The city of Hoboken will soon issue public requests for planning and design firms to submit concepts for how specifically the city’s North End Redevelopment Zone should be developed, officials said last week. The Requests for Proposals (RFPs) will be issued in the coming weeks, and the city is hoping to award a contract soon after passing its 2014 budget, according to city spokesman Juan Melli.
And despite the controversy that stemmed from Mayor Dawn Zimmer accusing state officials three weeks ago of threatening to withhold Hurricane Sandy aid unless she helped champion a developer’s proposal to build a 40-story building in the zone, Zimmer said on Thursday that she intends to include that developer, the Rockefeller Group, in any community process that may take place in creating a plan for the entire neighborhood.
“Property owners are important stakeholders in this process, but so are Hoboken residents,” she said, keeping with the attitude she has adopted toward other major developments, such as the NJ Transit rail yard development along Observer Highway on the opposite end of the city.
When seeking requests for proposals, the city asks various planners to come up with a concept for what should be built in that area, and the city chooses one. That planner will then head up a public process, including community meetings with residents, resulting in the publication of a redevelopment plan (a term used despite the zone’s recent designation of a zone for “rehabilitation” and not “redevelopment”).
Once the City Council has approved the redevelopment plan, the city will move forward with designating developers who can work on specific properties. In many cases, the existing property owners can be designated as the developers. Any plans put forth by those developers must conform to the new zoning codes mandated by the redevelopment plan.
Last May, the city’s Planning Board considered the results of a redevelopment study for that zone, which suggested how the city could help change the present industrial requirements to allow that area to be developed in conjunction with modern Hoboken.
“We’re going to work with all the stakeholders to create a development that everyone agrees on.” – Councilman-at-Large Ravi Bhalla
The zone in question is near the city’s northern border and less than a mile from the Lincoln Tunnel. It is served by two two-lane bridges out of town.
Representatives for the Rockefeller Group did not return a call for comment by press time.
Planning Board took action
It remains to be seen exactly how the area, north of Fourteenth Street and west of Park Avenue, will be developed, though the resolution passed by the city’s Planning Board in May will set the stage. At the May meeting, the board voted to designate the entire zone as an “area in need of rehabilitation,” which – unlike the other option, an “area in need of redevelopment” – does not allow the city to grant developers long-term tax abatements. (The city can still grant short-term abatements.) It also does not allow the city to declare eminent domain and take over certain blocks that they can use as part of a larger concept.
The May resolution, which was passed by a 4-3 vote, is at the heart of the controversy involving Zimmer and the Rockefeller Group. A study of the zone by the firm Clarke, Caton and Hintz, commissioned by the City Council in 2009, but paid for by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, suggested that the Planning Board designate the Rockefeller property blocks as an area in need of redevelopment (Rockefeller owns parcels that make up three blocks of the 19-block zone). Several other parcels are owned by NJ Transit and individual property owners.
With their vote, the board majority refused the advice to designate Rockefeller’s blocks as redevelopment areas, opting to designate them as rehabilitation areas, which left fewer options for tax abatements. The city’s process has been a long one, as it has not seen much activity since May.
Earlier this month, media reports looked at the connection between The Rockefeller Group and Gov. Christopher Christie’s officials, whom Zimmer said had pressured her last spring to shepherd their project along, allegedly suggesting that the city’s Hurricane Sandy aid may be tied to her action on the private project. Rockefeller had employed close Christie ally David Samson as their lobbyist, which could explain Christie’s potential interest in moving the project forward. (On Friday, the New York Times reported that the Rockefeller Group had severed ties with Samson’s firm, Wolff Samson.)
The city is now free to move forward as it sees fit in requesting RFP’s, changing the neighborhood’s zoning codes, and inviting developers and owners to submit construction plans for approval.
“There is a legal process, we need to follow the law as municipal officials, and right now we’re going to designate a planner, and allow property owners, including the Rockefeller Group, to give their input,” said Councilman-at-Large Ravi Bhalla, who serves as the City Council’s appointee to the Planning Board. “We’re going to work with all the stakeholders to create a development that everyone agrees on.”
