Menendez's building: The story doesn't measure up

Menendez's building: The story doesn't measure up
October 05, 2006 Star Ledger

A house is the most costly thing that most people will ever buy, so most of us tend to pay close attention to all transactions surrounding homeownership. In 1984, for example, I bought my first house, a bungalow in Toms River. I still recall the purchase price, the initial mortgage payment and the fee I paid my lawyer.

So I find myself wondering how an intelligent person could go through a real-estate transaction of any sort and have no memory of it. Yet that seems to be the case with U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez. In a recent Star-Ledger article about that Union City rowhouse he once owned and that is now the subject of a federal investigation, a spokesman for the Menendez campaign claimed the senator has no recollection of whether he got a crucial variance in 1988 that would have permitted it to be rented out for commercial rather than residential use.

"He can't remember exactly how this happened 18 years ago," Matt Miller was quoted as saying. "Eighteen years is a long time. "

Not that long, especially when you're talking about a variance. Early in my journalism career, I sat through endless zoning board hearings. They're very intricate affairs that require huge piles of paperwork. That's not the kind of thing you forget -- especially if you're the mayor of the town in question.

In 1988, Menendez was the mayor of Union City. One would think that any legal proceeding upon which the mayor embarked would have drawn a cer tain amount of attention. But there doesn't seem to be any record of the zoning change that involved the mayor's rowhouse at 535 41st Street.

That change meant a hefty hike in the rent for the house that Menendez bought in 1983 for a mere $92,000. By 1994, when Menendez, by then a congressman, rented the property to a federally funded Head Start agency, he got $3,100 a month for the office space. If he'd rented it out for residential use, Menen dez would have gotten perhaps $750 a month, if want ads from that year are any indication.

No one in City Hall can recall just how this transpired. As for the records, they were lost in a flood, city officials told The Star-Ledger. Most towns keep close watch on such records, but "in Hudson County, when a building is flooding or on fire, that's when you bring the files into the building," one old-time Hudson pol quipped.

That's what I love about Hudson County. Everybody's got a wisecrack. But this stuff might not seem so funny to the federal investigators looking at poten tial conflict of interest. A key question is whether the North Hudson Community Action Project paid market rate for the rental. The Menendez campaign has claimed that $3,100 per month was a proper rent back in 1994 for 4,000 square feet of office space. That works out to $9.30 per square foot per year, which they say was a reasonable rate for commercial space in Union City back then.

But does the rowhouse offer 4,000 square feet of space? It sure didn't look that way to me when I first visited it back in August. But there was only one way to tell. I bought a tape measure and returned to Union City.

It turned out, after a bit of measuring and a bit of math, that the building's footprint is roughly 1,600 square feet. After you subtract the thickness of the walls and other impingements on usable space, that means each floor offer would perhaps 1,500 square feet of space. The Head Start offices occupy two floors, North Hudson Community Action Project spokesman Joe Lauro told me. Two times 1,500 equals 3,000 square feet, not 4,000.

I would have liked to measure from the inside, but the nice ladies at Head Start wouldn't let me. So my measurement isn't precise. But when I discussed this with Lauro, he told me the agency will commission a study to determine if it's getting the approporiate square footage in the building, which Menendez sold in 2003 for $450,000.

We shall see. As for me, I'm not sure this is a federal case. But as a longtime critic of our urban political machines, I can't help but notice that this is yet another instance in which a man who pretends to do good is instead doing well.

By 1989, the Union City mayor was also a state assemblyman. The young crusader for the poor supported a bill that would have prevented the eviction of apartment tenants for condo conversions. A Star-Ledger account of the hearing said that Menendez "said 80 percent of the people who come to his City Hall office have housing problems."

The mayor could have helped out at least a few of these people by renting out his rowhouse to them for a reasonable price instead of renting it out as office space and making a killing.

But I guess he forgot.

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