Highland Park Highlights: 2015
The editor of the Highland Park Planet wishes all our readers a new year filled with many “high fives” personally and professionally. We welcome the reader’s perspective on what marked particularly positive developments in the community over the past year. Here is our High Five list of five highlights for Highland Park in 2015:
- The Highland Park Capital Improvements Planning Task Force Report: The task force completed what the mayor called “extraordinary” and “free – no-cost to borough” report assessing the town’s current infrastructure in the context of the community’s development plans. Specifically, the Highland Park Borough Council in September of 2014 passed a resolution to establish a task force that would determine whether or not the community is prepared for the next two to five years of growth from development in Highland Park. In addition, the task force was charged with making recommendations for moving forward. The completed report will play a major role in planning and development decisions for the community. “This report makes the community much smarter as we work towards our goal of “Smart Growth” development and economic and environmental sustainability,” said Mayor Gayle Brill Mittler.
Leading the all-volunteer Capital Improvements Task Force was Highland Park resident Clint Andrews, a professor in the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University with a particular expertise in the substance and processes of energy and environmental planning and policy. He recruited students enrolled in a Rutgers University graduate urban planning studio class in Spring 2015 to perform field research and write the first draft of the report.
The task force (comprising municipal department heads and volunteer members of various relevant boards) and the student team performed demographic analysis of the projected need for infrastructure services using six-year and 30- year time frames. They compiled an inventory of capital assets controlled by municipal departments, public utilities, and schools within the Borough, and assessed their condition and expected future needs. They developed a prioritization method to translate the list of expected needs into a recommended six-year capital plan. Finally, the group developed policy recommendations to augment the capital plan.
Key findings include the following:
- The privately owned network utility infrastructures (electricity, natural gas, telecommunications and cable television) will not have trouble keeping up with expected population growth, although government oversight and advocacy is necessary to monitor the services provided to the municipality and residents regarding the reliability of service delivery and report/document problems to the appropriate entities including state authorities.
- The publically owned network infrastructures (water distribution, sewer collection, storm-water, and local roads) are also likely to be able to handle expected population growth, although all need regular maintenance with the possible exception of storm-water that may warrant attention.
- Borough-owned buildings are generally adequate for expected population growth, but some will need significant investment to maintain their performance.
- The School District is nearing capacity and is likely to need to invest to be able to handle expected future population growth, and it has its own capital planning process underway.
- The highest priority actions for capital planning include insulating the sewer main along the Raritan River, replacing aging vehicles (fire truck, medical van, garbage truck, and police vehicles), replacing fire and police equipment, and developing a sidewalk-improvement-financing program.
Policy recommendations include the following: Improve record keeping to inform future decisions; link the capital improvements plan to the Highland Park Master Plan; coordinate infrastructure improvements; improve the resiliency of infrastructure systems; incentivize private action to implement green infrastructure; insert an annual Capital Improvements Plan line-item into the Borough operating budget; encourage cooperation between the Borough, School District and County; encourage development in densely populated areas to improve infrastructure efficiency; and encourage sustainable transportation.
- New superintendent of schools: In August of 2015, the Highland Park School Board announced that 46-year-old Scott Taylor, a resident of Highland Park with two daughters in the Highland Park School District, would be the next superintendent of schools as of October 1, 2015. The appointment came after a thorough, open, community collaborative search process and an unsettled few years in school administration/school board/community relations. Acting Superintendent Israel Soto had garnered much love and respect among the school staff and community members during the year he was “acting.” He – who had been plucked out of his retirement to serve the Highland Park district during a tumultuous time – said that in spite of the wonderful friendships he formed during the past year, he was ready to embrace retirement in Florida.
Dr. Taylor, however, is ready to embrace his new job with commitment, creativity and energy. “There is a long haul ahead to going world class, but we have all the raw materials in the district to be the high-quality, engaging, and inclusive learning community that Highland Park wants and deserves,” he said to the Planet during a recent interview. When he accepted the position in August, he elaborated on his vision for the future: “I recognize that one of my main charges is to act on helping lower-income students and families and students from all different walks of life to do better and be world class….I will put my heart and soul into making sure that I serve all children, regardless of who they are or whey they come [from], with everything I have. And I can promise you that I will be putting my heart and soul into making sure that I serve all of the children, regardless of who they are, with everything I have.”
Scott Taylor received his doctorate from Columbia University and B.A. and Ed.M. from Rutgers University. He is an adjunct faculty member at the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University and at Montclair State University’s College of Education and Human Services. He has co-developed and implemented social-emotional learning programs in Kenilworth and is currently working with Dr. Maurice Elias to create the Academy for Social-Emotional Learning in Schools. Dr. Elias is a professor in the Rutgers University Psychology Department and Director of the Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, and Academic Director of The Collaborative, Rutgers’ Center for Community-Based Research and Service.
- The Wall at the Raritan Avenue Bridge: After 15 years of planning, arguing, and pounding their heads against a wall, Highland Park officials finally achieved the beautification of the “ugly,” “crumbling,” concrete retaining wall at the top of the bridge between Highland Park and New Brunswick – also serving as the gateway to Highland Park that greets tens of thousands of drivers and pedestrians every year. The wall is now painted with the Highland Park logo and is a “much better reflection of the community than what was there before,” said Mayor Gayle Brill Mittler. “Many thanks to the developer (JMH Development/Halpern) of “Highland Cliffs” at the former Y site, Main Street Highland Park’s design team, Highland Park’s Zoning Board of Adjustment, the community’s planner Allen Schectel, and the New Jersey Department of Transportation (which has jurisdiction over the wall) for working tirelessly to making this happen,” said the mayor.
- Election of mayor: Mayor Gayle Brill Mittler on Nov. 3, 2015 won her first full four-year term to the office of mayor. In June 2014, then Councilwoman Brill Mittler was appointed to the position of mayor, when former mayor Gary Minkoff resigned for professional career reasons. Ms. Brill Mittler then won a special election in Nov. 2014 to finish out Mr. Minkoff’s term, which ends on Dec. 31, 2015. Mayor Brill Mittler’s full four-year term begins on Jan. 1, 2016.
- Frank Puskas – the Santa Claus of Halloween: For Highland Park resident Frank Puskas, Christmas arrives two months early – on the night of Halloween, to be exact. Frank, a Cranbury Township schools custodian, has no need to dress up as Santa Claus, because every year since 1977, he has embodied the spirit of Santa on October 31, instead of December 25. Frank’s house on North Fourth has been the North Pole for approximately 20,000 youngsters. Each Halloween, he has doled out five-to-10 dollars worth of candy and toys to any child who has shown up at his front door. The sad news is that 2015 was the final year of Christmas at Halloween. Mr. Puskas announced he was retiring.