After three months of controversy and protests, the Jersey City Council on Tuesday unanimously passed a resolution declaring McGinley Square East as an area in need of rehabilitation and then voted to introduce a revised redevelopment plan for the area.
The McGinley Square East Redevelopment Plan will come up for a final vote on Oct. 12. The votes Tuesday were applauded by McGinley Square residents who in July angrily protested a redevelopment plan they feared could lead to the use of eminent domain for the benefit of a private developer.
In the months since then, residents have met several times with staff from the Jersey City Division of Planning, members of the City Council, and developer Gary Flocco, managing director of the development firm Corvus, which is spearheading redevelopment in McGinley Square.
“I just want to say to the public and to the people who live in McGinley Square, there will be no eminent domain,” said City Council president Peter Brennan Tuesday. “Three or four times we have sent the redevelopment plan back to the City Planning Division for modifications. All of the council members who represent parts of McGinley Square all seem happy with what they’ve come up with.”
Summer of controversy
The controversy started in July after the owners of about 52 properties received letters from the city’s Planning Division noting that their properties could be “subject to taking by eminent domain [condemnation] for redevelopment purposes.”
Under plans for the area – plans that sketched out by Corvus at the request of Saint Peter’s College and the city – three city blocks bounded by Bergen Avenue, Mercer Street, Jordan, Monticello Avenue, Storms Avenue, and Montgomery Street, and Nevins were originally classified as an area in need of redevelopment.
This classification meant properties in the affected area could be taken by the city through eminent domain.
The McGinley Square East Redevelopment Plan calls for new residential housing – both market rate and workforce housing – offices, new retail, restaurants, bars and nightclubs, and theaters, in addition to museums and art galleries. The plan also includes new parking to accommodate the expected influx in population.
“We think that McGinley Square merits and warrants significant development in the coming decades so we can see a turnaround in that section of town, just like we’ve turned around the areas down here around City Hall,” City Planning Director Robert Cotter told residents in July. “What the area needs, particularly along Bergen Avenue, are customers. Storeowners and shopkeepers need customers and we get customers by building where people live. So, the vacant lots need to get redeveloped, need to have new apartment buildings, with parking and shopping and rental floors above that. And that’s what’s in this redevelopment plan.”
But the possibility of eminent domain – remote given that the developer and Mayor Jerramiah T. Healy both said they opposed its usage – didn’t sit well with residents who launched a petition drive to lobby for changes to the redevelopment plan.
Last month residents won a major victory when the City Planning Division revised language in the redevelopment plan.
The most significant revision now designates McGinley Square as an area in need of rehabilitation – rather than redevelopment – a legal distinction that removes eminent domain as an option.
Among the language added to the draft of the redevelopment plan approved Tuesday is a sentence that states: “No property located within the redevelopment area is subject to acquisition, eminent domain, or condemnation for the purposes of private development or redevelopment under this plan.”
Since July, Ward F Councilwoman Viola Richardson, who represents much of the affected area, had pushed for this modification to be made.
Residents who attended Tuesday’s meeting were reassured by the changes.
“When we first started the process, we started with the homeowners being threatened by the city, with the threat of our property being taken by eminent domain,” said McGinley Square homeowner Donna Dequina. “Earlier tonight you passed a resolution that makes that impossible. So, we’ve come a very, very long way.”
She thanked Richardson, and council members Steven Fulop and Nidia Lopez, “who were with us when all of this seemed hopeless...As of today, the decision to sell or not to sell is a decision that I make. It’s not a decision the city is going to make for me.”
Another McGinley Square resident, Teresa Samson, also thanked the council.
“I admit when my family first heard about this project we were angry. This would have been the third property [of ours] to be taken by eminent domain.”
In the past, when dealing with developers, she said, her family felt belittled and disrespected. This time, however, the family was able to come to an agreement with Corvus to sell their property that met the needs of the Samson family, their tenants, and the developer.
Councilwoman Richardson in turn thanked the residents for raising their concerns about the redevelopment plan.
“I’d like to thank the residents for their vision, for sticking to what you believe is right,” Richardson said. “And I’d like to thank the administration for hearing the constituents and the developer for hearing the constituents to ensure that the residents had input in this plan. And not just any input, but meaningful input.”
She acknowledged that the plan isn’t perfect and still needs additional work – particularly in the area of parking. But she stated that the current draft of the redevelopment plan is a significant improvement over earlier versions.
Ward B City Councilman David Donnelly also had high praise for the current draft.
“Part of my ward is McGinley Square. It’s really a gateway to the rest of the city,” he said. “Jersey City has grown and changed. But we have not been able to move the development further afield from the waterfront. I believe this is a real step in the development of the rest of the city and improving the rest of the city.”
In her comments to the council, however, Dequina reminded that the city has several other redevelopment plans in the works, all of which could potentially lead to eminent domain.
She urged the council to remember, when considering these other plans, that the rights of small property owners “are no less important” than the rights of developers or larger property owners in the city.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at email@example.com.