The facility is proposed to be built on Sinatra Drive between Fifth and Sixth streets. The garage portion of the building will be four stories. Because a portion is slated to be built under the six-story Babbio Center, the entire combined structure will be 10 stories from its base.
The Babbio Center is already under construction, and can be seen by anyone walking up the central part of Sinatra Drive along the waterfront.
The proposed 720-car garage has been a lighting rod for controversy for the past two years and has been the topic of court appearances, lawsuits, and contentious Zoning Board hearings. Some claimed that when Stevens was building the Babbio Center, they were trying to also build the garage partion even though they didn't have permits.
Now, according to attorneys for the school, Stevens will need 14 different variances from the Zoning Board to build the project as designed. According to Stevens attorney Charles Liebling, the garage is needed to "solve the university's parking problems." He added that in the university's opinion, this location is "the most suitable" on the private university's campus for such a project.
Liebling also said that so many variances are needed because of what he called "zoning oddities and anomalies." He said the school will present experts over the next couple of months to testify that granting the variances will not negatively impact adjacent neighbors and the community.
Critics of the project, who filled up the City Hall conference room Tuesday night, say that it is too big, will cause traffic problems (especially since both proposed exits face public parks), and that a parking garage isn't the best use for property that faces Hoboken's revived waterfront.
According to Stevens' attorney, the university plans to call six experts to testify, which means the public hearing could run between three and six months.
Why so many variances?
Stevens is asking for variances for permitted use, lot coverage, building height, front yard, distance between buildings, building length, open space ratio, facade specifications, number of principal buildings per lot, conditional requirements for public parking facilities, minimum setbacks from a residential zoning district, and location of garage entrance.
While normally variance requests are straightforward, in this case there are some extenuating circumstances that inflate the number of variances needed, said Stevens' attorney.
The first, said Liebling, is that Stevens' campus is comprised of only two "tax lots." The rule of thumb for most of the city is "one building, one tax lot," said Liebling, but Stevens has dozens of buildings on campus but only two tax lots. Because of this, the attorney said, the university has to seek variances for distance between buildings, open space ratio and lot coverage, because while the campus as a whole complies with zoning requirements, this portion does not.
The second zoning "oddity," said Liebling, is that two years ago a citizens' group that spent thousands of dollars and many hours in meetings with lawyers and planners successfully defeated a proposed Stevens garage slated for the corner of Eighth and Hudson streets.
During that process, the Historic Hudson Street Coalition wrote and the City Council passed an ordinance that puts significant restrictions on what kinds of buildings Stevens can put up within 100 feet of any residential district.
Liebling said he will argue that while those zoning changes make sense for the almost entirely residential Hudson Street, they might not be applicable for the rest of campus. These changes in the zoning ordinances force the university to get variances for façade specifications, conditional requirements for parking facilities, and minimum setbacks from a residential zoning district, among others.
A convoluted history
Construction on the Planning Board-approved Babbio Center began in March of 2002, but concerned residents and politicians said it looked like the private university was working on the garage, too.
To construct the Babbio Center building and prepare for the garage, the school excavated nearly 40 feet deep into the rock that makes up Castle Point. The university has approvals only for construction of a six-story building to accommodate classrooms, lecture halls, administrative and faculty offices, a restaurant, and a surface parking lot.
An investigation by the Planning Board's attorney determined that Stevens was building beyond what they had received approval for, and they were asked in November of 2002 by Mayor David Roberts to stop work on the garage portion of the site, but were allowed to continue work on the Babbio Center's foundation.
After some members of the public weren't sure if Stevens was still working on the garage or just the Babbio Center, and after pressure from the Planning Board members and local residents was placed on Roberts and other city officials, the city's zoning officer decided to issue an official stop work order and repealed the project's Certificate of Zoning Compliance on Dec. 31.
Several days later, Stevens won an appeal in Hudson County Superior Court but was warned to proceed at its own risk. That move created a tremendous amount of friction between the school and the city.
Shortly after that December hearing, the city and Stevens reached an agreement in which the school agreed to seal openings at the base of the foundation.
The school has withdrew its lawsuit against the city, which was seeking to stop work on the project. In return, the city agreed to amend its Certificate of Zoning Compliance to allow zoning permit reinstatement to complete vertical construction of the building, meaning that the school will be able to complete the Babbio Center as long as it seals all of the "portions of the foundation which are exposed."
While the hearing before the Zoning Board is still in the early stages, there were nearly two dozen members of the public present Tuesday to listen to testimony or ask questions about the much publicized project. Those that spoke expressed their concerns about the size, traffic, air pollution, noise pollution, and location.
The local non-profit group Fund for a Better Waterfront (FBW) has hired an attorney to represent it in opposition to this project. The group also sent an e-mail to community activists and residents notifying people that the project was about to go before the board. Earlier this year, Stevens filed a lawsuit against FBW and its two highest-ranking officers, Executive Director Ron Hine and organization President Aaron Lewit, charging that they made defamatory statements against the university especially in regards to naturally occurring asbestos in the rock that was excavated. This case is currently before Judge Camille Kenny of Superior Court in Hudson County, and depositions are now being taken.
Lewit said that one of his biggest concerns is that both of the garage's entrances, one on Sinatra Drive and one on Fifth Street, face parks.
"This is not the place to put such a mammoth parking garage," said Lewit. "I don't think it makes sense that one exit faces [Sinatra Park] Soccer Field and the other faces a Little League field. The traffic this project is going to create is going to be a real safety issue."
He also said he doesn't agree with taking one of New Jersey's most prime pieces of real estate that is only steps away from the waterfront and using it for a parking garage.
He added not only, in his opinion, is it not suited for that location, but it is also too big and out of character with Hoboken's scale. He said that if Stevens is insistent on building a garage on that site, the school should consider greatly reducing its size. The hearing is scheduled to continue at Tuesday, Nov. 18, 2003 at 8:00 pm at City Hall.