Redevelopment or rehabilitation?
In deciding how to best move forward with development, New Jersey state law allows municipalities to designate blighted areas as either areas in need of redevelopment or rehabilitation. The language is important because it determines which tools the city can employ in managing the size and scope of development in the area. Once either designation is made, the city moves to bring an area’s existing zoning codes up to date. In Hoboken’s case, the North End is zoned entirely for industrial development, and some property owners, like the Rockefeller Group, have proposed constructing residential or commercial projects.
Under state law, designating a neighborhood as an area in need of rehabilitation allows municipalities to offer interested developers shorter, five-year tax abatements, but does not allow invocations of eminent domain with regards to specific properties. Designating an area as in need of redevelopment, on the other hand, allows municipalities the right to eminent domain, meaning it can acquire land at market value.
If the Planning Board had followed the study’s recommendations about designating the Rockefeller property “in need of redevelopment” rather than rehabilitation, the Rockefeller Group would have still been required to seek city approval for their project, though they would have access to abatements that could last up to 30 years.
Hoboken has a mixed history when it comes to redevelopment versus rehabilitation – the city has sometimes offered abatements to developers, and it also recently used eminent domain to condemn and take control of a 1-acre parking lot in the southwest of town that is set to become its next public park. In contrast, when approving projects for the North End Redevelopment Zone, the city will have 5-year tax abatements at its disposal, but not eminent domain.
Bhalla said he believes the city should exercise prudence in moving forward with developing the neighborhood, given its strategic importance as an entranceway to the city.
“It’s geographically the gateway into Hoboken from the north, the property is literally Hoboken’s front door, so when you’re driving into the city from one of our few access points, the first thing you see is the property that’s in the zone,” he said.
Bhalla was not present for the May meeting when the 4-3 vote was held, but he said that he believes there was healthy debate and that he has confidence in the board’s decision making process.
“I have every confidence to say that they looked at the issues carefully and made the determination they thought was right,” he said.
Planning Board Chairman Gary Holtzman and regular member Sasha Conroy, reached by phone last week, declined to comment on the issue. Members Rami Pinchevsky, Gill Mosseri, Daniel Weaver and Frank Magaletta did not respond to requests for comment.
A representative for Clarke, Caton and Hintz, the firm hired by the Port Authority to conduct the redevelopment study on the North End, did not return a call for comment.
City didn’t know about new train station in area
The New York Times reported on Thursday that NJ Transit, which also owns land in the North End zone, signed a nonbinding agreement with the Rockefeller Group last year to build a new Hudson-Bergen Light Rail station somewhere in the area.
Details in the Times report were scant, and NJ Transit did not return a call to answer more questions on Friday. The Zimmer administration said on Friday that it was unaware of the agreement and that it has made formal requests for all of the documents involved in the agreement. It did not say whether they would support the construction of a new station somewhere in the area of Fifteenth Street.
NJ Transit, which owns extensive land near their train terminal on the south end of town, is currently in negotiations with the city to build its own residential/commercial project along Observer Highway. Over the years, the Zimmer administration has pushed them to scale down their plans.
The city and the mass transit agency are currently at an impasse over whether the project should be two million or three million square feet, but sources have said that an agreement could come soon. It is unclear how the news of the agreement between NJ Transit and the Rockefeller Group might affect those negotiations.
Meanwhile, the national media continued to report on Zimmer’s allegations last week that high-ranking officials in Christie’s administration implied they would withhold Sandy aid unless Zimmer fast tracked the Rockefeller proposal. The U.S. Attorney has begun conducting interviews with various city officials about the allegations.
Neither Gov. Christie nor Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, who Zimmer says allegedly discussed the Sandy aid threats with her in May, made any new statements on the issue as of press time last week. Guadagno and other state officials have denied Zimmer’s allegations.
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org