When Charles Dickens wrote the opening line to his classic novel “A Tale of Two Cities,” he did not have Jersey City in mind. And yet many might agree that “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times,” describing the social conflicts that arose when rich and poor lived side by side in the same town, is a good way to describe New Jersey’s second largest city a year after Mayor Steven Fulop took office on July 1, 2013, after an election that swept aside a decades-old political order.
Dickens was writing about the conditions that led to the French Revolution. And there were many in Jersey City who hoped a similar sweeping change might occur. But now many critics who started out as his strongest supporters have not been kind in their evaluation of Fulop’s first year, even if they’re not quite ready to roll out the guillotine.
Like any large city, the issues are many and various. Perhaps the most persistent criticism has been aimed at the city’s tax abatement policy, and its distribution of resources. Race relations have become strained, not just between the African-American community and the police, but in regard to violent crime that many feel has become epidemic in the poorer neighborhoods.
Fulop’s take on his first year, not surprisingly, differs sharply from those of his most vocal critics. He believes in his first year he has made significant progress in public safety, fiscal stability, parks and recreation, private sector investment, and economic development and job creation.
“While I am proud of the progress we have made, I know that there is still more work to be done,” Fulop said. “We have ambitious plans for the coming year, including the redevelopment of the Powerhouse, restoration of the Loew’s Theatre, completion of the new JCPD West District, expanded bike and pedestrian friendliness campaigns, and the Jersey Avenue extension bridge to Liberty State Park.”
Fulop said the first year saw an increase of 79 new police officers, bringing the total up to 818. A cease-fire unit has been created to investigate all non-fatal shootings and officers have been reallocated based on crime data. Walking and bike patrols were instituted in all wards. Multi-agency crime sweeps in high crime areas have led to more than 300 arrests, and a public safety advisory board was created to provide public oversight.
“Every abatement should be looked at for what it contributes to the city, not a blanket policy.” – Esther Wintner
Abatements for developers
Fulop believes his new tax abatement policy creates incentives for development beyond the downtown waterfront. Living up to his campaign promise to spur redevelopment in Journal Square, the Fulop administration has given hefty tax abatements to two and possibly more previously-stalled projects, and recently supported redevelopment in McGinley Square.
Fulop points out that 50 percent of all abatements approved since July 2013 have been outside downtown area.
But critics, especially downtown near Van Vorst Park and in the Hamilton Park area, have condemned approvals of 10-year abatements as well as some zoning changes. Abatement incentives downtown are uncalled for, critics claim, saying that this is one of the hottest real estate areas in Hudson County. They also point to the fact that more than half the city’s taxable property is abated, meaning that traditional unabated property owners have to bear the brunt of school and county taxes that abated properties do not.
Most troubling to some critics has been Fulop’s implementation of a “buy up” provision that would allow developers to get an extra 10 years if they agree to specific community improvements. This provision also put the administration at odds with the Jersey City Board of Education over the construction of pre-K classroom space as part of this community improvement.
Fulop says Jersey City is experiencing the highest-recorded level of residential construction with 5,609 units currently under construction and 17,089 more already approved. This includes the 1,800 units slated for Journal Square. The first 70 units of affordable housing units have also been approved through the JC Affordable Housing Trust Fund.
Revitalization is underway for the Powerhouse District downtown, and the Loew’s Theater in Journal Square. Four new hotels with more than 900 rooms have been approved for the downtown area.
Although many of the new projects incorporate “green technologies” to reduce the impact on the local environment, critics claim development is outpacing the overall infrastructure and that sewer lines and other facilities won’t be able to handle the increase. Most disturbing to some is the competition for sparse parking new residents will bring to some of the most historic neighborhoods in the city.
Jobs, jobs, jobs
Part of Fulop’s plan for spreading the new wealth throughout the city is the expansion of job opportunities. He said his reentry program will allow ex-offenders to avoid returning to a life of crime by providing them with job opportunities. Training programs have been expanded for a wide range of residents, especially in the poorer parts of the city. The Fulop Administration created a summer internship program providing more than 700 jobs in the public and private sector.
Community activists such as Lavern Washington, however, say there is a lack of educational programs for adults that would get them the high school equivalency diplomas they need to qualify for many of the jobs being created.
