The administration of Mayor David Roberts says this is a critical first step to revitalizing the city's northern gateway. Critics of the administration say the study is a waste of money, especially considering that Roberts has already paid $300,000 for the creation of a new master plan for citywide development, which will likely be approved in the next few months.
They also charge that the redevelopment proposal is a way to circumvent the city's Zoning and Planning Board, especially as it relates to a controversial development project proposed for 1600 Park Ave. Some critics charge that a nine-story mixed-use building on the vacant lot that straddles the Weehawken-Hoboken border would be too big.
The 10-block area in question at Hoboken's northern border has been called the "underbridge area." The redevelopment zone includes two contiguous areas for development. One is the blocks between Clinton Street and Park Avenue from the Weehawken border to 14th Street. The second is a block-wide strip between the Hudson Bergen Light Rail tracks and the Weehawken line.
"Redevelopment" is a technical zoning term that means there is an area within the municipality that, for one or more reasons, is not being used to its full potential. Designating a redevelopment site can mean special zoning and tax abatements.
In January, the Hoboken City Council voted 5-4 to request that the Planning Board undertake the redevelopment study. The vote fell along Roberts/anti-Roberts lines. Supporters of the mayor voted for the plan.
Then, during the first week in February, the Planning Board voted 5 to 1 with two abstentions to approve the study, which will cost between $30,000 and $35,000. The Planning Board has 45 days to complete the study.
City Director of Community Development Fred Bado said Thursday that redevelopment "can be a valuable tool" to bring about development in that area. Despite critics' concerns, he said, proceeding with a preliminary study is not inconsistent with the ongoing creation of a new master plan.
The city already has been using the planning firm of Phillips Preiss Shapiro Associates, Inc. (PPSA), to guide the city through the process of creating the master plan. The process has included more than a half dozen public workshops over a 1.5-year period. The product has been a 138-page draft that takes a snapshot of what the city looks like today and sets goals for what it would like to look like in the future. Its recommendations range from small interventions to large-scale actions to create lasting improvements and improve the quality of life.
The last full revision of the master plan occurred in 1979. The Planning Board officials said the City Council should adopt the document in the next couple of months.
"Doing [this redevelopment study] is not inconsistent and is not a duplication of the master plan," said Bado. He added using a redevelopment designation is a useful tool to make the recommendations of the master plan come to fruition. "The [draft of] the master plan proposes that the underbridge area 'will feature a walkable environment offering the type of shopping and uses that residents normally would have to suffer through traffic jams to get to,' " said Bado. "Redevelopment is one way to make that happen."
Critics of the administration claim the administration is "already" subverting the Master Plan.
"The master plan was the cornerstone of his last campaign and now, before it's even approved, he is already deviating from it," said Councilman Michael Russo, one of the mayor's most vocal critics. "The mayor is trying to run the city unilaterally without input from other parts of government like the Zoning Board." He added that the city has already paid $300,000 for planners and now is spending, via the Planning Board, another $35,000.
He said there is no reason, other than the mayor's political ones, that the study can't wait a few months until the master plan is adopted.
"It seems like a waste to be spending this money," he added.
Kim Fox, the only Planning Board member that voted against performing the redevelopment study, said there is "no justification" for undertaking a separate study when the Planning Board has almost completed and is almost ready to approve the master plan.
Fox was appointed to the Planning Board by Roberts, but during her time on the board, she has been willing to vote in opposition to the majority, making her one of the board's most independent thinkers.
1600 Park again controversial
Russo and the other critics of the mayor have also said this redevelopment plan is only a way to circumvent the Zoning Board when it comes to the application for the development proposed for 1600 Park Ave.
Since first submitting plans in 1998, the development has been a lighting rod for controversy. The plan has been amended several times since 1998, and critics said the project in all of its forms is too large, that residential development is not appropriate between the small Park and Willow Avenue bridges, and that it would cause additional parking problems in an already clogged area. The proposed builders have an application before the city's Zoning Board for 140 condos.
The developer, Stanford Weiss, has promised to dedicate about 26,000 square feet as open space.
One of the biggest hurdles that Weiss has to overcome is a city zoning law adopted in June of 1989. In that year, the property was zoned for industrial use. The only way a residential development is permitted in this zone is for "planned unit developments" on more than 10 acres of property. Weiss' property is only two acres. This means that Weiss has to go before the city's Zoning Board of Adjustment in an attempt to get a "use variance" approved. A variance is permission to deviate from zoning guidelines.
If the area were deemed a redevelopment zone, the application would no longer have to go before the Zoning Board. Instead, the City Council would be the redevelopment authority in charge of approving any plans. Currently, Roberts has majority support on the City Council.
"The administration knows that that 1600 Park is never going to get these zoning variances, so he's come up with this crazy scheme to get around the Zoning Board and that public planning process," said Russo.
Bado responded that the redevelopment study is not an attempt to subvert the public process at 1600 Park Ave. or any other property in the proposed area.
"In no way does this circumvent public input," said Bado. "Whatever plan is developed must come before the City Council. There will be a formal public hearing, and the [redevelopment plan] must be approved by the council in the form of an ordinance."
Bado also addressed the timing of the study. He said the administration's first planning priorities are the city's northern and southern gateways. He added it will take at least 45 days to undertake the preliminary study and then several more months to hire planners and write a redevelopment plan. Then the plan would have to be approved and implemented.
"The ultimate and final plan has will have to be consistent with the master plan, and if it isn't, [the council] will have to give a reason why," said Bado. "You can't just arbitrarily change it."