In the end, the City Council voted 5-4 to permit the Hoboken-based Applied Companies to modify its plans for a 275-room luxury hotel that is slated for River Street between Second and Third streets. According to the developers, it is likely that it will be a W Hotel, a brand from Starwood Hotels and Resorts.
The permitted height was raised from 160 feet to 275. When finished, the building will be the tallest in the city, exceeding Marine View Towers, located in the same area. The hotel will have a 5,000 square foot banquet facility with additional meeting rooms, a spa, exercise room and swimming pool. Restaurants will be housed on the ground floor with entrances located on Sinatra Drive and River Street, according to the developer.
Mayor David Roberts has announced his strong support for this project.
"It's good for the city, and good for our economy," said Roberts, who added the project will create 200 permanent jobs. "Once again, Hoboken has stepped out from the pack." The city's Planning Board had also voiced its support for the project.
The final vote fell along Roberts/anti-Roberts lines with Council President Ruben Ramos, Jr. and councilmen Richard Del Boccio, Christopher Campos, Michael Cricco, and Nino Giacchi supporting the amendments. Opposition members Theresa Castellano, Carol Marsh and Tony Soares and Michael Russo, whose father was mayor when the Southern Waterfront Redevelopment Plan was first stuck, voted in the negative.
The principals of the Applied Companies believe the added height will produce a taller, more slender building that will become a landmark on the city skyline. They added that currently the Hoboken waterfront is made up of mainly non-descript background buildings, and the addition of a striking architecturally significant building would make the city's skyline distinctive.
They also said that the taller envelope is needed to attract the prestigious W Hotel chain and the prominent architectural firm of Gwathmey Siegel Architects. "We have set out to build the finest hotel in New Jersey," said David Barry, president of the Applied Development Company.
According to Barry, Gwathmey Siegel Architects build modernist landmarks ranging from the minimalist addition to Frank Lloyd Wright's spiraling Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Miami. His firm has also designed Morgan Stanley's worldwide headquarters at Times Square.
Charles Gwathmey was a finalist in the competition to design the buildings at the World Trade Center site. He was part of the so-called "dream team" of New York architects that also included Richard Meier, Peter Eisenman and Steven Holl.
Both Gwathmey and Robert Siegel were at the City Council meeting to give several reasons why the taller thinner design is superior.
Gwathmey said that Hoboken is made primarily of smaller background buildings. A taller landmark building that would "penetrate the sky plane" could make a significant architectural statement, he said. "Let's talk about historical precedent," said Gwathmey. "When we think about all great urban planning strategies we look to Europe."
He used Paris as an example of where the vast majority of the city is made up of seven story buildings, but the "fabric" is effectively punctured with marker buildings such as the Eiffel Tower and the Paris Opera House.
He also said that, in his professional opinion and according to a light and shadow survey, the taller thinner building will provide more light and air on River Street and minimize the "canyon effect" that currently exists.
Supporters and opponents
The council members who supported the project lauded the new design. Councilman Christopher Campos said that it is better to build a taller "iconic building" than a shorter "bulkier" building.
Cricco said that he is confident in the ability of the Applied Companies to deliver the project. "Thirty years ago, our waterfront was lined with condemned warehouses," said Cricco Thursday morning. "When nobody else wanted to, Walter Barry [the founder of Applied] made a commitment to Hoboken."
But there has been a movement against "overdevelopment" in Hoboken for many years, and opponents believed the project to be too tall.
"The whole neighborhood is so upset," said Castellano. "I'm not opposed to the hotel or the banquet hall or any of those things. But this doesn't look like what our waterfront should look like."
Marsh and Soares said they don't object to the idea of a hotel but are worried that the approved amendments were entirely too vague and do not do enough to protect the city's interests. Nowhere in the ordinance does it specify what the building has to look like. It also doesn't say that Gwathmey Siegel Architects has to be the architect or the W brand has to be the hotel.
"These beautiful pictures that they showed us are really nothing more than concept," said Soares. "We didn't vote on that picture, or on the architects or even the W. What we did vote on was an incredibly vague [ordinance] that doesn't adequately protect the city."
Marsh and Soares also worried about the project's finances. Many people do not believe that one of, if not the most, valuable properties in the state should be tax abated. Developments in the Southern Waterfront Redevelopment area are paying in-lieu-of-tax payments to the city each year. They are calculated by the gross square footage. According to the developer, the amendment would not change the gross square footage but would add about 35,000 square feet to the mechanical or "back of the house" square footage. But according to the ordinance, because it's mechanical square footage, it will not be calculated in a gross square footage or factored into the future PILOT payment.
"This is going to cost us," said Marsh. "We're an enormously cash-strapped city. We give [the developer] a huge benefit [by granting the amendment] but we aren't getting anything in return."
Ramos, who supports the project, said that a hotel tax likely will be a future possibility. Marsh responded that there isn't currently a hotel tax on the books, which once again goes to the vagueness of the contract.
"We're in a huge rush, but we aren't doing the things necessary to protect the municipality," said Marsh.
The W? One of the biggest questions that many in the community have is whether there is actually an agreement with the W. According to Barry, the Applied Companies has a "letter of intent with the W."
Starwood Hotels and Resorts is based in White Plains, N.Y, and operates other hotels including the Sheraton, St. Regis and Westin chains. Barry said that bringing the W and Gwathmey Siegel was contingent on the council passing the amendments Wednesday.
The only stipulation in the ordinance is that the developer must bring a "first-class luxury hotel" in order to build the 275-foot tall building.
The developer's active recruitment of support at the meeting was evident by dozens of people in the audience who were wearing black "W Hotel" hats and waving cardboard cutout "Ws". Typically, the Applied Companies can rely on long-time supporters and tenants (some from their subsidized housing) to come speak on their projects. But there were other community members there as well.
Planning Board member Hank Forrest, who is a professional architectural lighting designer, said he likes the taller design better. "It's much more important to have a signature building on our waterfront," said Forrest. He added that with the taller, thinner building "more people would be less impacted" by the shadows the building produces. Teacher Amelia Roth, who is a Hoboken resident, said she supports the building. "This wonderful building is going bring so many people to Hoboken," said Roth, "and is going to draw a hip crowd."
Hoboken resident Craig Goldstein, who travels for work, said that he spends a lot of time in hotels. "This has the making of a great hotel," said Goldstein. "I can't think of a better place than Hoboken for a W Hotel."
Those who spoke against the amendments said that the building will be too tall and that they wonder if the developer will ask to go even higher. "We already have a hotel approved," said Hoboken Resident Eric Volpe, a member of the community group the Hudson County Alliance. "I don't understand why it has to keep going up."
Ron Hine, the executive director of the Fund for a Better Waterfront, noted that in the original south waterfront plan, local politicians promised a 12-story building, but now it's up to 25 stories.
"This happens again and again," said Hine. "They are continually pushing the envelope, from 125 feet to 160 feet to 275 feet. Where does it stop? This does not belong in Hoboken." One of the more tense moments came when Hine attempted to bring up the recent indictment of Joseph Barry, the former head of Applied, on a charge of allegedly paying bribes to former County Executive Robert Janiszewski. But according to current CEO David Barry, Joseph Barry divested himself several years ago is not involved in this project. "The sole principals in this project and myself and [my brother] Michael Barry," said David Barry.
Council president Ramos said that Joseph Barry is not involved in this project and his pending indictment is not relevant to this application. Hine responded that it was relevant and he should be allowed to speak. The argument between Ramos and Hine reached the point where Ramos threatened to have Hine removed by Police Chief Carmen LaBruno.