Tension over terminal dissipates; Officials working together on development plan for Lackawanna Station
New Jersey Transit officials and city officials have sheathed their swords for now over NJT's plans to build a 650,000 square foot mixed use commercial building at the northern perimeter of the Hoboken Terminal. Ever since NJT published a request for proposals in 1997 asking developers to bring them their ideas for the space that is currently used as a bus terminal, city officials and community activists have been on edge. Although NJT never released details about exactly how they hoped to develop the building, many Hobokenites worried that a large mixed-use building in the already congested downtown part of town would add to traffic problems and take away from the historic character of the area. Current zoning laws for that section of town prohibit new buildings from standing taller than 35 feet high. But in a phone conversation last week, Mayor Anthony Russo said that he was concerned that the NJT project might not have to go to the city's planning and zoning boards for approval since the proposed project would be constructed on state land. On May 3, prompted by rumors that a final developer would soon be announced for the project, Russo fired an angry letter off to Jeff Warsh, NJT's Executive Director. "I want to state clearly that I oppose this project which would have a detrimental impact on our city," he wrote. After receiving Russo's letter, NJT representatives met with a handful of city officials last week to assure them that they have no plans to build anything on the site without local approval. "In the past week we have been meeting with Hoboken representatives and local community groups to try and take a look at the site and see that the project would be beneficial to everyone," said Ken Miller, an NJT spokesperson. "Our intention is to go to the local zoning and planning boards. We want local approval." So, what?
When asked why NJT asked developers to draft plans for a 650,000 square foot building if that was not what they intended to build, Miller said, "That request for proposals was just something that we put out there to get a sense of what we could put in that space. We asked developers to draft plans that would use up to 650,000 square feet of space." Last week, a group of representatives led by NJT's senior director of real estate, Mark Gordon, met with a group of officials including City Councilwoman Theresa Castellano to establish a way to ensure that local input is taken into account as the plans for the building are drafted. "Right now we are thinking that we will put together a panel of officials and community activists for them to deal with," said Castellano, who also serves on the city's historic preservation committee. "I think this is going to work out. New Jersey Transit officials have indicated to us that they really want to work with us on this project. They say that they will do whatever it takes." Castellano said that she thought a 10-person panel would be the ideal way to proceed. She said that she hoped to include City Councilman Stephen Hudock, Director of Human Services Bob Drasheff, City Planner Elizabeth Vandor, and representatives from New Jersey Transit, the Hoboken Quality of Life Committee, the Historic Preservation Commission and the Hoboken Historical Museum. NJT officials said they are still in such an early part of the planning stages for the site that it would be impossible to say if the new structure would be used as commercial space, residential space, office space or a mixture of all three. They also said that there was no timeline for construction. Castellano said that it would not surprise her if the building was still "10 to 15 years away from being built." While their appears to be new-found camaraderie between City Hall and NJT over the direction the project is taking, outspoken city councilman and Russo critic Tony Soares said he still has concerns. "I want to see a building there that is only four stories tall," he said. "This administration has a history of allowing larger structures with nearly 100 percent lot coverage. That is not acceptable in this case." Soares also said that he was worried that a new building filled with shops so close to the PATH station could hurt business on Washington Street. "Any retail should be pushed up towards Hudson Street to lead people there," he added. "Personally, I'd rather see the space used for a performing arts center."