PLAINFIELD, NJ - A published legal notice on Aug. 23 indicated Plainfield's Planning Board would hold a hearing on "a condemnation area in need of redevelopment investigation" on Sept. 5, identifying the properties to be included. The public showed up in full force to learn more, with residents, property owners, and business owners in attendance.
But the large number of people in the library at City Hall prompted the fire department to shut the meeting down because it was a fire hazard despite the board hearing from another applicant prior to the redevelopment discussion. A new date for the public hearing has not yet been set, and property owners will again have to receive notice, according to a Planning Board member.
Now, a new item is up for discussion at the City Council's regular meeting on Monday night that had not appeared on the agenda fixing session. It pertains to roles and responsibilities in redevelopment, as Plainfield Today points out and wonders if it has to do with what happened at last week's Planning Board meeting.
In an effort to understand more on condemnation vs. non-condemnation, TAPinto Plainfield reached out to Ron Johnson, a Downtown Plainfield Alliance Board Member. Here's what he told us:
Redevelopment is a commonly used tool to repurpose existing vacant lots and buildings into more functional, pleasing and useful spaces. New Jersey’s Local Redevelopment and Housing Law, N.J.S.A. 40A:12A-1 et seq. (the "Redevelopment Law") is thorough and gives numerous powers to the redeveloping authority (whether that be the municipality, a municipally created redevelopment authority, a housing authority, etc.) to exercise certain powers to bring about the change that the community strives for.
On August 12th, 2019 the City of Plainfield’s Economic Development Director, Valerie Jackson, explained to the Plainfield City Council that over 120 properties are proposed to be included in a new redevelopment plan for the south side of Plainfield’s downtown – encompassing the area south of the Plainfield Train Station down to East Seventh Street.
New Jersey’s redevelopment law has a specific process that must be followed and an important determination that must be made along with the onset of the redevelopment plan that can have wide ranging effects on the area in question: condemnation or non-condemnation. Non-condemnation means that the city does not have the ability to seize land via eminent domain should the property owners in question not wish to sell or do not negotiate in good faith with the developer. Condemnation means the city can use eminent domain to take the property. Just the sound of the word “Condemnation” sends chills through communities, and rightfully so. New Jersey permits redevelopment authorities to seize land from private landowners to give to private developers. This is a major concern as the public does not know who this developer is, what their plan of action will be on these properties and why such a large area is being proposed for a redevelopment plan instead of smaller pieces of the area as time moves forward. The residents and businesses in the affected area, including the restaurant Tradiciones de mi Pueblo (arguably Downtown Plainfield’s most successful business) are now living with a concern of displacement over their heads. Until now, Plainfield has not proposed a redevelopment plan with condemnation, and no redevelopment plan initiated by the city and a private developer has displaced a single person in the city (Note: The Plainfield Housing Authority’s demolition of Elmwood Gardens on West Second Street displaced the residents, but the property was not redeveloped nor was it through a private developer). This precedent will now change with the proposed plan and if this is approved, it begs the question: What area will be next?
Simply put, the places we love, buildings we love, businesses we patron and the people who live in this area are in danger of being displaced or destroyed. Of over 120 properties proposed for the redevelopment plan, only 34 properties are proposed to be in the condemnation area, whereas the other properties are proposed to be in in a non-condemnation area. We’ve identified at least 9 of the 34 properties that we feel should have been placed on the local, state or national register of historic places for their contributions to Plainfield’s history or have significant architectural value to the downtown. More on those in a moment, but let’s first dissect how a condemnation proposal works.
The process works like this: The Plainfield Planning Board will hold a vote to determine if the properties meet the state guidelines for being declared an Area in Need of Redevelopment. There are eight criteria for making such a determination:
Buildings are substandard, unsafe, unsanitary, dilapidated, or obsolescent, or are lacking in light, air, or space.
The discontinuance or abandonment of the use of buildings or the disrepair thereof so as to be untenantable.
