Saying that they want to know the value of a 17-acre piece of property before agreeing to give it to Liberty Science Center, at the Feb. 21 council caucus members of the City Council threatened to withhold the ordinance that would turn over the land.
The ordinance would authorized the city to hand over 17 acres to the JCRA, which in turn will give the land to the Liberty Science Center for the construction of a new $280 million project that will feature a biotech lab, a coding lab, a technology business incubator, and a K-12 STEM-focused school, as well as a scholar’s village with residences for visiting scientists.
The dispute at the meeting left an ill feeling between JCRA Director David Donnelly and Councilman Michael Yun, who raised the issue.
The Jersey City Redevelopment Authority (JCRA) pulled the ordinance from the agenda and will likely reintroduce it in March.
Donnelly has argued in the past that the land has no value. But members of the public in January raised questions about this, since other nearby land had been sold to Jersey City Medical Center for about $24 million.
“If this land has no value, then we should give the Jersey City Medical Center back its money,” said Councilman Richard Boggiano, who along with Yun asked for an independent assessment of the property before the council agreed to turn over the land to the JCRA.
The visibly distraught Donnelly said that an assessment would be part of the process the JCRA would undertake as part of the contract with LSC. But several other council members, including Council President Rolando Lavarro, agreed with Yun about the need to know the assessed value before taking a vote.
A matter of time
Donnelly said there was some urgency to having the ordinance introduced and passed since LSC will need to raise $78 million more in order to start construction.
“Until the land issue is settled, they can’t start raising funds,” said Donnelly. “Every day we wait is one less that [LSC] can make phone calls. This project won’t see profit for a long time, if ever.”
He said this is about bringing the best and brightest talent to Jersey City.
“This is a vision change, a game changer for Jersey City,” he said.
Boggiano, however, said the project would include a hotel that could become a private asset if LSC chose to sell it later.
Donnelly argued that agreements between the JCRA and LSC would prohibit that.
“How can we be giving this away without knowing what the land is worth?” – Chris Gadsden
“We need to see the contract between the JCRA and Liberty Science Center,” he said. “Once the land is out of our hands, we cannot control what happens. If this land has value, then we should sell it and use the revenue to lower taxes.”
The council has two members on the JCRA board, Lavarro and Daniel Rivera. But Lavarro seemed uncomfortable with introducing the ordinance without first seeing an assessment on the land.
Donnelly said revenue sharing with the city would be part of the redevelopment agreement.
Ward B Councilman Chris Gadsden said the value of the land was an issue raised at the January council meeting.
“How can we be giving this away without knowing what the land is worth?” Gadsden said.
In January, the council voted to authorize the necessary zoning and other changes required to allow SciTech Scity to move forward. But the question of the land transfer drew sharp criticism from members of the public.
Both Boggiano and several members of the public complained that in the past LSC did not promote Jersey City as a location when advertising.
LSC Executive Officer Paul Hoffman, who called the new village a “transformative project,” said LSC has changed the policy.
“One of the reasons I am executive director and not my predecessor is because of things like this,” he said. “We say Jersey City now.”
He noted that LSC has seen an increase in visitors of more than 225,000 over the last six years. “We employee one third of our staff – about 101 people – from Jersey City,” he said, noting that this project would create a comprehensive science and technology campus.
Plans for SciTech Scity will include Liberty Science K-12 School, which will focus on science and technology education and develop new curriculum that can be shared around the world; Edge Work, a workplace with more than 160,000 square feet of research labs, private studios, open workspaces, and a conference center; Scholars Village would feature a Scholars Village to provide short- and long-term residences for those working at or visiting SciTech Scity in addition to STEM graduate students in the area.
Construction on the project is expected to begin late 2018 with plans for an opening in 2020/2021. The project is expected to create approximately 2,526 construction jobs during its development, and once complete will create 600 permanent jobs, of which a significant portion will be expected to go to Jersey City residents. Funding for the project is expected to come largely from venture partners and philanthropists.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.