At least one neighborhood association and the Jersey City Parks Coalition oppose it, but a divided City Council has approved a controversial measure that will allow a 42-story residential high rise to be built on Summit Avenue.
The approved project, an amendment to the existing Journal Square 2060 Redevelopment Plan, will be the first major development to take place in the Journal Square area in decades and calls for the creation of a city park near Baldwin Avenue. Proponents of the plan argue that this project will bring open space to Ward C, the city’s most “park poor” ward.
Those who oppose the project, who include a majority of members from the Hilltop Neighborhood Association and the Jersey City Parks Coalition, however, say the planned high rise is not compatible with the small residential homes in the area and will open tthe door to unfettered overdevelopment that will be out of synch with the existing community.
The Parks Coalition also argued before the council last week that the city doesn’t have the money to maintain a number of parks it already owns and won’t be able to handle the upkeep on another open space.
Despite these arguments, the City Council gave the green light to the high rise and the park by a vote of 5-3-1. Councilwoman Nidia Lopez, who represents Ward C, supported the measure. Lopez has often lamented the lack of new development taking place in Journal Square, which was once a hub of commerce and entertainment in Jersey City. She was joined by Council members Michael Sottolano, Peter Brennan, William Gaughan, and Viola Richardson.
Councilmen Steven Fulop, Rolando Lavarro Jr., and David Donnelly all voted against the amendment. Newly elected Ward F City Councilwoman Diane Coleman, who was sworn in on Nov. 28, abstained from the controversial voting, stating that she did not have enough background information to make an informed decision.
The plan is a settlement agreement between the city and the owner of Robinhood Plaza on Summit Avenue.
Under the settlement, the city will agree to allow the developer to increase the height of planned buildings on the site from 11 stories to 42 stories. In exchange for this zoning change from the city, the developer will turn over slightly less than an acre of land to the city to be used for a municipal park.
The agreement had been delayed for months, largely because of concerns raised by residents in the area. Despite the desire for park space in the neighborhood, some residents believe the land to be dedicated is not suitable for a public park, while others wondered whether the land was hazardous and in need of remediation.
In response to concerns from the community, Robinhood Plaza Inc., Chain Enrico Corp., and Avner Netter, agreed to cover the costs of a historical study of the land to see whether there is a history of environmental hazards. This study, completed last month, found no environmental hazards.
“To say, ‘Well, let’s get the property now and worry about the cost later,’ is downright irresponsible.” – Laura Skolar
“To say, ‘Well, let’s get the property now and worry about the cost later,’ is downright irresponsible,” Laura Skolar, a member of the Parks Coalition, told the council last week. “How much will it cost to redevelop the property? Where will the funding come from? Who will be responsible for redevelopment? And what is the planned timeframe?”
Survey says: Neighborhood group majority opposed
When this proposal was introduced last month, members of the Hilltop Neighborhood Association said it was unclear whether a majority of their group supported these plans or not. Since then, the group has surveyed the membership regarding this issue.
“We have about 275 families on the Hilltop website and we took a poll,” said Richard Boggiano, speaking on behalf of the Hilltop Neighborhood Association. “Sixty-two percent of the people in the Hilltop area and Journal Square area do not want a 42-story building in our neighborhood. Thirteen percent said yes. But 62 percent said no. This is a hot issue. You are going to ruin the neighborhood. A 42-story building does not belong among private houses.”
Mass transit mess
Other Journal Square residents who spoke before the council prior to the vote had less of a problem with the development of a high rise on Summit, but questioned whether the area has the infrastructure to handle an influx in commuters and traffic.
“That’s going to create a lot of new commuters that the PATH trains can’t handle,” said longtime resident Yvonne Balcer, a former downtown resident who now lives near Journal Square. “As it is now you have people packed on the trains during rush hour at the Journal Square PATH. This is just going to add hundreds of new commuters.”
Another resident, Peter Burg, agreed, calling the PATH trains “the sardine express. It would be pretty hard to imagine those trains being any more packed than they are now.”
When asked by the Reporter last year if there are any plans to create new PATH stations and extend the system, Port Authority spokesman Ron Marsico said, “No. There are no plans to build any new stations at this time.” But, he added, “Under the Port Authority’s capital plan we are investing millions of dollars and other resources to modernize our technical infrastructure. This will enable us to increase rider capacity by 20 percent because it will enable us to safely run trains closer together.”
About $580 million will be spent to update old mechanical train controls on the 101-year-old system. In their place the system will get new computerized signals, a process that will continue through 2017. It will allow trains to run more frequently and handle more passengers.
Other obsolete components in the system are also being replaced with modern upgrades and the Port Authority has been slowly retiring its old fleet of railcars with new trains. The Port Authority, Marsico added, will eventually be able to accommodate 10-car trains on the Newark-World Trade Center line, which stops at Journal Square, which will also increase rider capacity.
Still, some residents argued these improvements won’t be enough to improve mass transit service and accommodate new development at Journal Square.
“What the city should do,” said local resident Imtiaz Syed, “is first sit down with the Port Authority and NJ Transit and talk to them about improving and increasing service. Then, once that issue has been resolved, then maybe we can talk about new development in this area.”
Syed added that traffic flow in and around Journal Square is also problematic and should be reconfigured before new residents are brought to the area.
Cotter, Lopez: Let’s get this done
But Director of City Planning Robert Cotter implored the council to approve the Journal Square 2060 Redevelopment Plan.
“This is an amendment to an existing redevelopment plan that already allows taller building to be built in this area,” Cotter reminded the council. “Right across the street from this 42-story building will be another tower that has already been approved. And that high rise will be 72 stories.”
None of the opponents to the 42-story building raised concerns last night about the 72-story building.
As for complaints about added commuters on the PATH trains, Cotter recalled the 1980s when cars were so packed that they routinely passed train stops altogether.
“We’re not dealing with that anymore. So, improvements have been made and more are on the way…Unfortunately the way things work in this country is you have to establish the need for something, like more mass transit, then make the case for getting money to build it later.”
Approving this amendment, he said, was critical to redevelopment in Journal Square, which has been stalled for years.
Lopez echoed this theme when explaining her vote in favor of the amendment.
“While I appreciate the views of the residents and I have met with them to talk about their concerns, I feel it is important to settle this dispute and get this project moving forward rather than dragging it out,” said Lopez. “This is an area in need of redevelopment and this is a viable project that will help accomplish that.”
E-mail E. Assata Wright at email@example.com.