We did it!

 
 

The Downtown Plainfield Alliance Earth Day Cleanup was a major success. We cleaned up areas near the train station and branched out in two areas, north of the station and south of the station. The city parking lot adjacent to the train station on the corner of East 4th Street and Cleveland Avenue, were completely rid of trash and debris.

We also did plantings in the island on Roosevelt Avenue near East Third Street (adjacent to Union County College). The 13 plants beautified an ugly dirt and grass area filled with weeds. The City was even able to accommodate us with mulch!

I'd like to take the opportunity to thank the many groups that helped make this whole thing possible: Queen City Pride for supplies, advertisements and help cleaning up, The City of Plainfield DPW and Community Development office for the donation of supplies, Plainfield Municipal Utilities Authority (PMUA) for picking up the garbage bags, Angels of Action for coming to volunteer, Plainfield Seventh Day Adventist Church for coming to volunteer and Great Swamp Greenhouses for donating one plant to us in order to complete the project. These organizations all came together to support and donate their time and money to be sure we had a successful day. I want also thank the private individuals that donated, Charlene O'neal, Victor Pujara (our Treasurer), Sequoia Richardson, Mohamed Eladawy, the anonymous $100.00 donator, and many more. You're all rockstars.

Our next cleanup will be in September. Downtown Plainfield Alliance will keep everyone posted on developments!

 The planting area BEFORE

The planting area BEFORE

 AFTER

AFTER

Concept Map: Use Map

What would the value be in creating a Google Map showing all the correct uses for properties in Plainfield and the permitted uses? I think if people knew what appropriate use is supposed to be in the homes in their neighborhoods and when houses were legally converted to a use then people can easily report illegal home conversions.

There is a common misconception that in the 1960s and after, tons of single family homes were cut up into multi-family homes is easily dispelled through city records that support the fact that most houses were changed into higher uses during the years surrounding The Great Depression and the late 1940s and 1950s when soldiers came home after WWII. Hopefully if I end up making this map it can send the rumor the way of the dodo.

I'd like to test it out on a historic district and spread from there to see how well it works out. It's time we think of new ways to enforce codes in our communities. While a map probably won't change the behaviors on the ground, it can help the city's Inspections Division identify and notify violators and provide citizens with the facts on their neighborhood in order to be more vigilant. 

Plainfield, NJ Growth Maps

The Growth Maps for Plainfield, NJ are now online. The Growth Maps show all new development in Plainfield, NJ by their development status (approved and unbuilt, under construction, complete, etc.). The maps will be updated again in July. Check back here for more updates!

Sears and the Departmental Reality

I remember when growing up that Sears was a completely different place than it is now. It was actually a decent place to shop, was competitive in price, generous in return policy and was the leader in appliances and tool sales. A few articles have popped up in recent weeks about ailing department store Sears and its corporate sister Kmart. We all know the troubled stores are on life support and offer very little value to a rapidly changing brick and mortar reality across the retail landscape, but the news of Sears (and Macy's) subdividing some of their existing stores is cause for concern in a company that has been shrinking for years. Even more, last week Forbes reported Sears announced a restructuring plan that includes making $1 Billion in cuts (much of it in real estate) and hiring a real estate marketing firm. 

I can't believe I'm talking about the 5th largest retailer by sales in the United States. Unprepared for and unwanted by the millennial generation, the company is no doubt in trouble along with most other department store chains. I wonder if Sears even has a single millennial in it's upper management?? How do they know what we want? Who is consulting them, old graying men and women with no connection with the clientele they're trying to market to?

The last time I went into a Sears the store was in such disarray, with clothes everywhere, poor selection, poor lighting, outdated buildings (with super low ceilings!), no help to be found anywhere, and even dated retail music over the loudspeaker (it sounded like I was in a funhouse). The store was empty and I felt like a ghost of shoppers past. Apparently others feel the same way. While I cannot remember exactly what I went into Sears to buy (this is a circa 2011 story), I ended up walking out empty handed. I'll add that it was a Sears Essentials store which were a failed "discount store" spinoff of the main stores. I have a regular Sears less than a two miles from my house and I've never been inside and don't plan on going in there for anything when there are much cleaner department stores and big box chains even closer.

