|New Jersey State Armory "Back in the Day!"|
I have spoken a great deal about the Armory deal the mayor has been promoting for the past several months, reiterating in blog comments, Plainfield's Courier micro-site, and council discussions why I think this is not a good deal for our city. I have aggregated all my comments into the following blog post (with some editing), as I feel it would give a clearer idea of my concerns (and the concerns of many residents who have reached out to me) regarding this property.
The Armory Advisory Committee formed during the Al McWilliams Administration was in the process of examining the Armory site for city use back in 2005. As a volunteer commissioner for the Plainfield Cultural and Heritage Commission, I was a member of the Armory committee, as well as Jacques Howard, Ronald West, Library Director Joseph DaRold, Anna Belin-Pyles, other arts/cultural professionals and some other residents. Our discussion revolved around a pretty narrow scope: what would be the best use of the building, if the city were to purchase it from the state. Some of the ideas floated were to consider it for an arts/cultural center satellite for this end of the county (with non-profit arts groups, etc., perhaps renting office space), or for a teen center, or a community center. Our focus was solely on possible uses.
The committee disbanded when the new administration came into office in 2006, and there were no further discussions until this January, when the offer from the state to the city was brought to the council's attention. It was not the primary mission of the 2005 committee to examine the costs--that would be left to Jacques Howard and other administration professionals.
This past January, the idea of the city purchasing the building was again brought to the council's attention--this time, the idea was for us to buy the building and then have a charter school-building company buy it, build a charter school, and allow the city to use it after hours for cultural events. The city would be responsible for paying the estimated $6,000 in monthly maintenance costs in the interim. I must add that I have seen not a single sheet of paper with any sort of breakdown of the maintenance costs--it is just a number pulled out of the sky, in my opinion--I need to see it on paper. I wondered at the time why the city had to be involved in the deal at all.
At a subcommittee meeting with the charter school building representatives, Council President McWilliams, Councilman Storch, Assemblyman Green, and Mayor Robinson-Briggs, I asked the head of the company specifically why he needed to come before the governing body, rather than just going to the state and leaving us out of it--he responded that the company need the city to sign on as a guarantor for the project so that they could get financing. I didn't like the idea of this company using the city because they couldn't get financing on their own. So, the city would be paying the monthly maintenance on this building until financing was put in place. This is separate, though, from the idea of even having a charter school in the building--not a good use, in my opinion.
Regarding the mayor's repeated assertions that such a space would be available for the city to use after 5:00 pm--frankly, the entity could do that anyway as part of a "good neighbor" policy with Plainfield. Also, as I have said many times, and as has been reiterated by the council president and other councilors, we have no lack of space for cultural events here in Plainfield. When I served on the Plainfield Cultural and Heritage Commission, we did many events at Washington Community School, at Union County College, and at the Plainfield Public Library--in addition, there are churches in Plainfield with large spaces for cultural events. The community schools are available for city use and indeed have been used for a variety of events for years--they are big, clean, spacious, air-conditioned, and ADA-compliant.
The timetable given back in January by the state was that the decision had to be made within 30 days--there was no way that the council could provide such a hasty answer with no real information brought before us--all we saw was a marketing proposal. Our stance was that the state could wait until the city council had an opportunity to discuss it at length. The other subcommittee members concurred. Since then, the charter school that originally had its eye on the building found other space. The state deadline, which I felt was arbitrary, was extended until June 30. I still feel it is arbitrary--if no one comes forward to purchase the building, it will still be there. The state could sell the property to someone without the city being involved--I haven't seen any beating on doors to acquire this property.
The administration, however, has continued to promote the city buying the building--on a short-term lease while they try to find a buyer. We would still be stuck with the maintenance costs--again, I have seen no real data, just a floated figure of $6,000 per month. There has been no cost/benefit analysis done by our CFO that I am aware of--a determination of the true cost to the city, the length of time, on average, that it has taken to sell a property of this magnitude in this economy, what sorts of entities the administration would be pursuing, etc. To go ahead and take on the burden of upkeep in the absence of any specifics would be foolish--we need professional expertise, and we haven't gotten it. We also need true community buy-in for any venture to be successful.
The other part of the armory cost is the idea of bringing the structure up to code. The costs of mitigating the hazardous waste (it is on the state's list), making it ADA-compliant (ramps, rails, elevators, bathrooms, etc.), removing asbestos, upgrading the electrical wiring, adding air conditioning, replacing the roof, etc., would be significant. The best possible thing that could happen might be to have a private developer purchase the building directly from the state for a dollar, tear it down, and build some homes that would then be put on the tax rolls. The area would remain residential and attractive and the city would get the increased tax revenue.
I am not convinced, given the complete lack of information we have been provided by the administration, that our city should be tied to any sort of agreement at this time. The administration has sold other city-owned properties--with some of these properties, they have had to work out a deal with the new owners to help remove oil tanks, left over debris, etc. I can't imagine any developer wanting to purchase the building from the city (for how much money?) in its current condition--the fact that the city has presumably been approaching folks about buying it and have not found a buyer is telling.
My opinion is that the city ought to stay out of the real estate business and focus on getting our house in order--we have other pressing issues--jobs, youth, crime, taxes--that we must deal with. Let the state handle the state's business and deal directly with interested developers. My feeling right now is that the property should be developed as residential and go on the tax rolls.
Buildings cost money–-the over a quarter of a million dollars bill from the developer of the “no cost to Plainfield taxpayers” Senior Citizens Center/Veterans Center is still unresolved. I was elected to be prudent with the public dollars--elected officials have yet to hear from area constituents on this issue (although I have spoken to some folks informally)--all we have are selective facts and unproven assertions. Given the alarming status of the so-called $1 Senior Center, we all know the high cost of a dollar here in Plainfield. No specific ideas have even been formally presented to the City Council. No decision of such import should be entered into hastily, and certainly not without the buy-in of the residents it will ultimately serve, meaning, the people of Plainfield.