The City Council majority passed a resolution Wednesday to modify the city’s powers under the Southwest Redevelopment Study, which seeks to determine whether some of the industrial properties and underutilized plots of land near the city’s southern entrance could be redeveloped or rehabilitated.
The resolution, which was passed in a 5-3 vote, will essentially limit the city’s power to acquire property in the southwest 4th Ward. Under the new measure, the city will now move forward with a “rehabilitation” plan rather than a “redevelopment” plan.
The semantic distinction is important because “rehabilitation” does not empower the city to use eminent domain – condemning property and paying the owner fair market value – unless the seizure of property is for public use, such as park land. Rehabilitation also bars the city from making deals for payments in lieu of taxes (PILOT) to acquire property. Basically a tax abatement in which the property owner pays a negotiated annual fee to the city for a limited time, PILOTS are controversial because county and school taxes are not included.
“This is the first step of a longer process where there will be additional opportunities for the public to offer their opinions to us.” – Council President Ravi Bhalla
The resolution was submitted by the administration of Mayor Dawn Zimmer after widespread opposition followed the plan’s introduction and yielded an ongoing series of lengthy public hearings before the city’s Planning Board, an early phase of the process for municipalities considering redevelopment. Community Development Director Brandy Forbes estimated that the Planning Board was only 15 percent through gathering testimony from the public, which included attorneys for the various developers in the area.
The city will now move forward with a rehabilitation incentive, which will not require the Planning Board to gather testimony from the public. Without eminent domain or PILOT tax breaks, however, the city will have less leverage when it comes to acquiring property from developers.
The Planning Board released the 128-page Southwest Redevelopment Study, a document prepared by Clarke Caton Hintz, in January. The study found that the entire 17-acre area under study meets the criteria for rehabilitation, a designation given to an area found to contain a dated sewer and water infrastructure or deteriorated structures. In contrast to rehabilitation, a redevelopment designation more specifically implies that an area is underutilized, or contains unsafe or dilapidated properties, and roughly 75 percent of the area in the study met the redevelopment criteria.
Mayor Zimmer sent a memo to the council explaining the reasoning for the change, which will not require the preparation of a new study.
“I do not believe that Redevelopment eminent domain or PILOTs are tools that we should use in the southwest,” said Zimmer in the memo. “If the City Council concurs, then Rehabilitation would be a more sensible course than Redevelopment.”
Members of the council minority charged that the resolution was a change in direction, costing the city and public attorney fees for the various meetings that were held under the redevelopment context.
“What has occurred for the Planning Board that all of a sudden, you want to pull back on the study,” asked Occhipinti, later adding, “We’re kind of starting at square one.”
Forbes said that a new study did not have to be conducted for the rehabilitation initiative.
Russo said that although it may not be the intention, the public might infer that the city’s decision to change to a rehabilitation initiative implies that it does not want to hear testimony regarding the study.
“You have to understand that it looks very suspicious,” said Russo. “They are certainly going to feel like they are being kicked away and not allowed to speak on their own properties, and that’s going to become problematic for the city. We’re constantly in litigation for various reasons and I do not want to open up another reason.”
Occhipinti echoed Russo’s sentiments.
“You are just shutting down their right to speak on their properties by switching to an area in need of rehabilitation,” said Occhipinti, “because you’re not required by law [to hold public hearings before the planning board].”
Forbes said that the rehabilitation distinction is more “lenient” and therefore would be less objected to by property owners.
“It’s very distinctly different criteria,” said Forbes. “It’s a little more lenient.”
City officials informed the council that the public would have the right to present their opinion before the city council, which carries the ultimate decision whether or not to proceed with the rehabilitation initiative.
“To me [this resolution] looks like a scam,” said Russo. “It looks like we’re feeding our lawyers and professionals more.”
Mello said that the widespread opposition to the redevelopment initiative was a cause for the change in direction.
“We’re only fifteen percent of the way through objectors,” said Mello, adding that he was concerned about the number of those objecting and the strenuous property acquisition methods associated with redevelopment. “I support this measure on both ends.”
Marsh, a member of the Planning Board, said that the study changed direction in order to prevent property owners from being treated unfairly.
“I think that because you can’t exercise eminent domain, you are giving the property owner the opportunity to do [what they choose] with their property,” said Marsh. “It seems to me that this implies that negotiations [will take place], which I personally would prefer.”
“This is the first step of a longer process where there will be additional opportunities for the public to offer their opinions to us,” said Bhalla, “as to what should happen with the area in general, as well as the specific properties.”
Homeless shelter receives a boost
The city unanimously voted to contribute $50,000 to the Hoboken Homeless Shelter, which recently celebrated their 30th anniversary.
“Last year, the Hoboken shelter helped 166 people move from homelessness into permanent housing,” said Zimmer in the memo. “As various funding sources are being cut from the shelter, they are in a time of need.”
Officials from the shelter said that approximately 50 people are housed and 400 meals are given out per day at the shelter. The resolution proposed that $50,000 be given to the shelter, which would be spread out through its various programs, including food and shelter, a change in independence program, a homelessness prevention program, and a housing placement program.
Resident, business owner, and shelter board member Rory Chadwick expressed his support for the resolution.
“I used to be homeless thirteen years ago,” said Chadwick. “I used to live on a park bench in Morristown. When I lived in a shelter the people were there to give me a hand and to help me get back on my feet. Since then I’ve done great things in my life.”
“I’m here to tell you that this gift is very much needed for the shelter,” added Chadwick.
Russo asked Jaclyn Cherubini, executive director of the shelter, if she thought that the $50,000 would be a continuous, yearly grant from the city.
“I’m not under any delusions,” said Cherubini, adding that she has extensive fundraising efforts planned.
Occhipinti suggested that the $50,000 be donated exclusively to assist the shelter’s housing program, which seeks to place homeless people in homes.
“To use government funds I believe you have to be very careful,” said Occhipinti. “I would love to have this $50,000 earmarked specifically for your housing program.”
Occhipinti’s amendment to the resolution was unanimously supported, giving the shelter $50,000 exclusively for their housing placement program.
The council introduced an ordinance to move forward with the acquisition of parkland in the southwest ward.
Deemed “Block 12” on the city tax map, the city plans to acquire a one-acre site on the west portion of block 12, across the street from the “Downtown Pub” at Observer Highway and Jackson Street.
Zimmer said in her memo to the council that the city and property owners have failed to negotiate a fair price for the acquisition of the property. The city will now use eminent domain if negotiations continue to falter.
Zimmer also said that the city will eventually look to acquire more land for a larger park.
A resolution was passed seeking to apply for a grant from the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs for approximately $12,240. The grant could help the city provide special needs children with an adapted recreation program.
Stephen LaMarca may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.