C ity residents want a say in what will happen with the 10 buildings that make up the soon-to-be-former Jersey City Medical Center complex.
They've been lobbying municipal officials to be involved in the future of the 14-acre Baldwin Avenue site, campaigning in both the real and virtual worlds.
A web site was recently put online to serve as both an informative resource and to generate an electronic mailing list for residents interested in following the development. Several community meetings - including an early September developers' exposition - are planned to coincide with municipal redevelopment processes.
But deadlines are looming.
LibertyHealth, the non-profit company that operates (but doesn't own) the old hospital, will vacate the premises in April, 2004 when they move to new facilities at the corner of Grand Street and Jersey Avenue. Residents and city officials understand that time is of the essence, but some are expressing worry that development plans will be slowed because of political infighting between the city and the Jersey City Redevelopment Agency [JCRA], the semi-autonomous agency created by the city to streamline the municipality's development process.
"We have people who keep pushing around the papers on the table instead of addressing the immediate need," said Charlene Burke of the West Bergen/Lincoln Park Neighborhood Coalition last week. "I don't see it as [making development plans] impossible, but I see that it is going to cost us somewhere. It's costing us time now and it's going to cost us money down the road."
"Something like this should've been started years ago," Burke added. "But I'm very optimistic that everyone will come to the table and we will hammer this out. And it will be the best project to ever come out of Jersey City, at least for the next decade."
City officials say that preliminary ideas for what to do with the Medical Center were on the agenda years ago. The Liberty Health Board of Trustees started thinking about building new hospital facilities 20 years ago, and city knew it would need to formulate a plan about what to with the complex. One thing was for sure: Rehabilitating the 70 year-old buildings, which were constructed using contaminants like lead paint and asbestos, would be too expensive of an endeavor for the cash-strapped city.
The city owns one of the buildings. It operated the Medical Center until the 1980s, when a non-profit was formed to manage (but not own) it.
"There were only two ways to divest ourselves of the Medical Center," said Charles Catrillo, the city's director of economic development, last week. "The options were to either give it to the JCRA or auction it off."
Became a political football
The JCRA board, until two weeks ago, was chaired by Ward E Councilman E. Junior Maldonado, a one-time ally but now political foe of Mayor Glenn Cunningham. Citing concerns that the seven-member JCRA board was being directed by interests other than those of Jersey City, Cunningham vetoed an early June City Council transfer of the Medical Center property to the JCRA.
The tides turned, however, when Cunningham was successful in ousting Maldonado from the board's chairmanship. When Ward C Councilman Steve Lipski, a Cunningham opponent, was elected to head the JCRA, he sided with the mayor.
At that point, the council had not yet voted to override the mayor's veto. And since the JCRA was now under Cunningham's control, the city had no reservations about transferring the property. But when an ordinance re-transferring the property was introduced for first reading at this past Wednesday's City Council meeting, the council voted to delete it from the agenda.
"There's no communication between the mayor's office and [the people managing the development of the complex]," Ward D Councilman Bill Gaughan said. "The initial plans called for the developer to buy and develop the county-owned buildings, and we don't know if there are plans for that. Let the property stay in the hands of the city until a workable plan is presented."
But despite Lipski's assurances that the JCRA is holding off designating a developer until September and that the council can safely and without hesitation transfer the property, council members still felt more time was needed to feel out the situation before they divested the city of the property.
"What I think is lacking here is a clear consensus of what the city, both the administration and the community, wants to do with the property," Councilman-at-Large Mariano Vega said.
"This way is keeping it simple," Council President L. Harvey Smith added.
Seven developers compete
The city currently has a list of seven developers who have expressed interest in the site over the past two years.
The only developer to have made a formal presentation to both the community and the city is George Filopolous, principal with New York-based Metrovest Equities, LLC. According to JCRA Executive Director Sue Mack, Filopolous had been working with the JCRA for two years in presenting redevelopment plans and architectural renderings for his vision of the site. The JCRA was ready to designate him as the complex's developer at its July 15 meeting, she said, but decided to postpone the designation at the city's request.
"[Filopolous] said he wanted to work with the community," Mack said. "He played by the rules and now everyone's taking pot shots at him. You can't keep track of who's on first."
The other developer who has recently shown interest in developing the Medical Center is the Florham Park-based Kushner Companies. Burke said she and company representatives are currently working to set up a community meeting for a presentation on Kushner's plans for the site.
