History of Downtown Plainfield

Plainfield's beginnings can be traced to its downtown. The Quaker Meeting House, built in 1788, is one of the oldest buildings in Plainfield and continues to be used by the Union County Quaker community. The little city quickly became a bustling suburb of Newark and the greater New York metropolitan area once the railroad arrived. Cemented in its history, success, and quick growth is the Central Railroad of New Jersey that runs through the center of Downtown and serves the surrounding communities. The railway allowed for Plainfield to ship goods and commuters to other regional economic centers including the shipping docks in Bayonne, Elizabeth, Newark, Jersey City and New York. Plainfield was a strong industrial player in the region, and the growth of its factories and grand residential corridors contributed to the success of its vibrant downtown.

One of the first Sears showrooms in the nation was located on the corner of West Front Street and Grove Street. - Courtesy of  Plainfield Public Library Local History Collection

One of the first Sears showrooms in the nation was located on the corner of West Front Street and Grove Street. -Courtesy of Plainfield Public Library Local History Collection

Downtown Plainfield positioned itself as the shopping mecca of Central New Jersey. The surrounding towns and people from Union-Somerset-Middlesex counties would come to line Plainfield's picturesque streets downtown and shop in its high-end stores. By the early 20th-century, Plainfield sported major department stores including one of the first Sears showrooms in the nation, Tepper's, Bamberger's (which later became Macy's), Montgomery Wards, Woolworth's, Steinbach's and Rosenbaum's. Other notable employers downtown during its heyday was Lazaar's, Thule Automotive, The Surprise Store, A&P, the Courier-News, and Plainfield Amusement Academy which at one point had the oldest skating rink in the nation. Hundreds of small businesses also contributed to the success of Downtown during this time. Downtown Plainfield's environment was famous for it's wide streets and accessible trolley system. Plainfield also had many movie theaters, such as the Strand, Liberty Theater, Oxford Theater, and Paramount Theater, and has hosted acts as famous as The Beatles. 

By the 1970s, like most urban downtowns in the nation, Plainfield's Central Business District began to lose its appeal to newer shopping malls being constructed nearby. These malls advertised themselves as a new shopping option that was indoor and therefore less dependent on weather and offered free parking. Highways were built under the Federal Highway Act of 1956 to service the popular new suburbs surrounding Plainfield, such as Edison, Piscataway and Warren, and contributed to an automobile dominated culture. This in turn aided in the exodus of capital from our Downtown. Urban Decay began to set in during the late 1970s-1990s. At that time we lost all of our department stores as they merged with their mall counterparts. We also lost the Paramount Theater along with the rest of the surrounding block to the Park-Madison Urban Renewal Project. To make matters worse, a decrease in municipal investment in downtown, the covering of historic facades, the rise of code violations and petty crime became normal. The rise of steel gates and doors in front of storefronts spread rapidly as insurance and mortgage underwriters required them in certain urban areas, effectively changing the perception of safety downtown.

In 2013, Downtown began to change for the better. Plainfield attracted the attention of local developers with its Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) ambitions. A TOD is a mixed-use development or area that has a host of diverse uses that promote walkability, high density, and commerce within a half-mile of quality transportation. Plainfield applied to the New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT) for TOD status Downtown, which opened up grant opportunities and technical assistance from numerous state organizations, including NJ Transit and NJDOT.  TOD implementation is a key task by state planning advocates, and Plainfield's walkable fabric and NJ transit train station and bus routes make us a development "hotspot". Plainfield changed the zoning for Downtown as a part of their TOD application, effectively increasing density and permitting six-story heights in most of the downtown for the first time in history. The state granted Plainfield TOD status in Spring of 2014. Also in 2014, NJ Transit announced the first one-seat ride to New York on the Raritan Valley Line in history with the implementation of duel locomotives, cutting travel times to New York by as much as 20 minutes, and is estimated to have raised property values by 7% within one year of implementation. Previously, Plainfield customers had to transfer trains in Newark to complete their trip to New York. Since 2013, Downtown has had 9 completed projects with 16 more under construction, passed the Planning Board, or planned by the municipality. Plainfield has attracted new developers and have completed the rehab of the Courier-News Building and numerous buildings around the train station. In the winter of 2014, Plainfield applied for and was granted Main Street NJ member status by the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs (DCA) as an Associate Tier member. 

At the center of Downtown is the venerable North Avenue Historic District. This two-block historic district includes many landmarks on the local, state and national Registers of Historic Places, including the Quaker Meeting House, Courier-News Building, the Plainfield Post Office, the Plainfield Train Station, the Marsh Building, and the Plainfield National Bank Trust Building, amongst other properties. The Civic Historic District consists of quite possibly the most dominant historic structure in town, City Hall; along with its annex; the World War I monument and the YMCA building. Other notable historic buildings that are not on the register include the Rosembaum's Department store property at 169 East Front Street, the old Elks Club at 114 Watchung Avenue, the Plainfield Masonic Lodge at 105 East Seventh Street, Grace Episcopal Church at 600 Cleveland Avenue, the Plainfield YWCA at 232 East Front Street, and the Plainfield National Bank at 111 East Front Street. 

Plainfield Timeline 1684-2017

Timeline Navigation Instructions:

Click the button above to enter the timeline. You can make the timeline bigger and make it fullscreen by clicking the resize buttons on the bottom right of the timeline.

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This timeline was created with the help of the following individuals/organizations:

  • Plainfield Planning Division:

    • April Stefel, Brownfields Coordinator

    • Bill Nierstedt, Planning Director

  • Plainfield Public Library

  • Plainfield Inspections/Building Division

  • Gordan Fuller, Plainfield Planning Board Member, Du Cret School of Art Board Member, Ex-Central Railroad of NJ Executive

  • Anita Bezyak, Agent for Berkshire Hathaway and previous Plainfield resident

We Thank All Who Contributed!