The Peninsula City is in a time of reckoning with its past, and planning for the future. Cranes and construction crews are regularly seen in Bayonne’s dense housing market. Financial uncertainty at the school district triggered unrest among parents and students in the spring, while the mayor’s race kicked off in the fall. Candid conversations have taken place about the city’s need for more mass transit options and parking solutions. A lot has happened in 2017 – here is a rundown.
The cost of housing in Bayonne has risen faster than inflation, and faster than wages over the last decade, according to U.S. Census data released in December.But the city has plenty of space to build more housing, and that’s exactly what it is encouraging developers to do, albeit through financial incentives sometimes unpopular with residents. The market price of homes for sale, meanwhile, continues to rise.
Bayonne revised its Master Plan in July for the first time since 2000. Master plans outline the long-term vision for a community’s built environment and guide decisions about land use while promoting quality of life.
The new Master Plan promotes contemporary urban planning principles, especially in the areas surrounding light rail stations, to create high-density, walkable, bike-able, and mixed-used development. The plan recommends the city establish “station area plans” for neighborhoods within a quarter mile of a light rail station as “transit villages.”
“Our assets are our charm and home life,” said Bayonne City Planner Suzanne Mack, who wrote the 2000 plan. “We’ve moved from being an industrial giant, an oil tank farm basically, into more of a bedroom community with a lot of community resources.” The plan reconciles residents’ differing views on where large developments should go and how big they should be.
It creates two tiers of zoning. “Catalyst” projects would allow for buildings between eight and ten stories, and require public open space, while “non-catalyst” projects would be between four and eight stories.
Catalyst projects within a four-block radius of the 22nd Street Light Rail station include 19 East, a 138-unit luxury rental building; Madison Hill on the former site of CJ Murphy; Skye Lofts South and Sky Lofts North, both on Avenue E combining for nearly 200 units; and a 180-unit Parkview Realty residential development.
On the former Military Ocean Terminal Base, multiple large residential developments are set to break ground after years of environmental remediation and financial planning. Those plans have even attracted a Costco to the area of Route 440 near the 34th Street Light Rail Station, in close proximity to residential developments on the base.
The area near South Cove Commons, directly south of the base, will also see development in the coming year, including a hotel, residential building, and mixed-use office space.
No developer is too big for the City of Bayonne. In September, the city joined hundreds of cities across the U.S. and Canada in responding to Amazon’s request for proposals for a location to build its second headquarters. Bayonne says the former Military Ocean Terminal Base would be a great location for the headquarters with its expanse of undeveloped,shovel-ready land facing the New York Harbor. Gov. Chris Christie officially recommended Newark with a $7 billion package of tax breaks for the retail giant, which ranks 26th in the world in revenue.
A new healthcare provider in town
In June 2017, Barnabas Health at Bayonne opened on 24th Street and Broadway. The three-story, 80,000- square-foot medical facility includes an imaging center, retail pharmacy, pediatric center, primary care services, women’s health services, physical therapy, laboratory drawing station, and emergency services. The ceremony featured the Bayonne High School marching band performing outside of the soon-to-be emergency entrance.
Bayonne already has a full-service hospital a few blocks away, so for some, the new medical facility seemed redundant. Last year, RWJ Barnabas applied for a waiver for its new Bayonne location to be designated as a satellite emergency department (SED), citing its growing volume of ER visits from Bayonne and southern Jersey City.
Transportation and infrastructure
The Bayonne Bridge and Exit 14A on the NJ Turnpike underwent massive construction projects in 2017. “Raise the Roadway,” which raised the navigational clearance of the bridge by 64 feet, was concurrent with deepening the channel.”
A crowd gathered along Dennis Collins Park on a cool September morning to watch one of the new behemoth container ships, the CMA CGM Theodore Roosevelt, navigate the newly-deepened Kill Van Kull and pass under the newly-raised Bayonne Bridge. The $2.1 billion Main Navigation Channel Deepening Project, which started in 2004, deepened the harbor by 50 feet to allow for such container ships to access the terminals at Port Newark, GCT Bayonne, and the Howland Hook Marine Terminal.
The entire bridge project will not be completed until 2019, when the temporary two-lane road becomes a permanent four-lane road with a path accessible by bicycle and foot, as well as new piers, a new roadway deck, and new approach roads. The projected cost of $1.3 billion ballooned to $1.6 billion.
The “Interchange 14A Improvement Project” is slated for a 2018 completion. The project calls for increasing the toll plaza capacity from 11 to 13 lanes, extending the ramp from Interchange 14A westbound, expanding the Hudson County Extension to two lanes, and replacing the existing two-lane connector bridge with a new four-lane structure to Routes 440, Route 185, and Port Jersey Boulevard. A new flyover ramp is also being constructed from the interchange and Port Jersey Boulevard to Route 440 south. The existing traffic signal at East 53rd Street will be removed, and the new roundabout will maintain permanent access to the 14A Interchange.
