Plainsboro is a community that is changing rapidly,” says Ernest Freeman, who will start as the township’s new director of community development on February 21. ##M:[more]##“We need to set the tone in which the development will take place.”
Freeman is formerly the executive director of the Redevelopment and Housing Authority and director of planning and codes administration in Norfolk, Virginia. He succeeds Michael LaPlace, who left the township last October. The township received over 50 applications for the job. Freeman was chosen by Township Committee at an executive session on January 27. He will earn a salary of $97,"000.
The Community Development Department includes the divisions of planning and zoning, engineering, building, housing, and welfare. The department is responsible for a number of key projects, including the Village Center, the new Plainsboro Library, and the Township’s road and pedestrian improvement program.
“We’re pleased to be able to recruit a professional of Mr. Freeman’s caliber to Plainsboro,” said Mayor Peter Cantu. “It speaks to our reputation of professionalism and the exciting and innovative projects we have initiated.”
Ed Yates, committee liaison to Community Development, echoed Cantu’s enthusiasm. “Ernie Freeman will bring his considerable experience and talent to the important work of Community Development.”
Freeman says that one of the strengths Plainsboro has is its careful combination of development with quality of life issues. This includes its burgeoning town center as a mixed use development as well as its aggressive stance on preserving the natural environment are important features.
“It is very clear that it is trying to protect rural areas of the township, to create the opportunity for people to be able to enjoy that type of environment,” says Freeman.
But quality of life issues also go hand-in-hand with economic stability, another area in which Plainsboro shines. “Plainsboro has a solid residential base and a sturdy tax base,” says Freeman. “It also has healthy office development that is a strong part of the township’s economic underpinnings. It is all integrated into the community very well.”
With the new Village Center just getting to the construction phase and plans being developed for a brand new library as its centerpiece, as well as years of smart growth planning and open space preservation, Plainsboro is a community on the rise. “Plainsboro has a lot of very attractive features,” says Freeman. “It is just the right size and at a scale that you can see things happen.”
Freeman says he is also impressed with Plainsboro’s aggressive program in rental housing. “Inspections to make sure managers are maintaining decent and affordable housing is very unique to a town of this size,” he says.
But as in every growing municipality, challenges lay ahead, including state affordable housing requirements, transportation issues, and customer service for homeowners and developers.
“I am pleased with what I saw in Plainsboro,” says Freeman. “The township feels like a well run organization. We will focus on building a management team that will take the township further than it had come so far.”
With over 30 years of experience, Freeman, 55, has served as the director of planning for the cities of San Diego (1992-1996), Baltimore (1989-1992) as well as Cincinnati and Portsmouth, Virginia. He also served as a planner and a senior planner in Norfolk during the 1970s and 1980s and as director of planning from 1996 to 2001 before moving on to the housing authority. Born and raised in the Bronx, Freeman has one younger brother. His father died when he was three years old and he was raised by his mother, who recently retired from a firm in Mount Vernon, Virginia, where she was involved in the production of electrical equipment for airlines. “My mother went to college and was about 10 hours short of earning her bachelors degree,” says Freeman. “She inspired me to go to school. She raised two sons, not under ideal conditions, and we came through it quite well.”
Freeman initially went to college part-time at Bronx Community College. “Some people can go to college on a part-time basis and do well, but it was not for me,” he says. He then enrolled at Southern Illinois University where he earned his bachelors degree in 1972. After doing some graduate work at Ohio State University, Freeman earned his masters degree from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.
Freeman and his wife, who works as a college administrator, have one son, Trey. He is currently attending law school at William and Mary and is a graduate of Stanford University where he played nose tackle on the football team from 2000-2002.
By its very nature, community development is a profession in which it is impossible to please all people all the time.
As a case in point, the News this week received an anonymously-sent envelope containing several articles from the internet highlighting some controversy during Freeman’s time in Norfolk. This included an instance in which residents feared that the city would acquire land by condemning their property and fail to pay them fair market value.
“That was an instance in which a staff member made an inaccurate statement and it caused a ruckus,” says Freeman. “I was the head of the department and I cleared the air and apologized for (the staff member’s) inaccurate statement.”
According to Freeman, the housing authority in Norfolk had a reputation for using condemnation as a means to acquire property for decades before his tenure began there. “I would only use condemnation as a last resort,” he says. “That wasn’t always the case there and people did not want it to run over them. I needed to clean that up.”
As a self-described straight-shooter, Freeman says that coming to Plainsboro will be almost like coming home. “I am looking forward to a wonderful experience and I feel like I am coming full circle,” he says. “I have a lot of experience all over the country and Plainsboro is closer to the Bronx than I have ever been before.”
Freeman is also a member of Urban Land Institute, the American Institute of Certified Planners and the American Planning Association.