PATERSON, NJ - More than three dozen residents of the 1st Ward came out to a special meeting where the planners who will be drafting the city's newest master plan were there to listen.
The residents voiced their views on issues facing their part of the city, in the hopes that their concerns would become a part of the master plan, the document that is supposed to serve as the basis of Paterson's planning efforts over the next decade.
Some in attendance expressed skepticism towards the process, given what they considered a lack of progress on goals identified in the last master plan the city produced in 2003. By law, cities must re-do their master plan at least every ten years.
"If we did all this in 2003, what's going to make a difference this time?" asked Patricia McNeil, President of the Paterson Habitat Homeowner's Association.
But those in charge say the process will be different, at least in one way.
"For the first time we're doing ward-based planning," said Fred Heyer, a partner at Heyer Gruel & Associates, the planning firm contracted by the city to devise the new plan.
"We're doing a neighborhood approach," he said.
Heyer's firm has scheduled six public input sessions, one in each of the city's political subdivisions.
Residents who attended the first session, held at the Christopher Hope Center on November 25, were given aerial maps of their ward and took turns speaking during an informal discussion led by the planners.
"You've got a head start because there's already been some community planning going on," said Heyer, referring to the Northside Neighborhood Plan released in 2010.
The 1st Ward includes much of the city's downtown, including City Hall and the Ward Street train station, as well as the Great Falls and the Northside neighborhood.
The residents in attendance sounded off on a variety of issues facing their specific areas of town, ranging from flooding and property abandonment to traffic safety and street crime.
Susan Gruell, a partner at the planning firm, brought up the potential for one unique site in the 1st Ward to become a revitalized community attraction.
Gruell said that Hinchliffe Stadium, an abandoned Negro League baseball facility owned by the city's board of education, could serve a virtually limitless number of functions for the community.
"In the winter it could be used for skating. You could have concerts in the summer... It's already there, it's already flat."
While residents were responsive to the idea of revitalizing the stadium to host football and soccer games, they were also quick to identify other public resources that were lacking.
Ever since the closure of the ward's public library branch, residents said there is an urgent need for community meeting rooms, public computers with internet access, and job placement services.
Ronessa Johnson, a resident and business owner in the ward, said most of the area's challenges stemmed from the shrinking number of homeowners.
"You have blocks and blocks of people who are just renting," she said.
Other residents pointed to an increase in the number of squatters living in the area's numerous vacant properties, after the area was ravaged by Hurricane Irene last summer.
"It is so many illegal residents," said one woman. "A lot of the houses are abandoned, the landlords are just walking away.
Several streets with "significant abandonment" were identified by residents including North Main and Clinton Streets, and Garfield Avenue.
Some registered complaints about their areas, ranging from potholes so big "you can wash your dishes in them" to "all those people hanging out in the streets and in the stores"
Many in attendance said they tended not to shop in their own neighborhood because of the people often loitering near the stores.
"Between the riff-raff that be out here and the begging it's like a tool booth just to the store," said one man.
Sara Bille, a resident of Clinton Street, said that young criminals are unfazed when regular Paterson police cars drive past, but quickly change their behavior at the site of the Passaic County Sheriff's Department.
Billie, whose brother was a city police officer, said, "The Sherriff's Department is very effective and very efficient.
Billie said police had "turned a blind eye" on Paterson's youth because it was now more time-consuming to process and transport juveniles being charged with crimes.
Another man spoke up about a reduction in the number of crossing guards serving School #28, an elementary school on Presidential Boulevard.
Other residents raised concerns about recurring flooding on several streets in the Northside, including Amity, Bergen, and North 1st Street, all of which were hit hard by Hurricanes Irene and Sandy.
Still, others were critical of the timing and outreach for the session itself, which was held at the same time as the City Council's regular meeting.
The Rev. James Staton, pastor of the Church of God and Saints of Christ, said it was inappropriate to schedule the public input meeting in a manner that prevented the ward's councilperson, Council President Anthony Davis, from attending the session.
Staton also said that the city did not effectively implement changes proposed for the 1st Ward in the 2003 master plan.
"Certainly, we were on the table and we've been brushed aside," he said.
Resident Karen Mayo told Heyer and Gruel the public input session itself had been poorly promoted.
"You haven't circulated this to the community. It was all word of mouth," she said.
Heyer mentioned that the turnout was quite good, but said that his firm was "not in charge of the outreach."
Nancy Grier, head of the Neighborhood Assistance Team which oversaw the outreach, said the city government used Facebook to announce the meeting, and that they will "just have to work on it harder," in the future.
Despite the criticisms, both Heyer and Gruel have high hopes for the new plan, hopes they said were bolstered by the impressive turnout at the first meeting.
"We like this kind of activity and energy," said Gruel.
"This is the kind of group that can really get something done," said Heyer.
Heyer said that his firm would prepare a list of issues that were raised at the meeting, and invited anyone interested in adding their voice to the discussion to email their comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
Here’s the schedule for other master plan meetings, all from 6-8 pm:
2nd Ward: Mon., Dec. 17 at School 27, 250 Richmond Avenue
3rd Ward: Wed., Dec 5 at School 26 at 1 E. 32nd Street.
4th Ward: Mon., Dec. 10 at St. Luke’s Baptist Church, 139 Carroll Street
5th Ward: Thurs., Dec 6 at New Roberto Clemente School, 482-506 Market Street
6th Ward: Tues., Dec. 11 at School 25 at 287 Trenton Aevnue.