, I saw this big broken window at the site that would have been under discussion at the Zoning Board of Adjustment, the old Courier News building at 226-232 Park Avenue.

Next door, another Cretella site had a stop-work order on the door. This building at 212-216 Park Avenue was to become four apartments with commercial space at ground level. Again, due to the City Hall phone outage I never got hold of Construction Official Joe Minarvich to ask about the work stoppage.

Over on Gavett Place, a city-owned lot related to another Cretella project has a new sign noting it is under environmental investigation. Many years ago, a building had partially collapsed on the site and was demolished on an emergency basis.

A barrier was to have been erected between the lot and vaults under the sidewalk in the North Avenue Historic District, but one can see a hole that is opening up as the ground settles. Maybe it needs to be stabilized if anything is to be erected on the site.
All these downtown projects have interesting names. The four-apartment Park Avenue one is called Certified Green Property One LLC. The Courier News building application is for Next Step to Collins Avenue LLC. Arts Loft I LLC is the one on East Second Street that will wrap around to Gavett Place and North Avenue.
Front Street Offices LLC is the proposal to use the Appliance-Arama warehouse and two city-owned lots for commercial development. The old Mirons warehouse is called East Second Luxury Condos and the PNC Bank block proposal for more than 100 apartments is West Second Street Commons.
It seems the developer is having a rough patch with this ambitious roster of projects. Plaintalker will keep checking for progress.
--Bernice Paglia

Backyard Sights

Nightshade is a pretty weed, with purple flowers and red berries. It is a relative of tomatoes and potatoes, though its berries are toxic. I don't recall ever seeing it attacked and destroyed by pests as this plant was.

The culprits turned out to be these ugly gray larvae that methodically consumed the leaves.

Then the adults, handsome striped beetles, stripped off the outer layer of all the stalks.

Here is another weed, Flower of an Hour. It is related to the hibiscus. The flowers open briefly and then form papery, domed seed capsules.

The creamy white petals, dark maroon center and colorful reproductive parts are an unusual sight worth seeing, if you happen to be around at the exact hour when the flowers open in the morning. I tend to let this plant invade at least a corner of the garden, just to see the color combination.
--Bernice

Friday, August 07, 2009

City Hall Phones Still Down

I had a simple question Wednesday to ask the city construction official, but the phone rang once and then went to a busy signal. Calls to two other city offices produced the same result. Same thing on Thursday and when I checked about an hour ago, the system was still down. Being only half a block from City Hall, I walked over on Wednesday to get at least one answer. I could only imagine the backlog of unanswered phone calls and e-mail that has built up since.

Earlier this year, City Administrator Marc Dashield told the City Council a new "voice over internet protocol" had been installed, linking city phone and computer systems. His pitch for an information technology director to manage the system did not receive council approval in the budget year that ended June 30, possibly because of suspicions that the job was being tailored for a certain individual.

The plan was to merge Communications and Technology under one person. Since March, the city has had no public information officer and only one staffer for the local access television channel. The IT person was to become the person in charge.

The mayor responded Thursday to a citizen's request by e-mail that was copied to bloggers. She noted that computers were frequently down and pointed out the need for an IT director.

"Sorry for the delay in responding, our computers seem to be down quite frequently. It is imperative that we have an Information Technology Department to handle all of our needs, especially to help us be able to communicate on a timely basis with our residents," the mayor wrote, although the topic of the inquiry was the city's applications for stimulus money.

So here we are in August 2009 with a big problem. Now that Plaintalker has been covering city government for more than four years, there is an archive that might offer some perspective. A search for "voice over internet" turned up two posts, one from the March discussion and the other from the mayor's 100-day report - in 2006. Click here to see the posts.

We see that the issue was a priority in 2006 and is still unresolved.

How come? Was there a lack of political will? Did the high cabinet turnover slow things down? Must we wait for the new Information Technology committee to be formed? Council President Rashid Burney has discussed both VoIP and IT on his blog. Click here for some of his posts. If part of the problem is an unclear understanding between the administration and the governing body on IT outcomes, can dialogue take place soon?

Municipal government is not known for being nimble, but as we see in the Obama administration, a good team effort can bring about needed responses to pressing issues. The city did not complete the implementation of an IT plan in FY 2009 and may not be able to do so until the FY 2010 budget is passed, but there must be some interim solution to keeping the lines of communication open. If possible, at the very least, the city web site could be used to update residents and perhaps to provide a couple of alternate links to City Hall until the system is up again.

--Bernice Paglia