It was billed as yet another chance for the public to weigh in on the course of development in Hoboken’s southern rail corridor, but the City Council special meeting on the Hoboken Yards Redevelopment Plan this past Wednesday appeared to be as much a chance for the council to justify their decision to forge ahead on Hoboken’s largest development project in a decade to a collection of skeptical constituents.
The actual vote on approving the Hoboken Yards plan will not take place until this coming Tuesday, but the thrust of the comments made by council members at the Dec. 10 meeting made clear that the plan, which was produced under the advisement of a four-person council subcommittee, will likely have majority support.
The roughly 50 residents motivated enough to brave one of the first snowfalls of the season raised a number of concerns about the plan, and some expressed strident opposition.
Common themes were the height of the proposed buildings, addressing flooding in the city’s south end, and the project’s effect on already jammed traffic on Observer Highway.
The council will also vote next week on a resolution addressing 13 recommendations for the plan provided by the Planning Board two weeks ago. The city’s redevelopment attorney, Joseph Maraziti, will draft the resolution.
A quick recap
The Hoboken Yards plan will allow New Jersey Transit to build 2.3 million square feet of new mixed-use development on land it owns south of Observer Highway and adjacent to the Hoboken train terminal.
The plan would allow two office buildings rising 277 feet and a third at 330 feet, but only if the structures achieve LEED Gold certification and display architectural creativity. The tallest current building in Hoboken, the W Hotel, is 281 feet.
“Nothing has to be an option too.”--Paul Somerville
20 percent of the residential units must be three-bedroom apartments and 10 percent must be affordable housing.
New open space and an indoor public space that could potentially become a performing arts center are also included in the plan.
The wages of waiting
Many of the residents at Wednesday’s meeting questioned why a new development had to happen at all.
“Nothing has to be an option too,” said resident Paul Somerville.
As a member of the Hoboken Historic Preservation Commission, Somerville is concerned that the Hoboken Yards development will erase or damage the historic fabric surrounding the Hoboken Terminal, which he said was the last ferry-rail terminal complex in the United States being used for its intended purpose.
But council members were insistent that not delivering a plan could lead to a much worse outcome for the city’s rail corridor. As Maraziti explained, if Hoboken makes no effort to facilitate development at all, the very real possibility exists that the state legislature could empower NJ Transit to supersede local zoning and build whatever it wants.
As recently as 2009, State Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-36) championed a bill turning NJ Transit into a Robert Moses-esque public benefit corporation with the power to lay down “transit-oriented development” on any land it owns. Sarlo, who serves as the current deputy majority leader of the state senate, said at the time that he was committed to the bill despite the objections of Hoboken.
By making a redevelopment plan, said Maraziti, Hoboken preserves its seat at the table and is able to limit the scope of development. “We were working within [the] parameters of an assumption that we should plan it ourselves rather than have somebody try to force a plan down our throats,” said Councilman David Mello, the chair of the Hoboken Yards council subcommittee.
However, the city also cannot limit height or density so much that development becomes economically infeasible for NJ Transit.
To do so, said Maraziti, would be “the makings of a taking claim,” meaning that the city could be sued for zoning the area in such a way that it could never be used and had thus been effectively seized through eminent domain.
That’s where the city’s economic analysis comes in. The October 2014 document prepared by Freeman/Frazier & Associates argues that the development allowed in the Hoboken Yards plan will yield NJ Transit a 12.9 percent rate of return, which is “at the high end of the minimum range of pro forma rates of return in the New York – New Jersey Market,” according to the report.
Based on her communications with NJ Transit, Director Forbes said her impression was that they are “not super thrilled” with the current plan, but that they have not disputed the city’s economic viability analysis.
Forbes noted that NJ Transit had recently sent a letter to every member of the City Council emphasizing that their redevelopment plans could not infringe on its transportation functions.
A NJ Transit spokesman stated three weeks ago that the agency is “reviewing the plan and continuing dialogue with the city.”
The most recent NJ Transit-produced plan for the site, released in 2012, called for a 27-story office tower and 1,155 residential units. In a 2008 plan produced in conjunction with then-Mayor Dave Roberts, NJ Transit had sought 9.2 million square feet of new space, including a 70-story office tower.
Broken promise on height of buildings?
As always, height was a huge concern of residents. Patricia Samperi, a member of the Hoboken Rail Yards Task Force, spoke for many residents when she called the tallest potential buildings in the current plan a clear break from the brownstone character of Hoboken.
“Jersey City made a conscious effort to go with tall buildings in lower Jersey City,” said Samperi, “and that’s fine, but now it seems to be encroaching here.”
Samperi said the height set a bad precedent, especially after many elected officials had pledged not to build taller than the W Hotel. “What about the next project that comes along? ...it doesn’t seem like we’re really holding it to 25 [stories] and that’s it.”
Among those pledgers was Mello, who stated in response to a Hoboken Rail Yards Task Force questionnaire while running for City Council in 2009 that buildings in the Hoboken Yards area should not exceed 12 stories (the tallest building proposed now would be 24 stories).
The maximum heights in the Hoboken Yards plan are indeed taller than they were in the city’s 2012 draft plan, which had a maximum height of 19 stories.
Director Forbes explained on Wednesday that the added height was necessary to balance out an additional $18 million in flood mitigation measures NJ Transit would be required to provide.
Mello said the only way to achieve the density needed to make the Hoboken Yards economically feasible while capping height to typical Hoboken levels would be to build wide, “monolithic” box-like buildings that completely filled their lot space.
Along with a number of other council members, he found that option unacceptable.
In hopes of alleviating public concerns over the effect of 950 new residents and 1.4 million square feet of new office space during rush hour, several council members promised to undertake an advanced traffic study post haste. Such a step had also been recommended by the Hoboken Planning Board.
In fact, the plan itself already addresses the traffic issue. “A detailed traffic impact analysis will be required as part of a Redevelopment Agreement to identify potential traffic impacts and necessary facility improvements related to any proposed new development within the Redevelopment Area,” it states on page 49.
The document makes clear that “the developer will be responsible for all traffic related improvements on and off-site that will be necessary as a result of new development in order to improve the conditions from the current level of service on these roadways.”
Carlo Davis may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.