The most alarming fact is that retailers shifting to online sales to shore up profits is a cannibalizing strategy for their very own brick and mortar locations. The more online sales that are made on their .com sites, the least amount of sales are generated in physical locations, threatening their profits further. A quick look on Sears.com shows overpriced clothes and housewares that can be found much cheaper elsewhere, namely Amazon.com.

 Sears Watchung, NJ. Image courtesy of TAPinto Watchung

Sears Watchung, NJ. Image courtesy of TAPinto Watchung

With Sears Holdings (Sears parent company) announcement that they wish to monetize their assets in the new restructuring plan, the company has expressed interest in selling off, re-leasing, and subdividing their stores to save money. The plan comes hot on the heals of a poorer than expected holiday sales season in December 2016 with profits down 8% from last year, which were already down from the year before. The plan is ambitious and certainly can be considered trying something new, but I wonder what small stores would actually go on the inside of these newly subdivided locations.

Department stores need to stand out. They sell too much of the same stuff. If you blindfold someone and send them into a Sears, JC Penney and Macy's, it's hard for one to know which store you're in. Macy's does a better job in attracting millennials but overall it's been clear for years that millennials like small specialized retailers that concentrate on doing one thing good instead of everything badly. It's estimated that department stores have a 40% overlap in merchandise. What made these retailers successful was their ability to pull in shoppers because they offered something that nobody else had. This concept went out the window with the popularity of online shopping, but it seems they have overcompensated by selling the same merchandise and concentrating too much on price matching their competitors than offering an experience. What this has created is poor sales, excess square feet and excessive corporate footprint.

They haven't even began to fix the real problem. Sears needs to be somebody. Do something drastically different to bring in millennial shoppers and engage their customers. What's the point of cutting real estate in underperforming stores if the demographic age of shoppers have not changed in the surrounding area most of the time?? It clearly spells that the shoppers have gone elsewhere. Sears can still recapture those customers. But it all starts with acknowledging the reality that standing out as a department store is the key to success. It's widely known that millennials are all about an experience when they visit places, where they live, the car they buy, where they shop and the like. They want to have a good time wherever they are. The truth is, when Sears finds out what people like is when success will come.

Snippets: Workin' hard

A few snippets as I clear my head from mind fog (and a crushing defeat).

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WHAT'S NEXT

I've decided to finally recoup myself and get hard to work on that searchable Plainfield Zoning Map. That will be my next project as I continue to dabble with the Greenhouse Farms project and focus on launching Downtown Plainfield Alliance and Plainfield Permits. The searchable zoning map will be the first of its kind in Plainfield and will take the guess work out of finding the zone a property is in. I'm excited that this can be further developed as Google develops their MapMaker tools.

Greenhouse Farms is a continuation of an unfinished project from years ago at the tail end of college that I worked on with two friends. I decided to retrofit what we came up with back then onto this platform in hopes that it can mobilize and move minds (and investors :D) in order to raise awareness.

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NEWARK

Newark is simply...well, on fire. No not literally, but it is moving. If you haven't been to Downtown Newark in the past 6 months then you're seriously behind the times. They're where Jersey City was about 10-15 years ago in the Downtown area, University area and the Ironbound (basically anywhere near a train). Now, unsurprisingly, they want to turn things up a notch with their newest redevelopment project: Mulberry Commons.

 Mulberry Commons Rendering

Mulberry Commons Rendering

Think of it like Newark's miniature version of the High Line in New York, complete with residential, commercial, a 3-acre park and a pedestrian foot bridge connecting the Ironbound (and Penn Station) with the Prudential Center. The park, to be bordered by Mulberry Street and Edison Place, is the first phase of the project and is scheduled to be completed by the summer of 2018.

Even more-so, Newark surprised us last month with a commercial aimed at seeking Chinese investors to help in turning the city around. Two words: Smart. Move. It's about time we see out-of-the-box solutions to solve longstanding issues. If old revenue sources (including tax ratables and collections) have reduced and dried up, then find new revenue sources. But what's more interesting, is what will happen once a new investor enters the room. The relationship and monopoly on power that the State has on Newark will be changed as less fiscal control (read: less covering Newark's losses) will be going on.

