Rumor had it that Mayor Steven Fulop was going to show up at the Ward E council candidates’ debate on Oct. 10. He didn’t, but wherever he was, it’s possible his ears were ringing. The candidates discussed his legacy over the last four years during a live TV broadcast over Hudson Media Group.
The candidates avoided attacking Fulop outright, but they clearly didn’t endorse him either, maybe because the mayor has declined to endorse any of them.
Ward E is the easternmost ward in the city, running from the waterfront on the east to the Palisades on the west. It’s northern boundary borders Hoboken, and its southern boundary is at the southern most part of Liberty State Park. It incorporates a number of traditional and emerging neighborhoods including Newport, Exchange Place, Grove Street, Paulus Hook, Hamilton Park, Van Vorst, and others.
Five candidates are running for the seat vacated by Councilwoman Candice Osborne, who decided not to seek reelection. These include Rebecca Symes, Nicholas Grillo, Jake Hudnut, James Solomon, and Madeleine Giansanti Cag.
The Oct. 10 event hosted all the candidates except Cag. All those present aired some of their views on Fulop, but Hudnut, who is running on the ticket of mayoral hopeful Bill Matsikoudis, was the most outspoken critic of the mayor’s policies.
Who are the people running?
Hudnut, who says he’s the first openly gay council candidate, is an attorney. He recently served as a Jersey City’s public defender. He is currently an attorney at Spar & Bernstein, P.C., specializing in part in immigration and non-citizen issues. He helped manage two Board of Education reform tickets in 2012 and 2013.
Solomon calls himself progressive and independent. He previously served as an aide to the mayor of Boston, designed an affordable housing policy for the state of Massachusetts, and a performance management system for three departments for then-Newark Mayor Cory Booker.
Grillo is a funeral director with the Introcaso-Angelo Funeral Home in Jersey City and has served as the chairperson of Holy Rosary’s Italian Festival, “La Festa Italiana Jersey City” since the late 1990s. In 2010 he revived the Jersey City Columbus Day Parade and still serves today as the president of the organization.
Symes is an attorney and former aide to U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York. Symes has been involved in community organizations and causes as a past president of the Harsimus Cove Neighborhood Association, trustee at the Jersey City Free Public Library, board secretary at The Waterfront Project, advisory trustee at Liberty Science Center and a New Leaders Council Fellow.
Cag is a corporate law attorney in private practice for more than fifteen years. She acts as an advisor and investor to innovative start-up companies headed by women and minority founders. She has been active in numerous public interest and volunteer efforts, including immigration reform and advocating against discriminatory legislation.
In a forum broadcast live – which is available on Hudson Media Group’s Facebook page – the candidates responded to questions that covered a range of topics involving issues in Ward E. The four candidates tended to agree on many social issues, such as support for bicycle lanes and support for local small businesses, but diverged on a number of other issues such as tax abatements, affordable housing, and ethics in government.
“The four of us are progressives,” Hudnut said, adding that Jersey City faces some serious challenges he is prepared to address. He criticized Fulop for fundraising practices that included developer contributions to a superpac for Fulop.
Small businesses and small town feel
One of the ongoing issues for downtown is the impact of development on traditional neighborhoods such as Hamilton Park, Grove Street, Van Vorst, Paulus Hook, and how, if elected, they could help protect these.
Symes said the city needs to do more long range planning, and perhaps zone off sections to preserve them. She said the city needs to review their zoning codes, and believed that the city should no longer give tax abatements. “The age of tax abatements is over.”
Not all of the other candidates agreed with the abatement stance.
Solomon said he’s heard such talk before, and said that abatements are a tool, but that the city must look more closely at these projects
All agreed that affordable housing is needed to keep people from being priced out of Jersey City with high rents. They agreed with Fulop’s move to protect small businesses in the downtown area, even if the city is faced with legal challenges.
They diverged slightly when talking about developing affordable housing downtown and generally supported a proposal by Councilwoman Joyce Watterman that would require projects receiving abatements to provide 20 percent of the residential units as “affordable.”
But the term “affordable” itself is problematic, since generally it is based on the median income of an area, and since downtown and the waterfront are considered among the wealthiest neighborhoods in the state, the rents – even in affordable housing units – might not be affordable to lower middle class people.
Symes said part of the answer is preserving the affordable units that may already exist, especially for senior citizens who may be priced out.
She said reviewing rent control in the city is one tool, along with helping seniors and others to get legal services they need to challenge landlords that might be driving them out. She said the city might review its zoning regulations to encourage affordable housing development.
Hudnut also supported Watterman’s plan, saying this issue affects a host of people including artists and others.
Solomon also said renters need to be protected from landlords seeking to push them out, sometimes by refusing to do necessary repairs. But he said the city has been slow to build new units.
“We must build more than 173 units citywide,” he said.
Grillo, however, said it was difficult for small business owners to create affordable housing with high property values. While he liked the idea of the 80-20 split on new development, he suggested that rent control be expanded to include homes with three or more apartments. Currently, rent control only affects buildings with five units or more.
“We need to develop in ways that do not attract people who drive.” – Jake Hudnut
Parking is the number one issue in Ward E?
As in most parts of Jersey City, traffic and parking issues plague Ward E. In some ways, Ward E suffers more because many of its streets end at the waterfront, and unlike western portions of the city or even the Heights, traffic often gets bogged down in areas where there are dead-end streets.
Hudnut said the city needs to do a neighborhood study similar to one done in Hoboken a few years ago to determine just how many parking spaces are available.
A avid supporter of alternative transportation such as bicycles, he said the area isn’t as populated as it was in the 1930s, but significantly more populated than in 1970.
“We need to develop in ways that do not attract people who drive,” he said. “We also need to seriously enforce parking ordinances.”
He said Fulop’s move to combine the Parking Authority with the police department hasn’t worked.
Solomon said this was an understatement, and there wasn’t even a phone number for people to call once the Parking Authority was abolished two years ago. He also proposed doing a study of parking in Ward E.
Grillo said parking is the number one issue he hears when he is campaigning.
“We need a traffic study,” he said.
He said the current policy of zone parking doesn’t work, and that the city should implement a single permit for all of Ward E, rather than for separate zones.
Symes said that while she doesn’t own a car, she knows people who do and understands their need for parking. She also believes a study of available parking should be done.
Modifying the impact of the reevaluation
None of the four candidates could provide any real hope to those who will be impacted by this year’s reevaluation of property. The state ordered the city to complete the reevaluation by Nov. 1, but the impacts to taxpayers won’t be felt until tax bills arrive in 2018.
Ward E and the Heights section of Ward D are expected to see the most negative impact.
The reval will bring up to date assessments on many older houses that have been under assessed for years. The last reval was done in Jersey City in 1988. Most estimate that a third of the city property owners will see an increase.
“The reval has to happen,” Grillo said. “There is not much we can do. We can assist seniors – maybe make them aware of the senior freeze.”
He said people can appeal the new assessments.
“The reval is coming in much the same way winter is,” he said. “But this is a teachable moment and something to look at when picking the next mayor.”
He said the city needs to leverage its power with state legislators to perhaps change the way the reval law is implemented.
“We can do everything possible to help,” said Solomon. “But the truth is, it’s going to hurt.”
All agreed that Jersey City should look into developing a routine regular assessment similar to one implemented in Hoboken.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.