Publicly owned land or unimproved vacant land for a period of ten years not likely to be developed through the instrumentality of private capital.
Areas containing buildings which are dilapidated, obsolete, overcrowded or having other deleterious conditions, which are detrimental to the safety, health, morals, or welfare of the community.
A stagnant and unproductive condition of land having a negative social or economic impact or otherwise being detrimental to the safety, health, morals, or welfare of the surrounding area or the community in general.
Areas in excess of 5 acres which have been destroyed by casualty resulting in material depreciation.
Designated urban enterprise zones.
Consistency with smart growth planning principles
Now before we continue –we have no doubt in our mind that most of these properties would meet at least one of these criteria. The likelihood that the Planning Board will decide these properties would meet the redevelopment law is very high.
In Gallentin v Paulsboro, 191 N.J. 344 (2007) it was held that the clause “E” allowing for the redevelopment of “stagnant or not fully productive” property did not allow redevelopment of areas which were merely operated in less than an optimal matter but only applied to property that had become stagnant or unproductive due to issues of title, diversity of ownership, or other similar conditions and which negatively affects surrounding properties. In 62-64 Main Street, LLC v. Mayor and Council of City of Hackensack, 221 N.J. 129 (2015), the Court limited the holding of Gallentin to clause “E” and rejected the contention that a heightened constitutional standard for blight was applicable to the other clauses of the Redevelopment Law. The redevelopment plan as presented to the Planning Board is likely to determine several clauses are applicable, especially “G” as the entire area is an urban enterprise zone.
Should the Planning Board decide that the properties meet the redevelopment criteria, the final decision to approve the redevelopment plan will go before the City Council for consideration. If the plan is approved, the 34 properties listed for condemnation can be seized by the city should the developer wish to purchase them and the owner not wish to sell or does not negotiate in good faith as determined by the city and the developer.
Good faith is oftentimes determined based on facts provided by an “independent” real estate appraiser and the properties underlying market value compared to how much the property owner wants for the property. This is problematic as the developer is the one paying this independent real estate appraiser, so there is an inherent concern on fixed outcomes of these appraisals. Should the property owner be found to not negotiate in good faith or outright refuse to sell, the developer will ask the city to seize the property. Once the property is seized, the developer will take ownership of the property for market value and businesses/residents occupying the buildings will be ordered to vacate at the discretion of the developer (and in most cases the developer will payout any remaining time on the leases should one be in effect).
While it is no doubt that almost all 120 properties in question need to be redeveloped in order to build an exciting downtown and turn properties that have been vacant, poorly maintained, or not the highest and best use for the land into a better planned and integrated part of the downtown, how we get there and what we value most in this area is vitally important. Downtown Plainfield Alliance is in support of redeveloping this area, but we are not in support of the buildings chosen for condemnation. We have never taken a position on redevelopment downtown since our founding, however the urgency of this matter, the buildings that are proposed for the condemnation area and the outcry from the public has caused us to become vocal on this issue.
We’ve identified 9 buildings out of the 34 properties listed for condemnation that we feel are incorrectly labeled as condemnation instead of non-condemnation:
512-24 Watchung Avenue (The Plainfield YMCA building)
400-04 Watchung Avenue
400-10 Cleveland Avenue (Plainfield’s first police station)
417-19 Cleveland Avenue
130-40 East Fifth Street (E&A Restaurant Supply Company)
124-28 East Fourth Street
307-13 Park Avenue (Tradiciones de mi Pueblo building)
337-41 Park Avenue
401-03 Park Avenue
All of these buildings have significant architectural value to Plainfield and the Central New Jersey region (and some with tremendous historical value to the city). The Plainfield YMCA building is the only one that is on a historical register – and the National Register of Historic Places at that, which is considered the “crème de la crème” of historic designation and would be extremely costly, difficult and highly unlikely to be removed by the Register for the purposes of redevelopment. The city has recently acquired a disdain for historic preservation in a city that prides itself in having historic residential, commercial and public properties, which we find troubling. Downtown Plainfield has two historic districts, one of which the YMCA building belongs to, the Civic Historic District. The district is the smallest of all of Plainfield’s 10 historic districts. The building is an integral part of the historic district and the loss of this building would be tremendous to the integrity of Watchung Avenue.
