Thousands of people on the elevated NJ Turnpike Extension en route to the Holland Tunnel pass over Center Street in Jersey City daily without seeing it. It is almost invisible, five blocks of downtown in Ward F.
After a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision allowed governments to use eminent domain in general to transfer land between private owners in order to further economic development, New Jersey tightened its regulations, discouraging municipal governments from that approach. But the Bates Street Redevelopment Zone falls under the old laws.
Residents of Center Street are up in arms because the city’s Planning Board is considering a change of language in the Bates Street redevelopment ordinance to make it easier for the city to seize property and give it to a city-designated developer.
Owners of the large properties in the zone fear they’ll lose their right to develop on their own, and smaller owners are currently not allowed that same right.
Residents want the Planning Board to forget the planned changes to the 2006 redevelopment agreement and to modify the ordinance so small owners have the same right as large owners.
Nobody disputes the area needs redevelopment.
A neighborhood in need
Freight trains rattle past nearby. It is a neighborhood filled with vestiges of the past, like the warehouse for a former paint factory on Montgomery Street. It has a popular Dominican café, a licensed dog care center, and other small businesses.
There are numerous vacant lots, used car dealers, auto repair shops, and lots of graffiti. One former factory stands with no roof and boarded up windows, still bearing the banner announcing a previous development slated for the site. Most of the buildings haven’t been painted in decades. On most, the paint is peeling, giving the neighborhood an additional aspect of shabbiness not evident in other nearby parts of the city.
In 2006, the city adopted the Bates Street Redevelopment Plan for these five blocks. The plan handcuffed small property owners, forcing them to sell their homes to only one designated buyer. They couldn’t even fix up their homes because the city would not issue the necessary permits.
Ironically, some of the property owners here saw their assessments rise under the recent reevaluation and their taxes jump as much as 64 percent. That taxation is based on the potential for redevelopment that none of them will be able to realize, because they must sell based on the current condition of the property.
“This is about the small homeowners who are being forced to sell or have the city take the property through eminent domain.” – Natalia Ioffee
Residents ask why the city has designated a specific developer and is forcing large and small property owners to sell their property or have the city take it by eminent domain.
The city, however, argues that the owners of the three largest tracts of land have failed to develop their properties in a timely manner.
The Jersey City Redevelopment Agency has proposed that the five blocks be designated for a project that would include developing 870 residential units as well as ground floor retail by Bates Redevelopment LLC, owned by Manhattan Building Company, which has built a number of buildings on the Hoboken – Jersey City border.
In July, owners of one of the larger properties sued various city agencies and the designated developer to halt the change of rules.
City Spokesperson Hannah Peterson declined to comment on the pending lawsuit.
“Some people are making this look like it is a fight between two developers, a big developer the city wants and another,” Center Street Block Association President Natalia Ioffee said. “But this is about the small homeowners who are being forced to sell, or have the city take the property through eminent domain.”
A battle for control of their future
“Some of us want to fix up our own homes,” Ioffe said. “But we’re not allowed to. We have to sell.”
Ioffe is leading an effort to have the redevelopment zone rules modified like similar changes that were made in the McGinley Square area, where small property owners got more control.
“My goal as president of the block association is to protect the smaller property owners,” Ioffe said.
She and others are seeking to get more options for small property owners, allowing them to fix current buildings, and negotiate sales to someone other than the city’s designated developer.
The neighborhood has presented its arguments to several council people they hope will take their side in the conflict.
“We’re hoping the city council will take our side,” Ioffe said. “We want to revise the development plan, and we want it in writing. We do not want have to take someone’s word.”
Al Sullivan may be reached at email@example.com.