The city has been pushing hard for a ferry on the former Military Ocean Terminal Base, an empty tract of land attracting a bevy of developers. In late February, city officials and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey agreed to perform an impact study to determine future demand for a ferry slip on the base.
Local officials on both sides of the Kill Van Kull are onboard with the idea of constructing an aerial gondola over the Kill Van Kull from Elm Park in Staten Island to Bayonne. When the Staten Island Economic Development Corporation (SIEDC) unveiled the winner of its international design contest in September of 2016, the concept was initially considered unrealistic. The private venture would cost more than $60 million.
The Master Plan also calls for a crosstownshuttle bus. While that proposal seems unlikely in the short term, a bike-share option has also been proposed. “Bayonne Bike Share” signs and stations of bicycles are popping up around town with maps indicating the locations of seven stations, which occupy the equivalent of one parking space. High-tech racks automatically lock the bikes’ front rims.
A citywide property reval was ordered by the Hudson County Board of Taxation in April of 2016. The Bayonne Tax Assessor’s Office is responsible for making the first new tax maps since the last reval in 1991. Revals are supposed to take place when assessed value of properties falls too far out of sync with true market values. When the city is finished creating new physical and digital maps, the process will be handed off to a contractor who will assess all 13,948 parcels of land in Bayonne across every zoning category: industrial, commercial, and residential. The reval can result in higher property tax bills for many homes.
Meanwhile, a federal tax bill signed by President Trump may depress or stagnate home values in high-tax states like New Jersey, while capping state and local tax deductions at $10,000, which could hurt Bayonne homeowners who itemize their taxes.
In January, a President who received 20 percent of the vote in Hudson County was sworn into office. In November, Democrat Phil Murphy was elected governor while carrying 63 percent of the vote in Bayonne. That same election saw surprising results at the Bayonne Board of Education (BBOED) where one incumbent and two new trustees were elected. The BBOED put added pressure on the city by levying a 4 percent local property tax in March after a $2 million budget deficit unearthed in November of 2016 triggered the board to take drastic measures. An audit of the district’s finances revealed in November of 2017 that the district does not have a deficit, but alleged improper practices by a former accountant made it look as if there were one. Now, the district is not underwater financially, but is operating with very low reserve funds, which can result in a budget deficit in the event of a financial emergency.
A combination of increased property taxes and cost of living, uncertainty at the BBOED, and a controversial strategy of attracting real estate development has created an active political climate not so different from the one in 2014 when James Davis won the mayoral race by a small margin. Voters will have the choice in May whether to stay the course with Davis.
In October, former NJ Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell announced his bid for Bayonne mayor. Three council candidates have joined his slate to challenge Davis and his slate of incumbent council members, all elected in 2014. Davis announced his bid for re-election in October. Two of the incumbent city council members have announced runs on Davis’s slate.
City Council President and Councilwoman-at-large Sharon Ashe-Nadrowski and Councilman-at-Large Juan Perez have announced bids for re-election. They will face O’Donnell’s slate of candidates for At-Large City Council, Daniel Ward, Director of the Social Studies and Library/Media Science Programs at the Bayonne School District, and Melissa Enriquez-Rada, a Bayonne real estate agent and president of the Rotary Club of Bayonne.
Kevin Kuhl, owner of the East Side bar, Kuhl’s Tavern, will run for Second Ward council seat, currently occupied by Councilman Sal Gullace. There is no indication that any of the three seated City Council members who have not announced a re-election run will not seek re-election. The remaining two O’Donnell candidates are expected to be announced in January.
‘Sexting’ even in Bayonne
In a year of shifting cultural attitudes toward patriarchy, Mayor James Davis was thrown into the center of a “sexting” scandal. At a May City Council meeting, Stacie Percella, a former city employee who worked on Davis’s mayoral campaign, accused Davis of allegedly sending her sexually explicit text messages both during the campaign and while she worked for the city, between 2013 and 2015.
No resignation followed, but an apology did. Damage to Davis’s political reputation will be measured in the 2018 mayoral election. Mayoral candidate Jason O’Donnell has criticized Davis’s character over the issue.
A racial divide
All eyes were on Bayonne in March when the Zoning Board voted down a proposal by Bayonne Muslims, a local Muslim organization, to build a mosque and community center on East 24th Street. The group, whichapplied for bulk variance relief to convert an unused warehouse on a dead-end street and was met with fervent opposition by some residents, citing concerns of increased traffic, less parking for residents, and a poor “fit” for the community. Despite the result, supporters of the Bayonne Muslim community came out in force to the meeting.
