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Council meeting goes to 1 a.m. Southwest redevelopment area established; mayor's open space pledges meets skepticism
Council meeting goes to 1 a.m.
Southwest redevelopment area established; mayor's open space pledges meets skepticism
Reporter managing editor
The goals for the southwest corner of Hoboken are easy enough to express. It's a traffic-clogged, flood-prone, park-starved area that has century-old sewers. It could use traffic planning, new open space, and major infrastructure improvements.
Those needs are largely uncontested, but there is controversy over how to make them happen.
A packed council chamber More than 150 people looked on as the Hoboken City Council debated until 1 a.m. Wednesday night. They finally voted 5-4 to create a Southwest "Industrial Transition" District Redevelopment Area.
The area encompasses 13 acres, bounded by Paterson Avenue/Observer Highway to the north and Jersey City on the south and west. The area contains 15 blocks, including 31 total ownership tracts, which are completely contained in an industrial district.
The council members who supported the creation of a redevelopment area said that by using redevelopment law, the city can transform an archaic industrial area into a vibrant, livable, mixed-use community.
Redevelopment is the process of taking blighted property, cleaning it up, and giving it new life. State redevelopment law allows the municipal government to have far-reaching powers, including changing the zoning of the redevelopment area and choosing developers.
Those who spoke against creating a redevelopment area worry this could lead to out-of-scale development.
Critics are also cynical about the administration's promises to create needed parks and infrastructure improvements.
"There is one thing that this comes down to, and that's trust," said Hoboken resident John Gregorio, who was one of about 30 people who spoke out against the redevelopment area.
Next meeting on open space
Mayor David Roberts said Thursday that he understands that some people might be disbelieving, but he said that his administration will prove its commitment to open space, carefully planned development, and traffic and infrastructure improvements.
He has called a special City Council meeting for Wednesday night at City Hall for the purpose of hiring a lawyer to appraise certain properties, and set forth "areas designated for open park space" in the southwest and other parts of the city.
"I will make allowances for their skepticism, but at a special City Council meeting next week [the public] will see that we are moving forward [with our open space plans]," Roberts said. "We will go before the City Council with a comprehensive plan and we will start our assemblage of open space.
Roberts added that the city is using a multi-prong approach. It will use redevelopment zones to get open space givebacks from developers. Where there aren't redevelopment areas, Roberts said, the city will consider buying property outright for parkland.
The properties in the Southwest "Industrial Transition" District Redevelopment Study Area that were identified as being "in need of redevelopment" include surface parking, stacked car storage, vacant lots, two residences, and a holding area for police horses and other animals. According to the redevelopment study, many of the buildings are poorly maintained or are in need of general maintenance.
The use of redevelopment has some very real advantages, such as creating a contiguous area, a single development vision. Also, the city can require developers to make givebacks to the city, such as paying for parks or affordable housing, in order to be able to develop in the areas.
Additionally, the city has the ability to grant developers or property owners tax abatements or special Payments In Lieu of Taxes (PILOTs). A tax abatement is an agreement to exempt a developer from regular, fluctuating property taxes. There is usually a separate revenue deal for the developer to pay money to the city over 20 or 30 years - called Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT). PILOT money goes straight to the city rather than being split among the city, the county, and the schools - so it helps fill the city budget. But some complain that it means other people may have to chip in more on the other budgets.
A way to plan
Councilman Ruben Ramos, who supported the creation of redevelopment area, said that the city needs to take a comprehensive approach to development.
"We've tried the piecemeal approach in the past and that didn't work in this area," Ramos said.
He added that because the area is zoned industrial, developers must seek variances from the city's Zoning Board of Adjustment to be allowed to build residential buildings there. Currently, there are multiple applications before the Zoning Board for high-rise development in that southwest area of town. But the Zoning Board has a pro-development reputation and approves variances at a much higher rate than most cities in the state.
Councilman Peter Cammarano said that by creating a redevelopment area, the City Council can take planning decisions away from the Zoning Board. "If we don't do this, each one of these applications [for high-rise projects before the Zoning Board] is going forward," Cammarano warned.
