Standing in a gravel-strewn clearing in a narrow woodlot, Plainfield Mayor Adrian O. Mapp foresaw a major reclamation project that could prove to be a turnaround for his city.
"We're going to be in the lead of what's happening in Union County, of what's happening in New Jersey," Mapp said. "People are going to realize there are opportunities here."
Once, the strip of land along South Second Street was the site of a dye company. But that burned down 35 years ago and was never rebuilt. "This lot just sat here for 20, 25 years," Mapp said, reclaimed by woods and illegal dumpers. The city finally acquired it through tax foreclosure.
By the end of the year, though, part of the site is scheduled to provide an expanded local base for ABC Supply Co., a nationwide construction materials business. And about 18 months after that, the company will have new neighbors in a 90-unit residential complex with a range of affordable housing.
The $30 million project is the largest mixed-use development in Plainfield in at least 40 years, according to city officials and developers. The site, flanked by New JerseyTransit tracks a block from Route 28, has been a blight on the city's struggling Fourth Ward, but now will bolster the neighborhood, Mapp said.
With its long history of settlement and commerce, Plainfield, like much of New Jersey, is home to dozens of "brownfields." Formerly home to industrial or commercial enterprises, these sites are now vacant or underutilized and suspected of having toxic contamination.
The expansive definition of “brownfield” covers "everything from a street corner lot to a major industrial complex," said Larry Hajna, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection. New Jersey's brownfields law dates to 1998, but a variety of state and federal programs have aimed to revitalize such properties for decades, he said.
In Plainfield alone, DEP databases list 77 active brownfields sites -- some, like this one, included in redevelopment plans -- plus another 189 closed cases.
What makes the Second Street project significant is its combination of new housing with the retention and expansion of a local employer, according to Mapp. The two will be physically separate, with the new plant built first, he said. But the combination will benefit the neighborhood in complementary ways with affordable units and potential jobs side by side, he said.
"Why is it that in New Jersey, we only hear about our cities when there is a problem?" asked co-developer Jim Petrucci, who said working with Plainfield officials has been "a great experience."
That sentiment was echoed by another of the developers, Patrick Terborg of TD+Partners, a former Plainfield resident. Despite the city's prime location and history as a hub of diversified industries, its current potential often gets overlooked, he said. The developers zeroed in on the site last September, and got a good response from the city, he said.
"You want to see Plainfield become the place it really could be, and in many ways already is," Terborg said. "It's just, people don't know who we are."
The project should generate roughly 200 jobs during its two-year construction, according to Terborg. Provisions of the deal with the city include giving hiring preferences to local residents and an apprenticeship program for local youths, he said.
The hiring aspects are not things the developers have seen or used elsewhere, but were willing to try as a way to benefit residents directly. "The 'first-source hiring' gives the city 15 days exclusivity to find someone" to fill a job, Terborg said.
Although construction trade unions are fine with the apprenticeship aspect, it is not as formally structured as the programs common across many industries. Many of these require aptitude tests, are funded through contract agreements, and overseen by union or joint labor-management foundations, as in the auto industry.
"We may have a union contractor," Terborg said, but the apprenticeship "isn't really a union transaction, there are no prevailing wage requirements" for those positions as there would be under a union program, he said.
Instead, Terborg said, he is reaching out to the Plainfield YMCA "and other community organizations" to find applicants. He said he hopes the result will be the same: giving local youths a chance to work alongside skilled tradesmen, and build on that experience and contacts.
While the city provided the land, the developers said they have agreed to take responsibility for the environmental remediation, which will involve a cap on at least part of the property to limit public contact with pollution from the past industrial use and more recent dumping.
In exchange, the city agreed to a 30-year, phased payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT), beginning at 10 percent of the project's gross revenues for 10 years, Terborg said. "Upfront, it's a substantial savings" over property taxes for the developers, and made financing the project easier, he said
"But people hear PILOT and think we're not paying anything, when this will amount to a minimum of $4-5 million over 30 years," Terborg said.
Developers brought the site to ABC Supply's attention just in the nick of time, according to Mark Singer, director of real estate for the Beloit, WI, company. The firm has outgrown its current, 18,000-square-foot local warehouse and must vacate by the end of the year, he said.
"We wanted to stay in Plainfield," Singer said, "but we didn't know this site was here."
Moving to the new 44,000-square-foot facility will enable the business to keep up with demand and add an undetermined number of jobs, according to managing partner Giovanni Petrole. He promised to "do our best to support local contractors and the community."
Like many of New Jersey’s urban areas, Plainfield has struggled, with unemployment at 6.1 percent in April compared to 4.9 percent for the state as a whole.
But Petrole agreed with Mapp about local prospects, saying the city "has had its downs but is definitely on the up rise."
Petrucci's Asbury-based firm has built similar housing in communities around New Jersey and Pennsylvania, recently completing projects in Lyndhurst and the Manayunk section of Philadelphia. The Plainfield building will be the first to include affordable housing, he said.
But in other ways, the project is typical, according to Greg Rogerson, another principal in the firm "This is ground zero for what I tell my children I do with my day," he said, "reclaiming obsolete brownfield sites."
Carlos Sanchez, the deputy city administrator for economic development, said the project came together because everyone involved, including neighborhood residents, got a say in the process. But the key element was having a company interested in reviving a neglected site, he said.
"This would not be possible unless we had a tenant," Sanchez said.