Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The Joy of UCIA (Park-Madison)

NOTE: Now that the Administration's love affair with the UCIA is being consummated, it's time to look a little more closely. Today: The UCIA and Park-Madison. Tomorrow: PILOTs - The Money Shot. You will also want to read Bernice's post "City Presses Developer On Occupancy Issues".

First came 'The Joy of Cooking' (1931), which was about the joy of cooking. Then came 'The Joy of Sex' (1972). The title was a riff on the cookbook, but the subject was about getting -- uh, well, uh -- screwed. Now comes 'The Joy of UCIA' (2000s). The title is a riff on the 1972 book, and
the subject is about getting -- uh, well, uh -- screwed.

The Park-Madison had been a weed-infested eyesore in the center of Plainfield's formerly bustling business district for over twenty years when it was refurbished into a sort of 'town green' in the early 1990s during the term of Mayor Harold Mitchell.

Many say that the misguided 'urban renewal,' which created the eyesore in the first place, led directly to the demise of Plainfield's own family-owned department store, TEPPER'S. It's surely more complicated than that, but you can bet the destruction of a lively downtown business environment DID NOT HELP.

Plainfielders longed for years to be rid of this embarrassment, and Mitchell's move at least made the downtown more attractive. But, being city-owned, it did NOTHING AT ALL for the tax base.

So everyone sat on the edge of their chairs when Mayor Al McWilliams announced he was eager to put together a deal for the development of the parcel, through the good offices of Assemblyman Jerry Green.

You can now see the finished product, a $28M development that includes a four-story office building housing county and state offices, a parking deck, a public plaza, and two freestanding retail buildings facing West Front Street.

Part of the deal was that the City was to be paid $1.2M for the parcel by the UCIA. This was good news indeed, as all the other interest shown in the property would have REQUIRED the City to PAY THE DEVELOPER TO TAKE THE PROPERTY OFF OUR HANDS. Can you believe that?!

But this is where the JOY OF UCIA began. It soon became evident that the City was going to be forced to ante up the $1.2M in forced 'contributions' to the project --
to cover removal of underground foundations, 'brownfields' remediation, new streetscape and the rebuilding of Park Avenue between Front and Second Streets. Seeing no other way forward, the City ponied up.

Then came the next surprise. In a sitdown just prior to actual letting of construction contracts, the UCIA played a special card. Arguing that because the UCIA is a tax-exempt entity, it should be EXCUSED FROM the fees for construction permits associated with the office building and the parking deck. Cost to the Plainfield taxpayers for this little item -- over $100K.

Yet another surprise: The UCIA argued that the
RETAIL TENANTS should be exempted from having to pay SID (Special Improvement District) assessments. The City resisted on this one.

Imagine the slap in the face to the downtown business community this little proposal amounted to. In the first place, the retail properties would not be carrying the same weight as the other downtown properties -- owing to the PILOT, or payment in lieu of taxes (more on this tomorrow) -- essentially forcing the downtown property owners to help SUBSIDIZE the project.

Secondly, the SID is a marketing effort for the business district funded jointly by a voluntary assessment of the merchants and property owners and a contribution by the City. Exempting the retail businesses on the Park-Madison development would have given them all the ADVANTAGES of the SID without sharing in ANY OF THE COSTS. You know this was a hot potato!

Once again, the UCIA put pressure on the City in the Spring of 2005, asking for a speeded-up issuance of a Temporary Certificate of Occupancy (TCO) in order for some agencies to move in. With the TCO granted, tenants began to occupy the building in May of 2005.

A TCO is just that -- a TEMPORARY grant allowing for occupancy pending the completion of outstanding items, which are usually referred to as a 'punchlist'. The TCO, which as PT understands it CANNOT be renewed, expired last year. With the punchlist items uncompleted (see Bernice's post for details).

So here we are, almost a year and a half after the UCIA shouldered aside the requirements for a FINAL certificate of occupancy, with a host of unresolved issues and unkept promises --

  • Park Avenue Reconstruction -- Not even begun, though the City already paid for it.
  • Relocation of the Park Jewelers Clock to the Plaza -- This is the famous clock from 'A Tree Grows in Brooklyn'.
  • Plaza Repairs -- The decorative fake brick oval surrounding the center of the Plaza is ALREADY cracked in many places.
  • Streetscape -- There is a dispute over the failure to plant the Liberty Elms originally specified.
  • Use of the Plaza -- Who will issue permits for events on the Plaza, the City or the County?
  • Parking Meters -- The City was supposed to gather revenue from meters in the parking lot; none installed.
  • Parking Deck -- Citizen parking in deck on evenings, weekends is supposed to be allowed.
  • Dumpsters -- Screening dumpsters from public view has not been implemented.
Is PT over-reaching to liken these dealings to the earlier book?

Tomorrow: Looking at the PILOTs -- payments in lieu of taxes.

For more about the UCIA's executive director, Union County Dem chairman Charlotte DeFilippo, check out this post on Countywatchers, which traces her history all the way back to a newspaper article from her initial appointment.

-- Dan Damon

Not getting your own CLIPPINGS email daily? Click here to get started.

No comments: