NJ Transit development debate continues
City will propose plan for southern border in the fall
by Dean DeChiaro
Reporter staff writer
Jul 21, 2013 | 8854 views | 0 0 comments | 104 104 recommendations | email to a friend | print
THE NEW OBSERVER HIGHWAY – A NJ Transit plan to renovate eight acres of land along Observer Highway is being challenged by the city, which believes it includes too much residential growth. The city has put forth its own plan, which will come before the city council for approval this fall.
THE NEW OBSERVER HIGHWAY – A NJ Transit plan to renovate eight acres of land along Observer Highway is being challenged by the city, which believes it includes too much residential growth. The city has put forth its own plan, which will come before the city council for approval this fall.

Although NJ Transit officials and the developer LCOR have held informal open houses around town to inform Hoboken residents about their plans to develop around eight acres of land along Observer Highway, the city has been developing its own plan. Last week, Mayor Dawn Zimmer said that while NJ Transit’s “dog and pony show” is a nice effort, ultimately it will be the city’s plan that comes before the City Council for approval.

The land in question is owned by NJ Transit, and a stipulation in the New Jersey Transportation Acts says that the company can build whatever it chooses there as long as it is used only for company purposes, according to Zimmer. However, since NJ Transit wants to erect buildings that include commercial, residential, and retail space, the project will need City Council approval. Thus, even though it is NJT that will be doing the building, and not the city, the city can dictate the kind of proposal that they would find acceptable.

“There’s no reason that whatever we end up deciding on can’t be a win-win for the city and for NJ Transit,” said Zimmer, who noted that city officials met with NJ Transit and its developer, LCOR, about the project three weeks ago.

Zimmer said that she will put a city proposal before the council this fall. The council can accept the plan as is, or, as the city’s acting redevelopment agency, propose any changes they deem necessary. It would then need approval from the city’s Planning Board.

John Leon, NJ Transit’s senior director for government and community relations, said last week that like Zimmer, his company only wants a project that satisfies all involved parties, and is good for Hoboken as a whole. But he also called Zimmer’s rejection of NJT’s plan “an interesting position to take.”
“I don’t think it gets us anywhere to take a stance like ‘Oh, we won’t do this.’ ” – John Leon

“We feel that we’ve been working with the city and have put forth a revised plan that keeps with the character of the city and is economically viable for us,” he said on Wednesday.

Any plan for that area would see a massive renovation of much of Hoboken’s southern border from the train terminal to Marin Boulevard.

NJ Transit’s present plan, which was revised after Hurricane Sandy to meet some of the city’s concerns, proposes the construction of eight residential and commercial buildings, one of which would be 27 stories tall. The agency also would renovate the Erie Lackawanna train terminal and build a modernized bus station with nearly twice the capacity of the present one.

A difference of opinion

A city plan that was made public last year was about two thirds the size of NJ Transit’s proposal in terms of square footage, but includes the same number of buildings overall. The city’s buildings are smaller – none of them exceed 20 stories – and contain less residential space.

The city’s plan also would include fewer residential units. Of NJ Transit’s 3 million square foot proposal, commercial and residential usage would be split 54 percent to 41 percent. The city’s plan would contain 64 percent commercial space but only 29 percent residential space.

Zimmer said she was concerned with substantial residential growth in Hoboken, based on the city’s infrastructural problems such as difficulties with parking and flooding.

“This is simply too much development,” said Zimmer. “I’m sure to a certain extent NJ Transit is a bit sick of me saying this, but this project has to be done within the constraints of Hoboken.”

But Leon contested that the residential aspect of the development is crucial to the project’s overall philosophy.

“The balance between residential and commercial is crucial to the project,” he said. “If you only have the commercial space, there will be a ghost town effect at night and that’s what we don’t want.”

Hoboken currently has more than 50,000 residents.

In 2008, NJ Transit proposed a development that included a 70-story building, which then-Councilwoman Zimmer opposed at the time. She reiterated last week that concept “would have destroyed the character of the city.”

NJ Transit’s revised plan, however, addresses a number of the city’s concerns, including those over open space, parking, and hurricane resiliency. According to Brent Jenkins, a vice president at LCOR who is spearheading the project, the proposal includes expanded parking, small open space areas between each building, as well as multiple flood and disaster resiliency functions.

“Following Hurricane Sandy, we made substantial changes to our design that included green roofs and an entirely independent sewage system so as not to burden Hoboken’s infrastructure,” he said.

All about money?

Throughout the summer, Jenkins and his team have pitched an increase in what he calls Hoboken’s “local GDP” (gross domestic product) to residents as a major benefit of the project. According to figures provided by LCOR, NJ Transit’s $1.3 billion investment in the project would generate $16.5 million in annual revenue for the city, around 6,500 permanent jobs, and a significant decrease in property taxes, around $310 per year per household, because the developers would be paying a share of property taxes.

But Zimmer said that the proverbial, if not financial, cost to the city would outweigh any benefits.

“NJ Transit has the luxury of being in this project to make money for NJ Transit,” she said. “Myself and other elected officials have the burden of doing what is best for the city, which is not always governed by the almighty dollar.”

Zimmer said the city’s scaled-down version of NJ Transit’s plan would still be economically viable for the transit company, especially given the amount of space the city has designated for “accelerator space,” meaning commercial space that will be set aside for startup companies.

“We could have the next Apple,” she said.

What are your concerns?

In addition to NJ Transit’s public meetings, Zimmer and her team have met with various groups around town as well, and both parties seem to be at a consensus as to what concerns residents.

“The biggest worries we’ve heard have been Sandy-related,” said Jenkins. “People want to know if this will increase flooding, how it would affect any plans to protect us from another storm, things like that.”

Jenkins said he thinks there is significant room for collaboration with the city on the mayor’s proposal to build barriers along the city’s southern border, such as a wall between each of NJ Transit’s new buildings.

Zimmer and Jenkins both encouraged residents to get involved in the process online. The city’s plan can be viewed in the community development section of its website (http://bit.ly/13Rs79S), while NJ Transit’s proposal is available at hobokenterminalandrailyard.com.

Asked if she thought NJ Transit would reject the city’s project this fall, Zimmer said she thinks that would be foolish.

“I can’t imagine that the city would approve a plan and they would choose not to build it, especially because our plan is still economically viable for them,” she said. “But the days when the city is going to roll over and do whatever the developer wants are over.”

Leon said that such absolutes were unproductive.

“I don’t think it gets us anywhere to take a stance like ‘Oh, we won’t do this’ or ‘She won’t do that,’ ” he said. “At the end of the day we want something that’s beneficial to all parties.”

Dean DeChiaro may be reached at deand@hudsonreporter.com

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