Battle over future of Neumann Leathers building sees first casualty
Outspoken tenant removed as owners, city debate zoning
by Dean DeChiaro
Reporter staff writer
Mar 02, 2014 | 4874 views | 0 0 comments | 93 93 recommendations | email to a friend | print
HISTORIC STRUCTURE – The future of the Neumann Leathers building on Observer Highway is in question as its owners and the city clash over how best to redevelop the property.
HISTORIC STRUCTURE – The future of the Neumann Leathers building on Observer Highway is in question as its owners and the city clash over how best to redevelop the property.
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The ongoing debate over how to redevelop one of Hoboken’s iconic industrial structures has apparently resulted in the removal of its most outspoken tenant by the building manager for “killing the marketability of the property,” even as the city moves forward with a rehabilitation plan that could protect the small businesses and artists who currently lease space there.

The Neumann Leathers building, as it is known, sits on a multi-acre property on Willow Avenue between Observer Highway and Newark Avenue. Though it ceased to function as a tannery years ago it still is home to around 20 small businesses. Most of them would have to leave if the ownership is able to demolish the existing structure and build two high-rise structures that would “put the W (hotel) to shame,” according to building manager Vic Zarish.

But it is doubtful that a development-weary City Hall will allow that to happen.

Still, Zarish, who represents the building’s owner, said that the city’s way of redeveloping property (the City Council declared it an area in need of rehabilitation in 2011) is backward and fights the natural progressions of the free market.
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“It’s extremely unfortunate that the relationship between the tenants and the property owners has come to this.” – Mayor Dawn Zimmer
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“It’s such prime real estate, and I’ve had developers knocking on my door for years,” Zarish said on Thursday. “Instead of declaring this an area in need of rehabilitation, this could just be rezoned. That way someone who wants to develop knows what they can and can’t do with the property, and I can put a proper price tag on it.”

Declaring the area in need of rehabilitation forces property owners to go through a more involved process than it would if the area was rezoned. Zarish said the redevelopment laws, which mainly pertain to “blighted” areas, no longer have a place in booming and popular Hoboken, and that the city should rezone the property from its 1930s “industrial” status to a more modern “B-3 business zone.”

The City Council almost made the change, too, in 2005 when it voted 5-3-1 on an ordinance to make changes that would have allowed two buildings – twelve and eight stories respectively – to be built on the property.

But between the first and second ordinance readings, tenants spoke out. Their comments, Zarish said, led to the ordinance being unanimously voted down on second reading. The unintended consequence, he said, was that the tenants made it harder to market the building.

In late January, longtime tenant and former City Councilman Tom Newman, who runs a furniture company and heads the building’s tenant organization, was notified that his month-to-month lease would not be renewed in March. Zarish noted that he does not consider Newman’s exit to be an eviction, because his lease is up at the end of the month and is simply not being renewed.

“I’m hoping they’ll reconsider, because this is a real hardship for me. It’d be easier for me to just close my business,” said Newman, who noted that it was impossible to move out of his space in the time he was allotted by Zarish. “Our tenants’ movement here has never been a plot to undermine the ownership here. We think what we’re doing is important for the city.”

Mayor Dawn Zimmer, who some believe has made life difficult for developers who want to capitalize on Hoboken’s prime real estate, said she didn’t think Newman’s eviction would help Zarish’s cause. But she defended the city’s decision to put the building through a rehabilitation process, and said there was no reason a compromise beneficial to all parties could not be reached.

“On a personal level, it’s extremely unfortunate that the relationship between the tenants and the property owners has come to this,” she said. “Hoboken’s arts community is something that makes the city very special and I think we should work to preserve it. We’re going to be moving forward with this rehabilitation plan, and evicting people is not going to change that.”

A ‘backward’ process

The current zoning laws affecting the Neumann Leather property only allow for construction of two stories on 60 percent of the property, a pittance of profitability for interested builders. Under the B-3 zoning law, the possibilities would be much more diverse, and could result in taller buildings, like the W.

“What we’re envisioning is a set of two gorgeous buildings, with green roofs and restaurants and bars that would put the W (hotel) to shame,” said Zarish. “It could be the coolest place in town.”

But the city’s rehabilitation process, Zarish says, is backward. In 2009, the development firm Trammel Crow proposed building a series of high-rise condominiums on the property after meeting with Zarish and the building’s owner, Bill Bernheim. But instead of asking the city’s Planning Board for approval, the firm was forced to go before the Zoning Board of Adjustment, which grants variances to existing zoning laws, usually an extra floor or an addition, but rarely an entire development. The zoning board unanimously shot down the variances they requested, and the firm’s deal with Bernheim and Zarish dissolved.

“Major development should never go before the zoning board. That’s for when you want to install a new stoop outside your house,” said Zarish. “The city has a Planning Board for a reason.”

Zarish also took issue with the fact that, under the rehabilitation process, the final decision on any plans for the Neumann property would ultimately be made by the Zimmer-controlled City Council, which he says is not well-versed in redevelopment law, despite it being the city’s redevelopment agency.

“Giving this type of power to a group of people that don’t have a good understanding of land use law is like giving a 5-year-old a gun,” said Zarish. “They’re just going to do what their lawyers advise them on, and it’s in the lawyers’ own interest to drag this thing out as long as possible.”

What happens now?

On Wednesday, Zimmer met with representatives from Maser Consulting, the planning firm hired by the city to spearhead the rehabilitation process for that area of town. It was the first of many, Zimmer said, that will eventually kick off a series of larger community meetings this spring. Additionally, Zimmer met with Bernheim two weeks ago and said that she hoped he and the city could come to an agreement that would allow the building to remain standing while also developing the property in a way that Bernheim finds to be profitable.

The Neumann Leathers project is coming to a head at the same time as other significant projects in the area, including a massive redevelopment project just across the street on NJ Transit property, and a federally-funded Observer Highway redesign expected to begin this spring. It’s unclear how each of these projects will relate to each other, though Zimmer said each individual project could play a role in an overall revitalization of the area.

Meanwhile, Zarish has submitted his own design to the city’s Planning Board in the hopes of bypassing the rehabilitation process. The design uses a road to split the property down the middle and allows Clinton Street, which now stops at Newark Avenue, to continue to Observer.

This plan, Zarish said, will help the city’s ongoing flooding problems by allowing water to continue to flow to the Observer Highway flood pump (as opposed to gathering on Newark Avenue), and provides a quick route from downtown to Hoboken University Medical Center.

As for Newman, he said on Tuesday that there is simply no way for him to vacate his space in the building by Zarish’s deadline because he has nowhere to put the large equipment he uses for work. He said that he hopes the tenants, the city, and the building’s ownership can come up with a plan that benefits everyone, and does not result in further evictions.

“We think there’s a way here for the owner to get most of what he wants,” he said. “We’d like to work with him and cooperate with him to find a solution that is a win-win for everyone.”

Dean DeChiaro may be reached at deand@hudsonreporter.com

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