New parks are not enough?
The Fulop Administration is also taking credit for a planned renovation of parks throughout the city, using grants, state funding, and capital improvement funds. This will include the Berry Lane Park in Ward F that will be the largest park in the city and will be constructed on a former brownfield site. Critics, including some members of the City Council, believe other parks in the city are being shortchanged as the city fast tracks money to Berry Lane. But Fulop insists that improvements will be made to parks in each ward.
In connection with this, the Fulop Administration is taking credit for the largest percent increase in recreation funding since 1999, offering a variety of new programs and features.
Fulop said a number of the improvements made are being funded by a large percentage of private sector funds.
Critics speak out
Yvonne Balcer, a onetime Fulop supporter and perhaps the most outspoken community activist in the city, gives Fulop mixed marks for his first year in office.
“I will give credit to Mayor Fulop for removing health benefits from the MUA (Municipal Utilities Authority) and adding more taxi medallions, especially to Journal Square,” she said. “But I am extremely disappointed on his abatement policy. He is giving longer abatements than former Mayor Healy. The last abatement Healy gave in Journal Square was for 12 years, while Fulop gave 30 years. The practice of ‘buying abatements’ is questionable as best. The fact that any Ward E abatements are given through this process is disappointing considering he always voted ‘no’ on Downtown abatements as councilman.”
Fulop’s relationships with downtown groups are antagonistic, considering they voted him in office, she said.
“The Van Vorst Community is fighting with him over micro-apartments and the Hamilton Park residents are against the zoning changes at Unico Towers site,” she said. “Fulop ran on the corruption that followed Mayor Healy administration during ‘Bid Rig,’ so it is surprising to me he hired former Governor McGreevey and Eugene McKnight. Fulop promised transparency which is yet to be seen. McGreevey is now part of the abatement policy yet McGreevey does not live in Jersey City, something Fulop attacked Healy’s appointments [for] as councilman.”
Balcer is also concerned about Fulop’s political ambitions and his rumored quest to run for governor.
“Fulop is running for higher office, he is not acting as the mayor of Jersey City, the office he holds,” she said. “He is a better politician than mayor. I will give him a passing grade as a politician but an F as mayor of Jersey City.”
Esther Wintner, twice a candidate for City Council, said she was never a supporter of Fulop, but did support some of his actions.
“To his credit, he has given perception Mr. Clean, and that’s generally good for Hudson County, [which has] such a negative stereotype as far as government,” she said. “To have a new face is good.”
She said she liked his anti-littering campaign called “Stop the Drop,” which had kids helping to clean up the community.
“But I have fundamental issues with his abatement policy,” she said. “I don’t think long is good for small property owners and renters in Jersey City. I’m not opposed to abatements, but they should be used judiciously.”
This should be used to kick-start projects in the most blighted areas, she says, not downtown or the waterfront. She also disagrees with Fulop’s buy-up policies.
“These are not bargaining chips,” she said. “An abatement is a tool for developing in a municipality, not to raise funds for his pet projects.”
She disagreed with the 30-year abatement for Journal Square since it is part of a transportation hub, and does not need a development incentive.
“Every abatement should be looked at for what it contributes to the city, not a blanket policy,” she said. “You might want to give the first guy a 30-year abatement because he’s taking the most risk. After that, abatements should be less, because there is less risk.”
She said she was also concerned about crime, and how it seems to be escalating.
“This is not an easy issue, but there as to be short-term and long-term solutions,” she said. “Short term, you hire more police, long term you work with the community.”
She believes the changes so far in police policies are mostly cosmetic.
Wahid Riaz, an extremely active advocate for the homeless, published his own report card on Fulop’s first year, faulting the administration for not implementing pay-to-play regulations, and for lack of openness and transparency. Riaz also failed Fulop for the way he dealt with traffic, parking, abatements and impact of taxes and hiring practices.
But Riaz gave better grades for public safety, clean streets, department heads responding to the public, water department improvements, economic development (especially downtown) and even support for the neediest in the city.
He said he hoped to see more improvements during Fulop’s second term.
Al Sullivan may be reached at email@example.com.