The remaining five include Hoboken-based Metro Homes, LLC; East Brunswick-based Century Land Group; Philadelphia-based Pennrose Properties, Inc.; Hewitt, N.Y.-based ASET, Inc.; and Norman, Okla.-based Maurice Kutt Associates.
The JCRA is currently sending out letters via certified mail to the aforementioned developers notifying them of a prequalification meeting to be held at the JCRA offices on July 30, Mack said. Included with that letter is a developers' questionnaire, a screening process Mack described was a way to see if the developer can raise the $100 million in funding needed for the project. Also attached to the developers' questionnaire is a $5,000 fee.
"At the prequalification meeting, members will be laying out where we are in the process and providing what has come out of the wish list from the community," Mack said. "And someplace between July 30 and August 15, [JCRA] staff will review the developers' questionnaires to see [if the developers are viable]. And then we will be inviting them to attend the community meeting in early September. And from there, staff will be recommending to the JCRA facilities committee one or two developers."
In addition, the JCRA will be taking out ads in regional publications soliciting more developers to compete for the project. This will all culminate, officials and community members say, in a design exposition similar to the one employed by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation in their selection of the new World Trade Center design. The developer expo will happen at the Evangelismos Greek Orthodox Church the weekend after Labor Day.
Community responds to one idea
At a July 10 community meeting, 75 city residents - including councilpersons Mary Donnelly, Viola Richardson, Mariano Vega, Steve Lipski and Jerramiah Healy - filed into the auditorium of the Evangelismos Greek Orthodox Church to hear Filopolous' presentation on his plans for the complex. Accompanied by Staten Island-based architect Mark Lipton, Filopolous said he'd like to convert the medical center into a mixed-use community incorporating a minimum of 800 units of 'affordable luxury' housing with office and retail space and other cultural and recreational amenities.
"We want to add to the buildings' splendor and bring them back to their original beauty," Filopolous said.
Converting the buildings into housing and office space, however, won't be an easy task, he said.
"These buildings were never designed to be townhouses or condos," Filopolous said. "There's an estimated loss factor of 35 percent. For example, if one million square feet is present, only 650,000 square feet are usable. We're working to go around those constraints."
Filopolous cited specifically features like the 11-foot corridors designed to accommodate transportation of large gurneys.
"It makes for nice living, but it makes for complicated construction," he said.
Also included in Filopolous' design is the construction of an eight-story parking structure at the center of the complex.
Community members responded to the presentation in a lukewarm manner, saying it did more to raise questions rather than answer them.
"This is an opportunity to add something to the community other than housing," McGinley Square resident Joe Harkins said. "If you want to turn us on and get us excited, tell us about more than just housing. We need to talk about what's logical, sensible and feasible."
The residents speak out
Some issues raised by community members were:
- Filopolous' commitment to using Jersey City labor;
- putting the eight-story parking structure underground;
- homeownership versus rentals;
- ensuring that environmental contaminants are properly removed; and
- partnerships with nearby McGinley Square merchants.
Filopolous insisted that nothing has yet been decided and that he is flexible in hammering out the details with the community. But his willingness to accommodate didn't satisfy some residents who said they were disappointed by what they perceived as a clash in vision over the site.
"We put it out there to the JCRA to push a 'Rockefeller Center West'-type of vision," former Ward F Councilwoman and community organizer Melissa Holloway said. "We were disappointed with [Filopolous'] vision. His apartment sizes are smaller than the United States standard for government housing. We want to leave this complex as a legacy, not slum housing."
Holloway also said she feels unsettled by the county's absence in the ongoing discussions. She said the county needs to come on record with their intentions.
County spokesman Jim Kennelly said county administration is continuing to have an ongoing dialogue with the city about a partnership.
"There's a potential benefit to develop those buildings jointly," Kennelly said. "Nothing is set in stone. [But] right now, at least, there's no option on the table to develop the buildings into public use. It seems clear that the future of these buildings is in private ownership."
Kennelly added that county officials have spoken with Filopolous on possibly acquiring the three county-owned buildings in the complex.
And while the political power plays continue happening behind closed doors, concerned residents say they don't care for the political interests at work. Their sole intention is ensuring the quality of what ultimately happens to the buildings.
"The Jersey City Medical Center was one of the first skyscrapers on the eastern seaboard," Charlene Burke said at the community meeting. "Instead of looking at New York City, New York City was looking at us."
"We want to make sure it's not an arbitrary process," Holloway said. "Our neighborhood is going to live or die on this."
Interested individuals are asked to log on to www.landmarkjcmedicalcenter.org for more information on upcoming meetings.