Another building that troubles us is the old Plainfield Police Department Headquarters, which was in use from the city’s founding until 1967 when the new police department and municipal court complex was constructed on Watchung Avenue. The building has a beautiful design that includes a terracotta roof (307-13 Park Avenue, which houses Tradiciones de mi Pueblo, also has a terracotta roof and these buildings are two of three remaining buildings downtown that have such roof designs). The building can be easily rehabbed to feature office space, artist lofts or mixed uses.
We have many questions regarding the actions that are proposed. The biggest questions are, who is the developer? What is the plan in this area? What criteria were used to determine which properties are to be in the condemnation area and which are to be in the non-condemnation area? What determines blight? Without answers to these questions, a determination of condemnation is appropriate cannot be established.
One of our largest issues downtown is the lack of a strategic plan on how we wish to transform our downtown. Many redeveloping downtowns in New Jersey have a strategic plan document that informs the public and future developers on what we want and how we intend on reaching those goals, including Trenton, Cranford, New Providence and countless others. Before attempting to take someone’s property through eminent domain, we should have our own house in order. How can the City Council properly determine if this area should be condemned or not if they aren’t presented with a detailed plan on the developer’s intentions for the area in order to compare to a downtown strategic plan?
The most burning question is the following: Knowing that these properties have been problematic for some time, has the city contacted the property owners in question about their all-encompassing plans for the downtown to have a discussion on how their property fits in such a plan? Have we attempted to have these owners clean up their properties to an acceptable standard and informed them on what the underlying zone permits?
A developer that has approached the city is evidently prompting this proposed action, which is fine in our view, but the city should not cater to whatever developer comes knocking that wants specific properties. The effect of such a process has no bounds. Should such a precedent be set, what neighborhood or downtown blocks will be next? Properties in the 1st and 4th Wards could also be at risk if the criterion for taking property is so low and the motivation to do so is set so high.
The Planning Board was proposed to take action on this proposal on Thursday, September 5th, 2019, but because such a large amount of concerned residents, business owners and property owners in attendance – much to the surprise of the city – the meeting was shut down, but not before hearing another applicant that night. The community already occupied the room, so the discretion to cancel the meeting citing a fire safety risk is also called into question. It shows the city was unprepared for a backlash and certainly the next go around will be more rehearsed. Because of the haste in cancelling, the city must now re-notice the property owners and newspaper in order to satisfy the New Jersey “Sunshine” laws. The city failed to announce a new date for the application and vote to carry the application to that date. The satisfaction of the Sunshine law would have already been an issue for the September 5th meeting as the meeting was for the entire redevelopment plan (both non-condemnation and condemnation areas), whereas the public notice only concerned properties in the condemnation area. Any action that would have come out of that meeting would have been illegal.
The haste of this plan, the erroneous public notices and the lack of details provided thus far are the reasons why the community must come prepared with the facts and questions found herein to fight for Plainfield’s history and future. Downtown Plainfield Alliance supports the community and the removal of the 9 properties listed above from the condemnation area. We look forward to building a downtown that’s equitable to everyone and that satisfies our goal of becoming a true live, work and play community that appreciates its local history and architecture.
ABOUT DOWNTOWN PLAINFIELD ALLIANCE: Downtown Plainfield Alliance is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that supports the growth and community development of Downtown Plainfield, New Jersey. We plant trees, apply for grants, market businesses and give information to prospective business owners, residents and developers with the goal of building a downtown that is a safe live, work and play community. We are not funded by any government organization.
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