PLAINFIELD, NJ — Plainfield’s two newest City Council members had plenty of questions Tuesday for Economic Development Director Valerie Jackson on the funding and even the rationale for the proposed North Avenue Pedestrian Mall.
The mall project calls for closing North Avenue between Watchung and Park avenues to create a mall centering on the main train station. Even before First Ward Councilwoman Ashley Davis and Second Ward Councilman Sean McKenna began quizzing Jackson, resident Mary Burgwinkle spoke in public comment to question a $2.1 million bond to fund the project. Jackson showed a video envisioning the changes, which include landscaping and artwork, but Davis and McKenna also questioned the cost, as well as where residents, shoppers and visitors would park when North Avenue was closed to traffic.
Early on, McKenna questioned approval of Pennoni Associates for engineering consulting services, saying some other proposals were “pretty impressive.” Public Works Director Oren K. Dabney said based on the work they had done, the city wanted them to continue. (Pennoni had prepared plans that were unveiled in a 2018 presentation of the mall project.)
Davis asked why the contract was for eight hours a week, but Dabney said the firm was available by phone as well as committing to spending a full day in the city.
McKenna asked Finance Director Ron West about the bond and was told the city would have 30 years to pay it off. When McKenna asked if it went against the city’s policy not to borrow, West said, “Yes.”
McKenna also alleged that 86 percent of pedestrian malls fail, but Jackson said she meets quarterly with North Avenue business owners and landlords to resolve issues.
Despite attempts by Davis and McKenna to defeat resolutions and ordinances related to the project, they passed 5-2, with Council President Steve Hockaday, Vice President Elton Armady and members Charles McRae, Barry Goode and Joylette Mills-Ransome voting “yes.”
Jackson said the main issues for business and property owners on the mall site were “safety, parking and delivery.” She said merchants could use an existing police escort system when taking money to the bank and noted nearby parking lots offsite. Davis asked for an inventory of all city parking lots.
McKenna summed up his concerns by saying, “I kind of feel the chicken and the egg are getting confused,” and repeated his worry that pedestrian malls having a high failure rate.
“There’s some mismatch here,” he said. “Maybe some other things have to come to fruition first.”
Jackson said, “We have a lot of balls moving simultaneously,” and cited a Jersey City pedestrian mall as one “that works.”
But McKenna shot back, “The secret to North Avenue is not a pedestrian mall.”
In other action, the governing body observed a moment of silence in memory of former City Clerk Laddie Wyatt, who passed away over the weekend. Numerous appointments to boards and commissions were approved. Hockaday recalled the origin of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech as inspired by Mahalia Jackson in 1963, and contracts totaling $330,000 were awarded to nine law firms.
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