PLAINFIELD, NJ - Plainfield residents and many veterans thronged City Hall Library Wednesday evening as Zoning Board testimony began on whether to allow the Yates House for Military Veterans in the Van Wyck Brooks Historic District.
The proposal for an addition and creation of 25 apartments in the former Abbott Manor on Central Avenue previously brought a crowd out to the Sept. 26 Historic Preservation Commission meeting. The matter was carried to the HPC’s Oct. 24 meeting, and Chairman William Michelson claimed the Zoning Board meeting had to wait until the HPC ruled on whether the proposal met historic design guidelines.
Zoning Board Chairman D. Scott Belin let Michelson speak first Wednesday, but made it clear that the board will decide on whether the use is allowed. Michelson wanted testimony limited and felt HPC commissioners should hear it as well.
Attorney Steven C. Rother introduced six witnesses, but because Belin allowed numerous questions from the audience, only four were heard and the matter will continue at the Nov. 1 Zoning Board meeting.
Rother had represented the owners of Abbott Manor when they wanted to expand the nursing around a decade ago, and said the legal issues now are the same.
“People with handicaps need to reside together,” he said, raising the issue of “reasonable accommodation.”
Rother said the proposal was “not just housing,” but “housing with services” particularly “for individuals who served us all.”
Owner Andre Yates said each veteran will have a kitchenette and bathroom. In addition, there will be two common rooms and a commercial kitchen.
Among witnesses, David Cathcart, director of a Veterans’ Center in Secaucus, described himself as “an expert in combat trauma,” but said the stereotype of a veteran with PTSD as “Rambo” was not true. He said veterans need “good housing where they can get their dignity back.”
City resident Richard Lear said he had two nephews who were veterans, one doing great and another who “flew to Afghanistan to kill himself.” Saying “there is an elementary school three blocks from that house,” he asked, “What happens when someone does not do fine?”
As Lear and Cathcart got into a back-and-forth, Belin told Lear, “Your concern is noted, but the question can’t be answered.”
Several residents asked how such housing was funded, and the answer was through taxes.
Vietnam veteran Emerson Crooks, now a mental health advocate, cited his own experience, saying, “All I needed was to sort out the problems that come with serving in the military. I think any community would love to be a part of that.”
Rother made several mentions of a witness who was on his way, but who had to attend a political event as he was running for governor. It turned out to be Rev. Seth Kaper-Dale of Highland Park, where he had converted a church into veterans’ housing. Kaper-Dale spoke of turning “NIMBY” (not in my back yard) to “YIMBY” with his housing advocacy, and said the veterans had gotten involved in the life of the community.
Resident Nancy Piwowar asked whether the church was historic and also wanted to know how the veterans accessed services. It was not historic, Kaper-Dale said, and service providers generally visited the veterans in their apartments. Some veterans had acquired cars after getting jobs and drove to VA facilities for other services, he said.
Resident Tonie Forbes said to Kaper-Dale, "As a pastor, you see people who are veterans and not veterans. What are the significant differences, or are there no differences?"
"There is almost no difference whatsoever," Kaper-Dale said.
After nearly three hours of testimony and questions, the crowd moved into the rotunda of City Hall, but continued discussing the case. Faced with the possibility of several more meetings of the HPC and Zoning Board on the subject, Arne Aakre, president of the Van Wyck Brooks Historic District Association, said, “I think both organizations sound like they want to be very thorough in their review. I think the leadership on the board is very good and structured.”
The HPC meets next at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 24 in City Hall Library, 515 Watchung Ave. The Zoning Board of Adjustment meets next at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 1, also in City Hall Library.