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MURAL BOXES

I'm very honored to be a part of the City of Plainfield's Mural Arts Committee and be a part of the city's plans to beautify the Downtown with murals. Locals may have seen the completed boxes around town. A total of 9 boxes have been completed. I've received so much positive feedback on the boxes so far and wish to expand this program and compliment it in any way I can. Check out some of my favorites:

 Locations (Clockwise Top L to R): W. 4th St & Clinton Ave; Leland Ave & E. 2nd St; Berckman St & E. 2nd St; and Park Ave & E. 5th St

Locations (Clockwise Top L to R): W. 4th St & Clinton Ave; Leland Ave & E. 2nd St; Berckman St & E. 2nd St; and Park Ave & E. 5th St

Three of the four artists that we worked with are from Plainfield, so it's particularly fulfilling to support the local art community. Many do not know Plainfield has a local art community at all, but it's there --it just needs encouragement. Glad we're all able to come together to do something cool (and FUN!) for the community.

More of Atlanta

I decided to go for a drive from the western suburbs of Atlanta into the city for a few hours of site seeing and checking out the newest development. I had no set plan but wanted to travel to different areas to get a sense of what development attributes I may be able take back with me to Jersey. Traveling down I-20 East in Atlanta, you descend into the City of Atlanta (Atlanta sits in a valley), and watch the ever expanding skyline begin to make its mark on the horizon. That's when you know you've arrived.

  Atlanta skyline, traveling east on I-20 in Cobb County, GA.

Atlanta skyline, traveling east on I-20 in Cobb County, GA.

Atlanta has expanded tremendously in the past twenty years (and has had a population increase of 10% from 2010 to 2015 alone). The pre-recession rush of people from more expensive parts of the country --namely New York/New Jersey, California and the Midwest--has never seemed to stop flowing south, even during the recession. The last time I visited Atlanta, in 2013, development was still going on despite a still weakened construction market in the Southeast. While it's good to see the city back on its feet and expanding vigorously, it was more pleasing to see the type of development that's being built. Atlanta has really embraced mixed-use development and has attempted to get away from dependance on the automobile by building a new streetcar system and planning new walkways, such as the Beltline project.

In order to understand this change in direction, I think a quick look at the history and current status of Atlanta's zoning code is in order. Because of Atlanta growing in a sprawling pattern and the reflected traffic issues in the region, development is entirely dependent on parking. However Atlanta's parking requirements, despite employing form-based codes and other tactics, remains unfair. Newly created zones, such as the Live Work (LW) District, Mixed Residential Commercial (MRC) District and the Multi-family Residential (MR) District are still using exiting parking standards and are not embracing parking reductions or transit centered initiatives (such as transit hub tax benefits or TOD incentives like in New Jersey) that make these types of mixed use and commercial projects successful in the Tri-State area. They instead try to bring their (baseless and strange imho) sprawl parking standards with them into the future. As you'll learn, Atlanta has their own way of doing things.

The varying architectural styles all come together in a way that makes every building belong. It takes into account the history of the city and where it's going. You have traditional architectural designs next to modern designs. Of course this has been the case throughout history, rarely do you see it look so good. For example, New York's ultra modern, typical square office building towers have now aged, and the 60s, 70s and 80s designs are now looking dated and are being replaced by even bluer towers with more radical designs. They never really looked good next to buildings from the 20's and 30's anyway. I feel things will be different in Atlanta. 

  New Apartment Building in Atlanta, GA

New Apartment Building in Atlanta, GA

From my experience on a Planning Board and in Urban Planning/Zoning for a redeveloping city in New Jersey, I know first hand how important street aesthetic is in the planning stages and especially reflected in the as-built conditions. Atlanta and the developer appear to have found a quick and cheaper way to get a different effect without necessitating a variation in materials (which drives up costs). Instead, the developer simply used different colored painted panels on the facade of the building and poured the savings into amenities that cover the first floor and balconies for every unit. The building also sports a street-level parking garage, a private parking deck and bus stops at foot of the building. Nice.

