The city is asking for a do-over on the McGinley Square East Redevelopment Plan, which has caused controversy over the last month and has led to fears about the potential use of eminent domain.
Late Wednesday, Mayor Jerramiah T. Healy pulled a controversial ordinance and resolution concerning the redevelopment plan from the Aug. 10 City Council meeting agenda amid lingering questions about the developer attached to the plan and resistance from property owners.
Flocco’s involvement in the redevelopment plan – which has been unexplained until now – began with St. Peter’s College.
Residential and commercial property owners in the McGinley Square community fear that language in both the ordinance and resolution could open the door to their property being seized by the city. Over the past month they have organized a citywide campaign against the use of eminent domain, which is the power of government to condemn private property and pay fair market value for its use in the public interest.
Property owners first became concerned about the prospect of eminent domain several weeks ago after dozens of them received letters from the Jersey City Department of Housing, Economic Development & Commerce Division.
The letters read, in part: “The Jersey City Division of City Planning has completed a study of the McGinley Square East Study Area, which includes property you own…This will designate your property as subject to taking by eminent domain for redevelopment purposes and will authorize the City of Jersey City and/or the Jersey City Redevelopment Agency to acquire ownership by purchase of the property referenced above by condemnation.”
This means the city can seize the property against the owners’ will, even though they would be compensated.
Genesis of the plan
The McGinley Square East Redevelopment Plan calls for the redevelopment of a roughly three-block area that will eventually include a combination of new housing and commercial space. Specifically, it calls for market-rate and workforce housing, offices, new retail, restaurants, bars, nightclubs, and theaters, in addition to museums and art galleries. The plan also includes new parking to accommodate the expected increase in population and commercial traffic.
There are approximately 52 properties that are tentatively affected by the redevelopment plan. In recent weeks Gary Flocco, managing director of the development firm Corvus, from White Plains, N.Y., has been approaching property owners in the area to see if they are willing to sell.
Flocco’s involvement in the redevelopment plan – which has been unexplained until now – began with a project at St. Peter’s College, Corvus’s first work in Jersey City.
According to Robert Antonicello, executive director of the Jersey City Redevelopment Agency, St. Peter’s hired Corvus, whose previous projects have mostly been in New York, to do some work on its student center and a parking lot the school owns across the street from the Jersey City National Guard Armory. Two owners of commercial properties on Mercer Street approached Flocco and voluntarily sold their lots to the developer as well.
The school, at 2641 Kennedy Blvd., wants to expand its campus. But space is limited because there is a cemetery to the west, and the Hudson County Occupational Center to the east.
Flocco, Antonicello said, “was tasked with finding a relocation option for the Occupational Center so the college can expand as close to Bergen Avenue as possible.”
Working with St. Peter’s, Flocco began exploring ways to grow the campus. As a part of this process, Flocco purchased a parking lot from the Parking Authority located across the street from the St. Peter’s lot.
In the meantime, the city had a redevelopment plan for the Journal Square area that stopped at Academy Street. At the same time, businesses in McGinley Square argued that they were in need of some economic renewal for their district.
Flocco began meeting with the city, and soon a vision for the area began to take shape.
“We really feel McGinley Square is a natural extension of Journal Square,” said Antonicello. “There was some private investment coming in [to McGinley Square], but everybody was struggling…We wanted to see if there was a way that we could energize both St. Peter’s and McGinley Square. We wanted to help the college grow and help McGinley Square grow and stabilize. [Flocco then] does what most developers do. He says, ‘Well, I’ve got this site. I’ve got that site. I’m here, I’m investing. I’m going to put a plan in place for my properties. Maybe I could put a much broader plan in place’.”
This is essentially how St. Peters’ chosen developer became attached to a city redevelopment plan.
Antonicello said Mayor Jerramiah Healy stated explicitly that he did not want whatever plan was drafted to include eminent domain.
The Division of City Planning eventually did a study of McGinley Square and drafted the McGinley Square East Redevelopment Plan, a plan that seems to mesh with several key elements of Flocco’s vision for the area.
While some residents may find it troubling that Corvus has apparently been tapped for a major city redevelopment plan without a public bidding process, Antonicello said that being selected as a “designated developer” comes with many strings attached that most developers would not want.
“The city is giving a large entitlement to develop a property above and beyond what the normal zoning would give them. So, what do you want to come out of that? You want that [developer] to then enter into a performance contract. That means he is held responsible for a time schedule, he’s going to be under the gun.”
The city, Antonicello said, currently has 84 redevelopment plans in place, only three of which have a designated develop attached to them.
Residents and Ward F City Councilwoman Viola Richardson, who represents McGinley Square, have been critical of the process that led to the McGinley Square East Redevelopment Plan. They argue that while Flocco and city planners were developing their vision for the neighborhood, the community was excluded.
At a meeting for property owners held last month Robert Cotter, director of the Division of City Planning, admitted that mistakes were made and said this had been “a learning process.”
Antonicello agreed, stating, “I don’t think we did a very good job of explaining that draconian letter that went out… At the end of the day, it’s not about redevelopment, it’s really about how do we renew McGinley Square? What good is renewing McGinley Square if you’re leaving out residents who have been property owners in good times and bad? We need to take a step back. We need to give residents as many assurances as possible that there will be no takings.”
The city now seems prepared to revisit some of its previous decisions regarding the McGinley Square East Plan.
It remains to be seen how much of the current plan will be reshaped by community input – and how long Flocco is willing to wait for the city to approve a revised plan for the area.
“This is a project that I like in many respects,” McGinley Square resident Paul Bellan-Boyer told the City Council Wednesday night. “What I would like you to consider when the redevelopment plan comes back for a vote, is the process. A good process tends to give us a good result. When the development process starts with the threat of eminent domain, when the development process starts with the city planning department working with a single developer – working together to craft a vision which is in many ways against the interests [of the community], you wind up with distrust…There are ways we can do development that respects the people who are there.”
E-mail E. Assata Wright at email@example.com.