The City Council will face an important and potentially costly decision next week when an ordinance that would authorize eminent domain to acquire park land is scheduled for possible adoption. In a measure Mayor Dawn Zimmer called, “One of the biggest votes we’re going to have,” the ordinance will undergo a public hearing and vote for adoption at the council’s next meeting on Wednesday, June 6.
Zimmer said last week that negotiations with the owner of a 4th Ward property intended to become a city park are “very far apart.” The property, currently a parking lot, is owned by Ponte Equities Inc. and is located at Harrison Street and Observer Highway.
If the ordinance is adopted, the city will be authorized to utilize eminent domain – condemnation, followed by payment of fair market value for the property – to specifically acquire Ponte’s one-acre parcel of land in the southwest section of the city.
If the council does not acquire the parkland in a timely fashion, the city stands to lose a $3 million county open space grant given last year.
“Real leadership requires making tough decisions and that’s what we need to do to move the city forward.” – Council President Ravi Bhalla
To be approved, however, the ordinance will only require five votes, or the approval of the council majority: Ravi Bhalla, David Mello, Peter Cunningham, Carol Marsh, and Jen Giattino.
Zimmer said that although negotiations with the property owner will continue “in good faith,” she is hopeful that the council will give the administration the power of eminent domain.
“At this point, it’s important that the council give me the authority to use eminent domain as a tool,” said Zimmer, “if that is what we need to do so that we can potentially have more productive discussions [with the property owner].”
“I do hope that they vote yes because this is a very important moment for the city of Hoboken,” added Zimmer, “if we truly want to bring more open space and improve the quality of land for years to come.”
‘You were elected to make difficult decisions’
“It will be very interesting to see how Councilman Russo votes,” said Zimmer in an interview with The Reporter last week. Zimmer said that in 2006, Russo had voted to introduce an ordinance that would authorize condominium developer Ursa/Tarragon to “purchase or condemn” nearly half of a block at 10th and Grand streets.
Zimmer said she is not supportive of this type of seizure, or redevelopment eminent domain.
“It’s the more controversial style of eminent domain,” said Zimmer, who wrote in last month’s memo to the council that she is not supportive of an eminent domain that essentially transfers property from one owner to another.
“I do believe in eminent domain for public purpose,” Zimmer added, “[and] adding more park space is a public purpose.”
Russo, who said last week that he believed in eminent domain only as a “last resort,” said his main issue with the ordinance was the looming expiration of the $3 million grant. Russo said he plans to vote against the measure.
“This [park land matter] should have been [handled] months if not years [ago],” said Russo last week. “I’m not going to further the problem by going out there and threatening to take property [to ensure it] falls within the $3 million dollar grant [timeline].”
Occhipinti, who represents the 4th Ward, would not say whether or not he will support the ordinance. He did, however, echo Russo’s sentiments about the timeline with the grant, which stands to expire this summer.
“The [Zimmer] administration dropped the ball,” said Occhipinti. “They sat on [the grant, and] they were not aggressive.”
Occhipinti also said that the city did not give negotiations enough time to take place.
“I’m very disappointed in the fact that they waited and waited,” said Occhipinti. “Now it’s the last minute and their backs are against the wall, and they’re trying to force eminent domain down the throats of the property owner. I believe this park land can be acquired without the use of eminent domain if properly negotiated.”
Bhalla said that he has concerns about Russo’s comments regarding the measure.
“Either you want a park there or [not],” said Bhalla. “I’m concerned that [his comments] are an attempt to frustrate the administration’s efforts to create a park.”
Bhalla said that although he understands that eminent domain is a touchy subject, it can be validated by the outcome.
“You were elected to make difficult decisions,” said Bhalla. “Real leadership requires making tough decisions and that’s what we need to do to move the city forward.”
‘We should have a park in southwest Hoboken’
Zimmer, a big advocate of parks, said that open space in the southwest ward had been part of the city’s plans since 2004. In fact, many city officials, whether a member of the council majority or minority, are in favor of the creation of a park.
“I do feel quite strongly that every Hoboken resident should be within walking distance of a significant park,” said Zimmer.
“I do believe that we should have a park in southwest Hoboken,” said Occhipinti. “I campaigned on it. I actually advocated it and brought to the administration’s attention that we should divert $3 million of county grant money last summer [to use for park land].”
“I think that in any urban environment, there needs to be a balance between buildings and open space,” said Bhalla. “It’s the only part of the city that doesn’t have the benefit of open space. I can’t tell you how many complaints we’ve gotten from residents about the fact that there is no park in the southwest.”
Criticisms have been aired over the size of the one-acre lot being considered for the park. Zimmer said that if the council is willing, the park space could be expanded in the future.
Stephen LaMarca may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.