The issue has sown social divisions in the city since the proposal was first introduced in 2015, while Islamophobia across the country has spiked. Meanwhile, the Muslim community in Bayonne has been without a place of worship within the city since their last lease at St. Henry’s Church expired at the beginning of 2017.
Bayonne Muslims has since sued the city for discrimination in federal court, seeking approval to build a mosque and community center.
Dennis Collins Park on First Street, one of Bayonne’s largest parks, underwent a large renovation. New playground equipment, exercise equipment, bean toss, a patio area for leisure and yoga, and solar charging stations will be installed.
The project also installed a new volleyball court, resurfaced two tennis courts, and renovated and relocated two dog parks. New playground equipment includes ADA-accessible swings, tot swings, a dual beam Kid Koaster, a standing rocker, and a Volta Inclusive Spinner.New exercise equipment includes ellipticals and steppers.
The long-term goal is to make most of the Bayonne shorefront accessible and walkable. City officials and the Port Authority have discussed the potential for a linear park underneath the Bayonne Bridge that would start at 5th Street and extend south to Dennis Collins Park and could include a walkway, bike path, parkland, playground, and other amenities. The walkway would extend north up Bayonne’s western shore to connect to 16th Street Park, Stephen R. Gregg Park, and Rutkowski Park.
Stephen R. Gregg Park got $3.7 million worth of waterfront ballfields. Also known as Hudson County Park, it has more than 100 acres of open space that includes ballfields, tennis courts, basketball courts, bocce courts, horseshoe pits, and a running track. Now it’s resurfaced two full-size soccer fields and two mini soccer fields with turf, and added two full-size softball fields, all with new landscaping and LED lighting (the same lighting used by the University of Arizona).
The park, which is maintained by the county, was improved using County Capital Funds.
A pond renovation in July and August beautified the northern-most section near Rutkowski Park. The manmade pond, which was filling up with muck and leaves, was drained to add a new sodium bentonite liner layered with sand to prevent water from leaking into the soil, as well as coir logs that allow plants to grow around the pond’s edge, which features a new walkway.
Development has opened the door to public-private spaces that will be included in some large residential developments. Meanwhile, the McDonald’s on Broadway will be pushed back to make room for a private-public plaza on the corner of West 25th Street.
After years of underfunding, NJ Gov. Chris Christie and the state legislature agreed in June to a school funding formula that allocated Bayonne six percent more than what Christie originally called for, amounting to about $3.2 million.
Statewide, the new funding formula increased state funding by $125 million, with $25 million allocated to expand pre-k and kindergarten expansion. In November, the Bayonne school district expanded pre-k to dozens of students after it was awarded a Preschool Education Expansion Aid grant, part of the$25 million in earmarked funds from July’s state school funding agreement, from which Bayonne gained an additional $2.9 million in state aid.
The Bayonne School District is expanding pre-k this year to dozens of students after it was awarded a Preschool Education Expansion Aid (PEEA) grant of $770,982. The funds will go to providing all-day pre-k to 65 children who will be admitted through a lottery system.
State-certified pre-k teachers will lead classes in five schools in all parts of Bayonne. Henry E. Harris School, Lincoln Community School, Philip G. Vroom School, Washington Community School, and Midtown Community School will each host one class.
The city will maintain free half-day programs, which run in every elementary school. Last year, the district had 468 children in half-day pre-k. Nineteen kids in Bayonne are currently enrolled in the district’s full-day program at Nicholas Oresko Community School, which charges a fee. Those students will be guaranteed a spot in the new program.
With limited classroom space, the Bayonne Board of Education was considering using modular classrooms outside the main buildings, but decided against the plan for reasons of cost efficiency.
The city organized more entertainment than ever in 2017. Aside from festival staples like the Hometown Fair and Bergen Point Fall Festival, which saw tens of thousands of attendees, the Renaissance Festival ran for its second year in July, and the Urban Enterprise Zone sponsored a Music on Broadway series that featured live performances at dozens of locations along Broadway.
When a hurricane devastated eastern Texas in September, Bayonne pooled resources for a newly-named sister city, Baytown, Texas in a concert fundraiser called “Bayonne to Baytown,” which featured Tammy Blanchard, Chuck Wepner, and Mayor Davis, who wore a cowboy hat. Bergen Point also attracted a new festival at Dennis Collins Park, the Bridge Arts Festival, organized by the Bridge Art Gallery in Bergen Point.
Rory Pasquariello can be reached at email@example.com.