Pier development debate postponed; Despite delay, builders confident about approval
A Planning Board meeting that promised to be one of the most contentious in recent history turned into a non-event Tuesday night after a controversial project which was slated for a hearing was dropped from the schedule at the developer's request. Dozens of activists showed up for what is usually a sparsely attended meeting, to lodge their disapproval of the Applied Companies' proposal to construct a four story, 120 unit residential apartment building on the city's northernmost pier. The building, which would also feature 120 enclosed parking spaces and a publicly accessible 16-foot riverfront walkway along its south side, would be the first private development on the city's piers, a fact that worries some city activists. At a previous meeting, residents complained that the building would limit views from vantage points south of the project and that it would change the experience of visiting the not-yet-completely-constructed riverfront walkway, since hikers and bikers would have to contend with traffic entering and exiting the project. But the developers say that they will put $3 million into the ramshackle pier, which presently lies unused, and that they will add 25,000 square feet of open space for the public. The project would be part of the Shipyard Development, located at Twelfth and Hudson streets. The activists - many of whom had been engaged in past battles with local developers over the way that the city should, or shouldn't, be built-up - had to keep their powder dry Tuesday when the developers delayed the hearing, since a key traffic engineer, who was slated to testify, was unable to make it. "Traffic is an important issue with this project and we did not want to proceed without his testimony," explained Michael Barry, an executive with Applied and the son of the company's President, Joe Barry, after the meeting. There were other reasons the Applied Companies elected to delay the hearing, Barry said. "We are also contemplating making some changes to the plan after meeting with some of the local groups and listening to their concerns," he said. He declined to explain what changes he and his partners had in mind. Won't be satisfied
But one activist said that no changes will satisfy him if Applied still plans to build on the pier. "There is nothing they can fix here," said Ron Hine, an outspoken activist who belongs to a citizens' organization known as the Coalition for a Better Waterfront, Wednesday. "This simply should not be built." Hine then went on to explain that the residents had been asked in a number of ballots to express their views on how the waterfront ought to be developed in the early 1990s. From those votes, he argued, a consensus emerged that private development should take place upland and that the piers should be left to the public. On top of that, he argued that the building re-opens a deal the city had with Applied about how to develop the area. "They got approval back in 1997 for the Shipyard and we assumed that was the total project," he explained. "But now they are coming back, re-opening the deal and trying to add something on here." Michael Barry, for his part, scoffed at Hine's charge, which has become a frequent refrain amongst activists who hope to pull the plug on the project. Barry said that from the moment they began to present the project to the public in 1993, Applied always planned on building on the pier. "Our original proposal had a four-story structure at the end of the pier that we were contemplating building as a commercial structure," he explained. "But we did not include it in the approval process initially because we were not sure what it would cost to build. Now we have more engineering information, and we have developed a portion of the project, so the time is right to go back and get the approval for the pier. We always intended to get the approvals in pieces. This is the culmination of the Shipyard project." One variance
The matter will be decided by the nine-member Planning Board, which is made up of city residents who volunteer their time two nights a month to cull through developers' plans. Their primary guide for making their decisions is the city's zoning laws. The developers insist that their project, despite its uniqueness, only needs one variance from those laws, which would allow it to extend more than 70 feet away from the street. (Hoboken zoning laws prevent buildings from going too far back because then they might block light to backyards. But this project is different, as it will be built away from the street on a long pier.) In fact, Barry said that he believes that the project fits so well into the city's development plan that it is "almost an as-of-right project," meaning that it was entirely within his company's rights to build. "If we do not receive Planning Board approval, we would be forced to take this to the courts," he explained. "And if it were not for that one provision, it would be assured that the judge would rule in our favor. But even with it, we are confident of our chances." Although he is confident about his legal position, Barry said that he would rather convince the board that this is a good project for the community. He touts the 25,000 square feet in open space that it will create and points out that his company will put in $3 million to renovate a pier that is currently inaccessible to the public. "There are a number of people out there who are stating that this project reduces open space," he explained. "That is a bald-faced lie. That pier is entirely private property. There is zero open space there. You can not walk on that pier. It is just like a lot in the middle of Hoboken. Nobody has a right to walk out there. To argue that is open space simply because it does not currently have a building on it is absurd. We are talking about adding a new walkway with 25,000 square feet of additional public space on top of the several acres of open space that the Shipyard already provides."