Slow down! Developers at work!
In a city where development can and has run wild in the past, the pace of construction seems to have encountered a bit of a lag. However, city officials insist that a cautious approach to redevelopment is necessary to do what’s best for Hoboken.
Redevelopment is the process by which a city takes underused or outdated land, changes the zoning requirements, and finds a developer to build according to a new plan. Many large scale redevelopment projects are at various stages of progress throughout the Mile Square City.
The administration of Mayor Dawn Zimmer has held community meetings to receive public input on many redevelopment sites in an attempt to show developers that the residents want to be a part of the transformation of their city. The City Council has also established a subcommittee chaired by Councilman Peter Cunningham that works with development issues.
“At the end of the day, as long as we can try and establish a common ground that ultimately results in what is best for the community, with an appropriate, reasonable return for developers, I think everybody wins.” – Councilman Peter Cunningham
“The mayor, and myself included, ran on the platform of smart development,” Cunningham said. “We’re committed to well-balanced development with appropriate community givebacks.”
Councilwoman Theresa Castellano, who also serves on the subcommittee, believes the committee is taking the right approach.
“We’re moving along cautiously,” she said. “Ultimately the goal is to keep Hoboken moving forward. That always has been my goal; I want to see this city move forward positively.”
Despite the sharp differences that define Hoboken’s political scene, Castellano believes the subcommittee has a good working relationship with the Zimmer administration.
On Sept. 27, members of the public and city officials were left with more questions than answers after a proposal from NJ Transit briefly outlined a plan for the ferry slip and bus depot area of the 52-acre rail yards near the Hoboken Terminal. The NJ Transit proposal put forth in a community meeting featured a new design for the Hoboken bus depot and one commercial building estimated to be about 18 stories. In 2008, a 75-80 story building had been proposed as part of a large scale development, but the community rejected the 2008 plan, sending NJ Transit back to the drawing board.
Along the way, Hoboken helped lead opposition to proposed legislation which would have allowed development surrounding NJ Transit sites statewide to go virtually unchecked by local municipalities. Calls to the office of state Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Wood-Ridge), the sponsor of the legislation, to inquire about the status of a potential re-introduction of the legislation were not returned.
The city still has concerns, such as the configuration of the new bus depot routing NJ Transit buses onto the city’s crowded streets instead of entering and exiting at the end of Observer Highway, and the lack of information about the commercial building proposal. At the same time, NJ Transit said it needed quick approval from the city to keep the interest of their unnamed tenant for the building.
Now, Director of Community Development Brandi Forbes said NJ Transit is working with the subcommittee, and examining requests for qualifications for redevelopment planners. Forbes said the city hopes to see a planner approved by the City Council by the end of the year.
The two parties have not scheduled a meeting yet, according to Forbes, but the city hopes to establish an “inter-local agreement” which would give Hoboken leverage in the negotiations.
NJ Transit executive John Leon said that transit employees are considering input from the public meeting in September.
“We’re in the process of establishing some redesigns to go back over the next several weeks to introduce the project based on the suggestions made from the public,” Leon said on Wednesday.
Originally, executives stated that the parties needed to respond quickly to approve the plan because a “world class tenant” was waiting for an answer within three to six months. Though Leon would like to keep the confidential “world-class” tenant, he said “the space is such an attractive site” that he doesn’t think NJ Transit would have a problem finding another tenant if it became an issue.
Another proposal that was originally rejected as unfavorable by the community and revisited in September is the Western Edge plan. The future design for this area still remains uncertain.
The Western Edge – an 11.4 acre area on Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe Streets, from Ninth Street to 14th Street – was officially designated as an area in need of redevelopment in July 2007, but the original proposal in 2007 was rejected due to a lack of open space and other objections from residents.
A new plan put forth in September also drew public concern that it lacked open space and too much of a commitment to business. The 2010 plan called for 581 residential units, 58,387 square feet of retail, 353,019 square feet of office space, and 58,837 square feet of business incubator space – which is development favorable to small stores.
The City Council voted 9-0 against forwarding the proposed plan to the Planning Board in late September, effectively stalling its progress, and sent the plan back to the drawing board.
The Western Edge plan could be revisited as early as the week of Dec. 6, according to Forbes, who said the city is currently trying to schedule workshops for members of the public to continue the discussion.
“We’re all interested in open space,” Cunningham said. “But we’re also interested in a more diversified economic base for that part of town.”
One piece of property near the site of the Western Edge plan, known as the Henkel site, located at 13th and Jefferson streets, could be purchased for more open space. The Zimmer administration released a statement on Sept. 30 saying the city was originally close to an agreement with Cognis, the owner of the site, to purchase the property, but Cognis was bought by another company which has delayed the purchase.
Cunningham has called for the city to purchase the Henkel site for additional open space since at least 2007. This project has been on the city’s agenda for some time, but officials see it as a necessary, if slow process.
“There are a lot of new people in the area and we want to make sure their voices are heard,” Forbes said. “But we also have to answer the question: what is realistic?”
Cunningham said he is “confident” a purchase of the Henkel site can get done.
Forbes said the city is currently undertaking a redevelopment study to determine whether or not the southwestern area of town, located primarily in the 4th Ward, meets the criteria for redevelopment. This location in the city was previously studied, but the plan was also rejected by the public in 2006.
The southwest redevelopment plan was the impetus which caused Mayor Zimmer, a 4th Ward resident, to enter the political scene, because she became frustrated with the way the city handled the redevelopment process in her home ward. One aspect of the plan which caused it to be rejected was the lack of public parks and open space projects. Zimmer also felt the former plan was an example of overdevelopment. Now, the city is back to the drawing board on this redevelopment plan as well.
Clarke Caton Hintz was awarded the contract to conduct a study in late June, and Forbes anticipates that this study can be finished in January so a public hearing can be scheduled for the first February 2011 City Council meeting.
The Northern End – Rockefeller
The sleeping giant in the city’s redevelopment process could be the proposed Northern End redevelopment site, which encompasses a majority of the 5th Ward.
The Rockefeller Company has purchased several buildings uptown, between 14th and 17th streets from Grand Street to Park Avenue. The original plans were reported to be for office towers up to 40 stories tall. Currently, the area uptown is zoned industrial, which caps development to two story buildings. In order for the proposed sites to be built, redevelopment rezoning would need to occur.
The Rockefeller Group owns three blocks of the area, according to Forbes. The city has undertaken a study similar to the redevelopment study in the southwestern area to determine whether or not the Northern End is in need of redevelopment.
E-mails and calls to the Rockefeller Group were not returned by press time to comment on the status of their projects or intentions.
A slow, cautious approach
While development may have slowed down in Hoboken, the city hopes that their best intention, to improve the Mile Square City, will become a reality through the redevelopment process. Developers may not be fans of the slow moving wheels of government, but it’s part of the job.
“At the end of the day, as long as we can try and establish a common ground that ultimately results in what is best for the community, with an appropriate, reasonable return for developers, I think everybody wins,” Cunningham said.
Ray Smith can be reached at RSmith@hudsonreporter.com.