PLAINFIELD, NJ — A discussion among Historic Preservation Commissioners on Tuesday centered on the City of Plainfield's Capital Improvement Road Reconstruction project on Prospect Avenue. Two months ago a Certificate of Appropriateness was granted for the project; however, a controversial issue that arose centered on the set of steps at the southeast corner at Hillside Avenue, and the project is currently stalled.

The city engineer had submitted a summary report of what happened to the State Historic Preservation Office, HPC Chairman Bill Michelson said, which determined the project cannot go forward as it currently stands because it would include tearing out a historic feature.

"Now, that puts us in a very strange position. This matter is now before two different state agencies. The Department of Transportation is the one that has to sign off on the grant, for one thing. So they're happy, I think, with everything that was submitted to them. But now we have SHPO, which is part of the Department of Environmental Protection, a different cabinet level agency, that has issued a ruling that this does not comply."

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As such, the City of Plainfield has to appear before the New Jersey Historic Sites council on December 10. This group, Michelson said, protects people against encroachments upon historic resources.

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Michelson noted he will appear before the council and explain that "we really bent over backwards trying to find a way to save this resource, the majority of us felt that it just cannot really be done, and we don't want to see a needed street improvement project fall apart just because of that."

He said the ultimate policy question is what to do with the American Disabilities Act.

A September 14 letter to the HPC — signed by a majority of homeowners in the Hillside Avenue Historic District Association who want the steps to remain intact — pointed out "the placement of ADA compliant corners at this location is nonsensical, given the myriad of other barriers (e.g., steep inclines and slate pavers) found in the District. See the letter herepdf.

Michelson stated whatever the council decides is a recommendation, and "the Commissioner of Environmental Protection will ultimately decide whether to strike that part of the project, or approve it even though there's a loss of a visual feature."

He added that if the Commissioner of Environmental Protection and the Commissioner of Transportation do not agree, the City of Plainfield could say "forget it, we're not doing the work, or it has to go up to the Appellate Division of Superior Court to decide which cabinet level department prevails." The latter, Michelson said, would mean Plainfield would incur costs.

Interestingly, Burke Marshall, who was head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, was born in Plainfield in 1922, and lived in the house at the corner where the steps are located. Marshall litigated voting rights cases and school desegregation, and was critical to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

According to the New Jersey Historic Sites agenda, the virtual GoToMeeting can be accessed at https://global.gotomeeting.com/join/427775917, or by calling 1-877-309-2073 (toll free) or 1-646-749-3129 on Thursday, December 10, at 10:00 a.m.

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