Next I traveled to eastern Atlanta to one of my favorite neighborhoods: Ponce De Leon Avenue, or simply called, Ponce. Ponce is amazing. The old architecture and expanding gentrification has seen different buildings being brought back to life, such as the Sears Roebuck & Co building, which is now an indoor lofty market space for retailers, and now called Ponce Market. It features many high-end retailers, such as a West Elm furniture store, a Whole Foods Market across the street, loft apartments and condos, a private park and artist space. The project has become so successful that its been expanded (and has sparked more development) into the streets surrounding Ponce that at one point people wouldn't even drive down because of high crime and urban decay.

 The building on the left is an example of loft apartments that were created after Ponce Market took off in popularity. Ponce Market is in center. Atlanta also has a vast mural collection throughout the city. Cool mural Greg Mike.

The building on the left is an example of loft apartments that were created after Ponce Market took off in popularity. Ponce Market is in center. Atlanta also has a vast mural collection throughout the city. Cool mural Greg Mike.

 The largest ground sign I've ever seen. It had to be easily 20-25' in the air!

The largest ground sign I've ever seen. It had to be easily 20-25' in the air!

 Old apartment buildings nearby, currently gentrifying.

Old apartment buildings nearby, currently gentrifying.

Heading Downtown, here are a few more shots of how well the new and old skyscrapers blend. I think it may be related to the scale of the buildings, varying topography (Atlanta's very hilly) and setbacks that contribute to the acceptability of varied architecture. Overall the area looked amazing. There's a new streetcar system, changes to the 1996 Olympic Park and a new ferris wheel that echoes the London Eye (unfortunately, I couldn't get any photos).

Writing this from home, I reflect on the diversity of plans and the way Atlanta has seemingly allowed developers leeway in design and the use of form-based codes. I wonder if their is a relation between form-based codes and cost savings for developers. Atlanta is showing that a middle ground between developer and the planning authority can exist more easily with form-based codes and architectural design standards that incorporate popular layouts (afterall, how many different ways can you create a strip mall or mixed use building?), and "tried and true" parking standards (even though many don't make sense). Maybe the strenuous project approval process for new developments that I've been exposed to in NJ may be simplified with form-based codes? I'd like to see more of it adopted in New Jersey.

Back from Hotlanta

I took some great shots of new developments down in Atlanta, Georgia over my week long vacation! This new "downtown" development was in the wealthy Buckhead/Castleberry Hill area in North Atlanta and featured the typical high-end retail that the area is known for, such as Tom Ford, Coccitane, and Akris (names I only knew after a quick google search and succeeding sticker shock at merchandise prices).

You'll notice a  few things in this video that demonstrate good urban design and urban planning. You have varying architectural styles all blended together regardless of the changes in building materials. Glass towers sit right next to buildings that take on an early American design language. Simple decorative streetscape items, such as basic black light fixtures, garbage cans, and signage complete the look without taking away from the stores and 1st floor of the buildings. Plantings are uniquely positioned and are not overpowering for the narrow passageways. Speaking of, the developer seemingly decided on small decorative right-of-ways featuring a brick paver/cobblestone like masonry and smaller widths of streets to emphasize pedestrianism and to get cars to slow down.

I'll have more photos and thought on Atlanta later. For now, I'm off to work on this beautiful Friday (and warm at 48 degrees in January!). 

Welcome to my Blog!

I've never had a blog before. I don't think I'd be the best person to have one since I'm always busy with making new projects, life, work... you get it. But I decided to go ahead and take the first steps to do some light blogging to get my creative thoughts out.

I want this blog to be about many things, but primarily urban planning thought, transportation, design, revitalization and plans that our regions and different cities have throughout New Jersey, New York and beyond. I want this to be an opportunity to share my thoughts, ideas and designs that can move peoples minds on subjects and highlight the millennial approach to urban planning in the region. I'll also post media that inspires me (quotes, pictures, articles, etc.) and that will make me a better Urban Planner/Zoning Administrator.

Check back for future updates on my progress!

--Ron J.