In the shadow of the Fourteenth Street Viaduct along Hoboken’s northern border, workers are putting the finishing touches on a basketball court and playground. The new county park-in-progress may seem out of place when abutting an empty lot, a defunct factory, and a strip mall. But a planned development that could have brought around 600 people to the neighborhood was recently rejected by the Hoboken Zoning Board of Adjustment.
At a meeting on June 17, the board voted 5-2 to deny variances for a mixed-use complex at the corner of 13th and Jefferson Street just south of the Viaduct. The 296-unit development would have featured a bowling alley, rock climbing gym, and two residential towers.
The project needed approval from the board because it diverged in various ways from the current zoning guidelines for northwest Hoboken. In this industrial district, residential or mixed-use buildings are typically not permitted, nor are buildings over four stories in height.
However, the city has been trying to enact a comprehensive redevelopment plan that would revamp the area’s zoning since at least 2007.
The June 17 zoning meeting garnered a large amount of public interest. According to Mark Villamar, one of the project’s developers, at least 60 people attended, filling the conference room at City Hall and forcing others to be turned away. Of the attendees, said Villamar, the vast majority were in favor of the project. Proponents highlighted the increased recreational opportunities it offered.
The vote has ignited debate about whether the members of the Zoning Board were too aggressive in rejecting this project.
City Council division
The rejection of the project became a rare source of division among the allies of Mayor Dawn Zimmer.
Several Zimmer-allied politicians have come out against the board’s decision, including Councilman David Mello. Mello attended the June 17 zoning meeting but did not speak, on the advisement of board attorney Dennis Galvin. In addition, Phil Cohen, a Zoning Board member and Zimmer’s recent pick for county freeholder in the June Democratic primary, came out strongly in favor of the project and was one of two votes in favor of it.
Nine of the 11 Zoning Board members and alternates were appointed or reappointed in January of this year by a City Council with a pro-Zimmer majority.
Zimmer and her allies have been concerned throughout the years about the city losing all of its open space and becoming overdeveloped. Some believe that too many zoning approvals were given away during past administrations.
Zimmer herself had mixed feelings about this recent project.
“I think that having recreational amenities like bowling and a wall climbing gym would be great for Hoboken,” she wrote in an email. “However, I had some concerns about the level of density that was proposed.”
She made clear that she considers the Zoning Board to be independent and did not discuss the application with any Zoning Board members prior to its ruling.
At the most recent council meeting, Councilwoman Theresa Castellano, who has been an opponent of Zimmer, complained about the lack of a vetting process for Zoning Board appointees. “It’s very obvious when you go to those meetings,” said Castellano. “You see some people who are very engaged and very on target and you see some people reading magazines.”
This is not the first project Villamar and his partner Hany Ahmed have pursued in Hoboken’s underutilized northwest neighborhood. One of their 2010 projects has become very successful in town: the building that houses Pilsener Haus and Biergarten. The popular beer hall opened in 2012, just north of the Viaduct on Grand Street. That building similarly required multiple variances from the Zoning Board, which were granted in 2010.
Planning consultant Edward Kolling mentioned that the bowling facility could have additional uses, including a potential music venue similar to the Brooklyn Bowl venue in Williamsburg. As Andy Ivanov, the owner of Pilsener Haus, said at the meeting, “With the exiting of Maxwell’s [concert stage], we believe we can reestablish Hoboken as a destination… to see the good acts, and to see the events and to see the great performances.”
At the Zoning Board meeting, residents also complained that northwestern Hoboken is currently desolate and underdeveloped.
“There are no stores, no cafes, no restaurants, no destinations of interest whatsoever,” said Hoboken resident Will Wuillamey. “To me, it is kind of like an empty Hollywood movie lot or a scene from the Twilight Zone. It is just dead.”
“If this project is not developed, who really is going to bring their children to a park under the Viaduct?” asked resident Meredith Chartier.
Concerns about density
Several board members questioned the height of the residential towers and the overall density of the 296-unit complex. Including an underground parking level, the residential towers would be 13 stories tall, more than triple the permitted height for industrial buildings in the zone.
Ahmed and Villamar maintained that the density of the building could not be lowered without losing its uniqueness. Because they would reuse the current structure at 1300 Jefferson to house the bowling alley and rock climbing gym, they said they had to build vertically in order to achieve the residential space that would make the project economically feasible.
However, the developers did submit a revised plan after hearing concerns at a preliminary hearing. This plan eliminated a duplex floor, and added a Montessori School and outdoor plaza, among other things. The Zoning Board ruled that the changes were substantial enough to constitute a new plan and did not allow the revisions to be considered at the scheduled hearing.
Confusion over plans
The underdeveloped zone in Northwestern Hoboken has long been an issue of special concern for the city’s planners and elected officials. In 2007, the City Council designated the Western Edge, which includes the 1300 Jefferson site, as an Area in Need of Redevelopment. In her 2014 State of the City address, Zimmer called for “the kind of mixed commercial development that attracts and creates jobs” in redevelopment zones around Hoboken.
Despite this, the area is still restricted to industrial use by law. The 2007 ordinance that created the Western Edge Area said a return to industrial use “would be in conflict” with the area’s development trends, but a comprehensive plan that could alter that zoning has never been passed.
The most recent successful development plan to touch on the area was the 2010 re-examination of the city master plan, which recommended that the city give up on “high-rise residential and mixed use” in the northwest and seek out industrial artisans. However, the report cited the lack of action towards officially rezoning industrial areas as a reason for its recommendation.
In rejecting the 1300 Jefferson project, several zoning board members cited an unwillingness to rezone by variance what other bodies had the power to rezone by ordinance.
“The City Council has set out the zoning.” said Zoning Board chairman James Aibel at the hearing. “It has not changed the zoning. It has had opportunities to. There have been multiple discussions about it…for us to, in effect, take that authority and exercise it tonight basically is a detriment to the public.”
The commissioners declined to comment after the meeting. Dennis Galvin, the attorney for the Zoning Board, said he advises the commissioners not to comment on the proceedings of meetings. Although rejected zoning applications cannot be appealed, explained Galvin, the developers of 1300 Jefferson could easily refile an altered application. If that happens, any comments by board members outside of the meetings could be seen as prejudicial.
New planner hired
The City Council has begun to move toward offering a legal remedy. On May 21, it passed a resolution hiring Maser Consulting to create a new plan for the Western Edge. According to Mayor Zimmer, that process kicked off this past Wednesday morning with an initial meeting with the planners hired to produce the new Western Edge plan.
“Since we have market reviews and other information from a prior study, we anticipate that this planning process will move forward on an expedited schedule,” said Zimmer.
The next step is reaching out to stakeholders and property owners in the area, like developers Ahmed and Villamar. Zimmer expressed hopes that a public survey would be released in June, followed by a community meeting in August. If everything works on schedule, a plan could be before the City Council by the fall of 2014.
In a city with as many competing interests as Hoboken, though, few development plans come off without a hitch. In 2008, a draft plan for the Western Edge Redevelopment Area was tabled by the City Council after meeting significant public resistance. In 2010, another draft plan for the Western Edge was similarly tabled and never approved. According to Villamar, the planner recently appointed by the city for the Western Edge area is the fourth since it was designated.
The last successful redevelopment plan in Hoboken was passed by the City Council in 1997. “Every zone since then has either failed through litigation or through some other derailment,” said Ahmed at the meeting.