Arguing that if the city can condemn and seize property in one part of town, it can do it anywhere, a group of McGinley Square property owners last week launched a citywide campaign to pressure local officials to protect the rights of Jersey City property owners.
Specifically, the group wants the City Council to beef up laws that currently regulate the use of eminent domain for redevelopment.
Residential and commercial property owners first became concerned about the prospect of eminent domain three weeks ago after dozens of residents received letters from the Jersey City Department of Housing, Economic Development & Commerce Division. The letters read, in part: “The Jersey City Division of City Planning has completed a study of the McGinley Square East Study Area, which includes property you own…This study has determined that the entire study area, including your property, meets the criteria as an ‘area in need of redevelopment.’ This will designate your property as subject to taking by eminent domain for redevelopment purposes and will authorize the City of Jersey City and/or the Jersey City Redevelopment Agency to acquire ownership by purchase of the property referenced above by condemnation.” This meant that the city could seize the property against the owners’ will, even though the owners would be compensated.
‘As long as the area is declared as an area for redevelopment, there’s really nothing that stops the city from invoking eminent domain.’ – Donna Dequina
The residents are now circulating a petition throughout the city asking the council to pass laws to protect property owners from eminent domain and to reclassify areas of the city that have been designated as being in need of redevelopment. They have established a website, www.noeminentdomain.org, to organize their campaign.
McGinley Square is located south of Journal Square.
‘Do not believe false promises’
The McGinley Square East Redevelopment Plan, which the City Council is scheduled to vote on next month, calls for the redevelopment of a roughly three-block area that will eventually include a combination of new housing and commercial space. More specifically, it calls for both market-rate and workforce housing, offices, new retail, restaurants, bars, nightclubs, and theaters, in addition to museums and art galleries. The plan also includes new parking to accommodate the expected increase in population and commercial traffic.
There are approximately 52 properties that are tentatively affected by the redevelopment plan.
At present, the plan does not call for eminent domain, and in response to residents’ fears, a sentence was recently added to the plan stating, “No property within the redevelopment area is subject to acquisition [eminent domain] under this redevelopment plan.”
Corvus, a White Plains, New York, development company which hopes to develop the site, is currently negotiating purchases with property owners. Corvus already has an agreement to redevelop a portion of the area owned by St. Peter’s College. Over the last several weeks, Gary Flocco, managing director of Corvus, has tried to assuage residents, publicly stating that the company will try to redevelop the area without using eminent domain.
However, at a meeting Tuesday night, Christina Walsh, director of activism and coalitions with the Institute for Justice – a national advocacy organization that helps property owners fight eminent domain – told residents, “That’s important, and it’s good that [that language] is in [the redevelopment plan]. But I wouldn’t be here if that were sufficient… Do not believe false promises.”
Several McGinley Square residents who met with Walsh now plan to work with the institute to launch a citywide anti-eminent domain campaign in Jersey City. They argue this issue could get support from property owners throughout Jersey City since roughly half the city is affected by one redevelopment plan or another.
Residents want their neighborhood declared an area in need of rehabilitation, rather than an area in need of redevelopment. The distinction between the two legally determines whether eminent domain can be used.
“As long as the area is declared as an area for redevelopment, there’s really nothing that stops the city – six months, 10 months down the road – from developing [a property] acquisition list, and then invoking eminent domain,” said McGinley Square homeowner Donna Dequina. “So we want our area declared an area in need of rehabilitation, not an area in need of redevelopment.”
But Flocco told the Reporter last week that designated redevelopment areas come with tax benefits that he needs to make the project viable – benefits that, he said, would be passed along to residents and business owners who move to the redeveloped area. He said those benefits are not given to areas that are designated in need of rehabilitation.
“It’s not my intention to throw people out of their homes. I certainly understand the residents’ concerns,” said Flocco. “In most of these cases, I believe the residents bought their homes with the intention of retiring there. In a few cases I suspect the residents are posturing to get the highest price they can for their property.”
Flocco, who has been approaching property owners in the area to see if they are willing to sell, said he has so far received “positive responses.” In the three blocks bounded by Montgomery Street, Mercer Street, Tuers Avenue, and Jordan Avenue, Flocco already has signed agreements to buy all but five homes. He received a verbal commitment to buy another home Thursday.
He said that a few property owners he talked to “are not interested in selling…As luck would have it, there’s a natural break in the property anyway. So, if they choose to hold out, I will work around them.”
Flocco estimates he already has about 75 percent of the land he needs for the initial phase of his development project.
Rehab and redevelopment side by side?
City Councilwoman Viola Richardson, who represents Ward F, which includes the McGinley Square East community, said last week that she is exploring ways to spur redevelopment in the area and simultaneously protect the property owners who want to stay in their homes and businesses.
She said she would like the few abandoned and foreclosed properties in the area redeveloped – keeping open the possibility of eminent domain for those lots – while protecting other properties by placing them in a rehabilitation area.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at email@example.com.