Critics of the administration counter that if the City Council is concerned that the Zoning Board is granting too many variances, then the council should replace members of the Zoning Board.
So why is there so much opposition to the creation of a redevelopment area?
In one word - trust.
There is a large segment of the population that does not trust the mayor and the City Council to effectively manage a redevelopment area, especially considering that redevelopment law gives the City Council such sweeping authority.
They worry that the city will abuse its powers, which could lead to high-rise, high-density development, with nothing more than small strips of landscaped land that would pass as parks.
Local activist Aaron Lewitt said that the use of redevelopment zones can be a "forward thinking" way to zone an area, but that he doesn't trust this administration.
"You have botched up the Northwest Redevelopment area, you have botched up the [municipal] garage," Lewitt said.
Lewitt claimed that the Northwest Redevelopment Area, which was created in 1998, has led to block after block of "poorly constructed" condos, with no streetscape and no real open space. "It's been a disaster," he said.
Lewitt also said that the city has not been nearly aggressive enough in negotiating with developers for givebacks. Helen Manogue of the Hoboken Quality of Life Coalition said that Hoboken spent a lot of time and money to write a new master plan. The plan, which creates a citywide vision for development, was adopted in 2004, but its recommendations have yet to be officially implemented.
"We still have not converted the master plan into zoning," Manogue lamented.
The master plan recommends about six acres of open space in the southwest corner of town.
No seizing property for condos
Another concern the public expressed was that the city could take private property via eminent domain and give it to a private developer.
Roberts said that the Southwest Redevelopment Area will be different from the Northwest Redevelopment Area, where a single development group was designated for large swaths of land.
"We don't want to take private property and give it another private developer," Roberts said. "We are going to allow the private [property] owner to develop their land [in the Southwest Redevelopment area]."
Roberts said he would consider condemnation only if that land would be used for public open space.
Roberts' big plans to bond for $40 to $50 million for parks
Mayor David Roberts is making a push to prove to the public that his administration has the willpower and the expertise to deliver on his promises to create more city parks.
Roberts said that he would like to go out to bond for between $40 and $50 million solely for the acquisition of open space. He has called a special City Council meeting this Wednesday to designate areas that the city is interested in buying to build parks.
"We are going to appropriate certain areas, and people will see in a tangible way where that park space is going to be," Roberts said. "This is going to be a very important summer for the city."
He said that he is ready to prove that his administration is fully committed to this venture.
"We are going to build parks," Roberts pledged.
The mayor promised during his 2005 campaign when he ran for re-election, he would add between 17 and 20 acres of open space.
He said that the city will use money from the sale of the municipal garage on Observer Highway as collateral to secure bonds to acquire open space in the city. Last month, only two developers submitted bids for the one-acre piece of property, which is in a redevelopment area. The highest bid came in at $22.1 million and calls for 178 units of housing. Those bids were found to be defective and were rejected.
But now Roberts is confident that once the garage is re-bid, which could happen in the next couple of weeks, the city will receive $30 million for the sale. Roberts said that the plan allows for up to 240 units, and if the current envelope isn't big enough, the City Council might have to consider increasing the height of the proposed nine-story building.
Assuming the city were to get $30 million from the sale, it would pay back the approximately $15 million it borrowed to plug the city's budget gap for the past two years, and then would have $15 million to secure bonding to buy land for parks.
Sara Stojkovic of the Southwest Parks Coalition believes that special council meeting for next week, in which he will announce the condemnation of properties for parks, is in direct response to the enormous public pressure specifically displayed at Wednesday's meeting.
"Southwest Parks Coalition was in full force at that meeting speaking for open space and parks, and while the council failed to meet our needs, it's good to see the mayor is listening to the public," Stojkovic said. "However, we need to keep this in perspective. It's a move in the right direction, but the mayor's action does not necessarily meet the total open space needs of Hoboken as illustrated in the Master Plan. We can talk all we want about this, but frankly, it isn't a park until the ribbon is cut."
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