Opponents of the project lead by the efforts of the local non-profit group Fund for a Better Waterfront (FBW) say it's too large, poorly designed, in the wrong location, it will create traffic problems, and it requires far too many variances. The group has hired lawyers and a planner to represent it in opposing the project.
About the project
The proposed garage, if approved, would be built partially underneath the Babbio Center for Technology Management, which is presently under construction.
According to the application before the Zoning Board, the garage will 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.
Stevens will need at least 14 different variances from the Zoning Board to build the project as designed.
Stevens is asking for variances for permitted use, lot coverage, building height, front yard, distance between buildings, building length, open space ratio, facade specifications, the number of principal buildings per lot, conditional requirements for public parking facilities, minimum setbacks from a residential zoning district, and a location for the garage entrance.
The garage location
Officials from Stevens said this is the best location on its campus for a parking garage.
According to Stevens' spokesperson Cass Bruton-Ward, the project is being built away from residential homes on the city's perimeter. "When it comes to parking, location is always an issue, as has already been proved many times in Hoboken," said Bruton-Ward. "Stevens' previous garage proposal at Eighth Street and Castle Point Terrace was adjacent to a historic residential area, and that plan was opposed by nearby residents."
Three years ago, a citizens group spent thousands of dollars and many hours in meetings with lawyers and planners, and 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 put significant restrictions on what kinds of buildings Stevens can put up within 100 feet of any residential district.
According to Planner Elizabeth McKenzie, who has been hired by Stevens, the proposed garage's location is much more desirable with "none of the residential area problems." McKenzie also said there are very few locations in a densely populated city such as Hoboken where proximity to residents would not be an issue.
Bruton-Ward added the concept of perimeter parking has been made numerous times in political campaigns and in Hoboken master plan meetings. "It's important to realize that this parking facility is located on the perimeter of the city, diverting traffic away from the city's interior," she said.
On Thursday, Mayor David Roberts said he is in favor of the project. "From my vantage point, Stevens has already gone far too many years without providing adequate parking for their students, faculty and visitors," said Roberts. "I have been an advocate of Stevens building more parking because it pulls their cars off of neighborhood streets and frees up those spaces for Hoboken residents and businesses."
Not on the waterfront
Ron Hine, the executive director of the FBW, said the waterfront is "absolutely" an inappropriate location to put a 720-car garage. "How our waterfront is developed is one of the most critical issues facing Hoboken today," said Hine. "This is one of the premiere pieces of real estate in the entire city and Stevens is proposing a bleak and massive parking structure. One of the worst things that we can do is to put a dead lifeless building, like a parking lot, across the street from Sinatra Park."
Hine added if built as proposed, the garage will measure 386 feet long and 296 feet wide and will take up nearly an entire city block. "It is completely inconsistent with Hoboken's human scale," he said.
Hine also said instead of first floor retail or offices, like what has been done on the Southern Waterfront, the current plan has the first floor parking abutting Sinatra Drive. "Stevens has an opportunity to build classrooms and offices with the most extraordinary of views, but has instead chosen to provide those views to automobiles," said Hine.
Critics have also said the garage will offer hourly parking, resulting in a substantial turnover each day. This considerable traffic, they said, will spill out directly across the street from the Little League field on Fifth Street and the soccer field on Sinatra Drive.
Park on the roof?
In the plans, Stevens has proposed to provide publicly accessible open space on the roof of the garage. "The top of the garage creates a prime one and one third acre of public open space where none existed before," said Bruton-Ward. "Prior to this plan, that same space was simply a surface asphalt parking lot."
She added the current garage plan includes a large rooftop plaza, with an unobstructed view overlooking the Hudson River, the Manhattan skyline and Sinatra Park. "Current plans are to cover this plaza with grass, decorative paving and seating areas, which will make it a park-like outdoor space in the warmer months," she said. "In the winter, Stevens has offered to install the ice skating rink that is now on the Little League field."
She also said Stevens has also offered the City of Hoboken the possibility of placing a 9/11 memorial there.
Hine responded the top of parking garage hardly qualifies as open space, and hardly is an acceptable rationale to grant this many variances. "The 'open space' does not meet the definition of open space as defined by the Hoboken Zoning Code and the state's Municipal Land Use Law," said Hine. "Rooftops don't qualify as open space."
He said in addition, this area will be privately owned and controlled. "The public and the city, despite the many promises now being made to the Zoning Board, will have little control over what happens in the future," he said.
He added the very nature of this space makes it part of the campus and it will overwhelmingly be used by students and faculty, not the general public.
Number of variances
Fourteen variances certainly seems like a large number, but the university claims there are zoning "anomalies" on Steven's campus and the variances will not negatively impact adjacent neighbors and the community. A variance is permission to deviate from zoning guidelines.
While normally variance requests are straightforward, in this case there are some extenuating circumstances that inflate the number of variances needed, said Stevens' attorney.
Hine and the FBW counter that if approved, the Zoning Board is "throwing the zoning codes out the window" and approving the garage is a de facto rewriting of the zoning code.
According to Planner Elizabeth McKenzie, who has been hired by Stevens, there are two major reasons why so many variances are need for this project. The first is that Stevens' entire campus is divided into only two lots. The general rule in Hoboken is that there is one building per one "tax lot."
Because of this, 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, said McKenzie.
The second zoning idiosyncrasy, said McKenzie, is that Stevens Park, which is across the street from the proposed garage, is zoned residential, even though there are no homes in the park, and there are currently no residencies within 100 feet of the project.
These changes in the zoning code brought about by the Historic Hudson Street Coalition now force the university to get variances for façade specifications, conditional requirements for parking facilities, and minimum setbacks from a residential zoning district, among others.
Hine contends that granting this many variances is against the spirit and letter of the city's zoning laws. "The zoning code means nothing unless the Planning and Zoning Board take the Zoning Code seriously," said Hine. He added if this were approved, it would be "zoning by variance."
He said this especially flies in the face of the city's current attempts to adopt the new master plan because, he said, a new master plan means nothing if the city's boards are unwilling to uphold the zoning regulation included in the plan.
A complex history
The parking garage's history is a contentious one. 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 had 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 hearing, the city and Stevens reached an agreement in which the school agreed to seal openings at the base of the foundation.
The school 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."
Stevens then agreed to submit a formal application to the Zoning Board for the proposed garage project.
Suit against FBW
Making the situation more interesting is the fact that Stevens has filed a lawsuit against FBW and its two highest-ranking officers, Hine and organization President Aaron Lewit, charging 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.
Making an already convoluted hearing more complex is that the Zoning Board's chair recused himself from hearings at the last meeting. Crimmins is the brother of former Hoboken Business Administrator George Crimmins who has done consulting work for Stevens.
Michael Garofalo, an attorney for the FBW, because the alleged the conflict involves a member of the immediate family of a board member all proceedings to date should be voided.
According to Crimmins, the board's attorney found no conflict, but to avoid the appearance of a conflict recused himself.
The attorney has advised the board to proceed with the hearing.
After the application is voted on the Crimmins issue could be raised on appeal.