Everyone knew this day was coming, when Mayor Steven Fulop had to make a decision as the city’s chief executive that didn’t sit well with his supporters downtown. And the divisive issue that separated the shepherd from the flock was – also no surprise – over development.
After members of the Van Vorst Park Association flooded City Hall with angry phone calls and threatened to file a lawsuit, Fulop held a packed town hall meeting on Nov. 4 regarding an 87-unit residential development planned for 268 Varick St.
Until recently, the development site, which is at the corner of Varick and Bright streets, had been used for classroom trailers for students who attend the Frank R. Conwell School across the street. In anticipation of groundbreaking for the new project, the students have been moved to neighboring schools and the trailers have been carted away.
Property owners and residents in the area oppose both the scale of the Varick Street project and the unique type of housing developer Rushman Dillon has planned for the site.
‘Now we know how many calls it takes to get your attention.’ – Karen Lorentz
But the development would be built without any parking, thanks to the approved redevelopment plan for the area. It would also be marketed to young, single post-grad professionals, a demographic current residents say will be out of sync with the families who currently live in the area.
Residents and property owners in the Van Vorst Park neighborhood where the development will be based have spent the last several weeks lobbying the Fulop administration to either move the project to another community or force significant changes to the plans.
Fulop has said in response that the city’s “hands are tied” and there is little that can be done at this stage to change what has been approved. The City Council approved plans for the development in 2011, and the city has entered into a contract to sell the municipally-owned lot to Rushman Dillion for $1.8 million.
‘Hands tied’ not working
But angry Van Vorst residents who attended the town hall meeting – most of whom said they worked for the mayor’s campaign – were hearing none of it. They spent much of the meeting berating Fulop and comparing him to his predecessor and former adversary, Jerramiah T. Healy.
“Now we know how many calls it takes to get your attention. So, we’ll know for next time,” said Karen Lorentz, addressing the mayor, who alternately took notes and read text messages as residents spoke. “This project is unsuitable for our neighborhood. We ask that you take a better look at this plan and ask more questions. And if you are not going to take a look at this and stand up for us, then we will have to do it.”
Resident Matt Wilcox, who has lived in Jersey City for 15 years, said the development is “everything Jersey City is not. It’s kind of inviting a Hoboken-like atmosphere in a family neighborhood. It’s going to be a permanent frat party…Steve, as someone who ran on a platform of education, I find it crazy the first thing to happen in your administration is 60 students get evicted from the trailers [where they were going to school]. You said no residents raised a red flag when this was approved in 2011. Well, why didn’t you raise a flag? The, ‘My hands are tied’ line doesn’t work for me and it doesn’t work for the people in this room. I don’t buy it.”
Addressing Fulop and City Councilwomen Candice Osborne (Ward E) and Diane Coleman (Ward F), who were also present at the town hall meeting, Wilcox added, “You guys are the leaders of this city. You represent us downtown. So, start leading.”
“I’m not against development on this site. I understand we’re not going to go back to this being a park,” said Becky Sanders. “But clearly this process and this project are very flawed. I don’t think it’s acceptable for you to say your hands are tied, especially when the Van Vorst Park Association presents you with a legal, justifiable approach to how to handle it. I’m concerned that you seem like you don’t want to hear what we’re saying. When we hire counsel…we want you to take that seriously and not put anything on that lot. I believe that, while some development will go there, there can be major modifications if the city works with us, which is what we supported you for. I feel like this is an opportunity for you to support us. We’ve been some of your greatest supporters over the last seven years. It seems like you’re just looking for a way to make this go away and not looking for a way to help us.”
“Mr. Mayor? Mr. Mayor? Your attention?” said one resident who did not give his name, as he tried to get Fulop’s attention mid-text. “This administration has to care. This administration doesn’t care. A child is going to be hit. At best, seriously hit, at the worst, killed.”
This resident, who was referring to the possible added automobile traffic on Varick Street as a result of the project, predicted that Fulop could end up having a very short term as mayor.
Fulop: ‘You got three options’
A clearly-ruffled Fulop offered an angry retort to his critics before he laid out three possible options that the city and Van Vorst residents can take regarding the Varick Street project.
“Information about this project was publically disseminated, by law, four times. Not one time. Four,” Fulop told residents at the town hall.
“So, you can come up here and say, ‘Look, Steven you were sitting on the council, I should have told you [about the project].’ But there’s a shared responsibility…and when it comes up before the council and not one person expresses any opposition, it’s not rocket science that it’s going to pass.”
Given that the city has already entered into a contract with Rushman Dillon, Fulop said the options available now are limited, but his administration has found two alternatives.
One would be for an affordable housing project to be built on the site instead of a market-rate development. Because the city subsidizes affordable housing developments through its Affordable Housing Trust Fund, the number of units at the site would be cut considerably. An affordable housing development at Bright and Varick could generate as few as 35 to 40 units, Fulop said, compared to the 87 units that Rushman Dillon plans to build.
Several residents at the meeting said an affordable housing development would be “worse” than what is currently planned and at least two people labeled Fulop’s affordable housing suggestion “a threat.”
A second option, Fulop said, would be to allow Rushman Dillon to build its micro-unit development. To get the project moving, the developer has tentatively agreed to cut the number of units to 70.
If residents still do not like that option, then the mayor said they are “free to go to court. It’s not an option I’d like to see. It would be expensive for the city. It would be expensive for the residents. But I recognize that it is an option that is available.”
The mayor has requested that people contact him regarding their opinions of these three options and tell him, privately, which one they prefer. After the meeting, he said he would wait to hear what response he receives from the residents before moving forward.
Marlene Sandkamp, president of the Van Vorst Park Association was disappointed by the town hall meeting.
“We weren’t here to negotiate,” said Sandkamp. “We’ve been trying to get answers since August. We haven’t gotten answers tonight. What are the legal constraints? Nobody told us. What was the Planning Department’s issue? We weren’t told. It’s just the same lines used over and over and over again. So, it’s frustrating.”
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.