Proposed for 900-912 Monroe St., the total buildout would have 125 units of residential housing, 163 parking spaces for cars, and a 15,000 square-foot publicly accessible park. There would also be 7,424 square feet of retail space.
The developer, locally based Ursa Development group, which is headed by Michael Sciarra and Mark Settembre, has an option to buy the property. They said the project will complement the recently opened Hudson-Bergen light rail station, and is a good example of the "smart growth" concept of a transit village. The objectives behind a transit village are to redevelop and revitalize communities around transit facilities, making them appealing choices for people to live in, all the while lessening their reliance on cars.
But there has been a growing grassroots effort to oppose this project. In hand, the city has the recently adopted Hoboken master plan, which says that this property would be excellent for the city to acquire as open or recreation space. The opposition believes if this property is up-zoned, then an opportunity to create a much needed park on the entire property will be lost forever. One local resident has even hired a lawyer to oppose the project.
Critics of the proposed project also say that the Zoning Board is "spot zoning" and would be setting a bad precedent by allowing a building outside the formerly blighted Northwest Redevelopment zone to be built as if it were inside of the redevelopment zone.
They added that the Zoning Board should take into account that city officials are currently overhauling the city's zoning via the ongoing master plan process. Instead of granting these major variances, they say, the Zoning Board should defer to the City Council, which will in the near future present new zoning for the property as part of the master plan process.
Also, residents of the Doric building in Union City have hired lawyers because they are concerned that this building will block their views from the Palisades.
Issue one: zoning variances
An industrial two-story warehouse, still in use, is currently on the property. According to the city's zoning codes, the property is zoned for industrial uses, which means that the developers must seek multiple variances to make the project happen.
A developer who desires to deviate from the zoning code must go before Zoning Board of Adjustment to request variances. The power to approve variances and to interpret zoning questions gives the Zoning Board quasi-judicial authority to "fine-tune" land use regulations on a case-by-case basis, based on strict criteria. This project will need five variances in total. They need one to shift the property's zoning from industrial to residential/commercial, and a variance for height. The zoning currently allows for a 40-foot building on this site, but the developer is asking to build a nearly 120-foot tall tower. This height does not include the elevator bulkhead.
Both of these are major variances or "D" variances, which have the strictest requirements for approval. Five of seven votes will be needed for the project to be approved.
According to municipal land use law, no variance can be granted if it harms the public or defies the purpose of the zoning ordinance. Ursa is also seeking variances for not having a side yard, and to deviate from lot coverage and lot width requirements. The lot in question is in an industrial zone, which does not currently allow high-rise residences. But directly across the street to both the south and east is the Northwest Redevelopment Zone.
In September of 1999, the City Council created the "Northwest Redevelopment Area" and adopted a Redevelopment Plan for the area to stimulate growth in the underdeveloped region, under the administration of former Mayor Anthony Russo. To attract development, zoning was enacted that allows for high-rises in certain parts of the development area.
Directly across the street, the Planning Board has approved the six-acre artist-friendly community called Village West. The developer's approved plan calls for 435 units of housing in buildings that range between 10 and 13 stories.
The developer's professionals have stated during their testimony that the project is consistent with neighboring projects, which is one reason why it warrants approval.
Those who oppose the projects say that just because it's close to a certain zone, it doesn't mean it should have the same zoning benefits. They also point out that when the blight study was completed in 1998, this piece of property was specifically excluded from the Northwest Redevelopment Plan, which says something.
The developers counter that was in 1998, and since then conditions have changed and this property now warrants being zoned for high-rise residential, just like those already approved in the Northwest Redevelopment Zone.
Issue two: Racing the master plan
The opponents of the project also point to the fact that the draft of the new master plan for development shows that the block in question would make a good park. The master plan will govern how different parts of town can be developed over the next 20 years.
The document was approved in April by the City Council, but the adoption itself does not mean that its ideas are legally binding.
An equally important part of the process is the implementation of the concepts and recommendations of the master plan, which is done by the City Council and its planners in the form of sweeping zoning amendments, a process that is now underway, and should be completed in a matter of months.
The site at 900 Monroe St. was listed as a possible site for open space acquisition. According to the plan, the remaining space for possible parks is rare, and only 20 acres of land left in Hoboken have been identified for potential park space.
Also, one of the most ambitious goals in the plan is for a "green circuit" around the city. This would be a multi-use path around Hoboken's periphery that would eventually connect a series of parks.
The developer says
According to the planners for the developers, their project does meet the intent of the master plan, and would offer a 15,000 square-foot public park, which will face the light rail station, in the spirit of the master plan. "This is a situation where there is a fallow industrial site next to he light rail," said Sciarra Thursday night. "What this project does is strike a balance [between development and open space], by offering [to build] more than a third of an acre of open space."
He added that the master plan also encourages involving developers in the process of creating open space, which is exactly what they are doing.
Also, according to the developer's professionals, buying property might be expensive for the city, but with their plan they will pay to construct the park. "Right now there is no mechanism that I'm aware of for the city acquire or purchase [this property]," said Ursa's planner.
Zoning Board Chairman Joseph Crimmins also wondered what might happen if the Zoning Board declines the variances and the city doesn't come up with a plan to buy the property. "Does it stay an industrial building if we do nothing?" said Crimmins. "The city can't even meet its budget, how is it going to be able to buy property?" Zoning Board member Dominic Lisa added that he still doesn't know how long it's going to be until the City Council finishes amending the city's zoning codes. "I don't know how long it's going to take for the city to change the zoning," said Lisa. He added that it's unfair to make the developer wait until that time.
The opposition speaks
But there are those who believe that the Zoning Board is usurping authority by spot zoning, especially considering that the City Council is about to introduce major changes to the city's code as part of the master plan process.
They also argue the developer is rushing this application before the Zoning Board because they realize that Zoning Board will likely give them a better deal than the City Council, considering that for the past decade the Zoning Board has been notoriously pro-development and almost never denies variances.
They add that if this property is up-zoned from industrial to residential, the property values could double or even triple, and would become nearly impossible for the city to ever acquire.
There are some members of the city's planning community that worry that several members of the Zoning Board are inappropriately disregarding the concurrent master plan process. "The Zoning Board is showing complete ignorance of the master plan process," said Hank Forrest, who is the chairman of the Planning Board's Master Subcommittee. He added that the mayor and City Council are in unanimous agreement that the concepts in the master plan should be implemented. According to Forrest, the city's planners and consultants have discussed this part of town and this particular property, and they are only a couple of months from presenting the City Council with amendments to overhaul city's zoning and implementing the recommendations of the city's new master plan.
Also, Hoboken resident Leah Healey has hired a lawyer to argue in opposition to the project. Incidentally Healey is a lawyer and an expert of redevelopment law.
Her lawyer Jonathan Drill of Stickel, Koenig & Sullivan said that by granting these variances, the master plan process is being subverted. "The mayor has spent a lot of time and money to undertake this process," said Drill Wednesday night. "He is also using a lot of effort to deal with the creation of open spaces. [To grant these variances] would totally disregard efforts that are going on as we speak."
"If these variances are granted, there will be an opportunity that will be lost forever," added Healy after the meeting.