By Marilyn Baer, Mike Montemarano, Rory Pasquariello, and Al Sullivan
In 2018, communities throughout Hudson County elected new officials, watched developments rise, and enacted changes in school districts, police departments, and public services. National issues such as immigration, LGBTQ rights, legalized marijuana, and the emerging new political and social strength of women found local expression. Neighbors came together in times of crisis and mourned the passing of respected public servants. As 2019 appeared on the horizon, residents greeted the new year with renewed energy and high hopes for even better times ahead.
2018 was a year of transition in Bayonne. Two elections brought many incumbents back to City Hall and the Board of Education. Mayor James Davis emerged from a contentious municipal election to win a second term that will end in 2022. Development was another big story; most undeveloped properties now have buildings under construction.
Former Police Chief Jim Sisk died in September at the age of 79. Cornelius (Neil) Carroll, a former Hudson County Freeholder, athlete, and Navy vet, died at age 91. His grandson, Neil Carroll III, was appointed in November to replace former councilman Thomas Cotter on the Bayonne City Council. On Oct. 15, former U.S. Rep. Neil Gallagher died at age 97.
Bayonne received a $650,000 federal grant in May for construction of a ferry terminal on the southern shore of the former Military Ocean Terminal Base. In October, the city announced the ferry operator would be SeaStreak, based in Atlantic Highlands. The Bayonne terminal would be SeaStreak’s first in Hudson County. The rest are operated by NY Waterway.
Traffic improvements were made to major highways and local streets, including the $310 million 14A Interchange Project, completed in May, which increased toll plaza capacity from 11 to 13 lanes, extended the ramp from Interchange 14A westbound, expanded the Hudson County Extension to two lanes, and replaced the two-lane connector bridge with a new four-lane structure to Routes 440, Route 185, and Port Jersey Blvd. A new flyover ramp was also constructed from the interchange and Port Jersey Blvd. to Route 440 south.
NJ Animal Control and Rescue’s contract was severed in favor of the Jersey City-based Liberty Humane Society after NJ Animal Control and Rescue’s director came under suspicion for alleged ethics violations.
Bayonne’s Muslim community successfully challenged the Bayonne Zoning Board’s March 2017 decision to deny the group a parking variance in its effort to convert an old warehouse on East 24th Street to a Muslim community center. The group was awarded $400,000 in February of 2018 as part of an agreement with the City of Bayonne, which was required to approve the group’s center.
In April, the school board adopted a $130.7 million budget to fund the 2018-2019 school year. The school district, which is funded by the state and from 40 percent of Bayonne’s property tax bills, levies additional taxes when the cost of running the district increases including higher costs for the state’s health insurance plan, school security, updates to math and science programs, upgrading of aging facilities, a growing student population, and a low reserve of funds from the previous year.
Five people have died in four years on Route 440, including Christian Rodriguez, 22, killed on Nov. 7 by a driver who fled the scene and was later arrested. The stretch of road between 22nd and 34th streets is particularly dangerous. The fatality comes after upgrades to the 22nd Street intersection improved crossing signals and allowed more time for pedestrians to cross.
Soon after the Feb. 14 Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, the district participated in “National School Walkout” on March 14 on Avenue A. Students, parents, and faculty walked out of school for 17 minutes, one minute for each person killed in the Feb. 14 shooting. Some Bayonne students attended the national “March for Our Lives” protest in Washington D.C. the following week. On Feb. 23, Bayonne High School went on lockdown after a message circulated through social media threatening a school shooting at “BHS,” an acronym for a New Mexico high school, Belan High School, that was confused with Bayonne.
A Bayonne hockey coach and social studies teacher, David McKenna, 38, resigned his position after allegedly pointing a State Trooper’s semiautomatic handgun at two people in the coach’s locker room at Bayonne High School on Nov. 30, 2017. The fallout from the incident was felt in 2018. The gun, which was holstered and hanging in the coach’s office, belonged to an off-duty NJ State Trooper and assistant hockey coach, Richard Korpi Jr.
Project labor agreements (PLAs) are now required for all private development projects of more than $15 million that sign payment-in-lieu-of-tax (PILOT) agreements with the City of Bayonne. The city council passed the ordinance in February after it offered PILOT agreements to most of the major developers. A PLA is a collective bargaining agreement signed by one or more labor unions and a developer that establishes the terms and conditions of employment for a construction project. Union workers support the ordinance, citing safety, fair pay, youth career building, the benefits of hiring local workers, and gender inclusion.
Landmarks of the former Military Ocean Terminal Base (MOTBY) are now gone. The iconic water tower was demolished in December to make room for 1.6 million square feet of industrial warehouse space slated for construction by 2021. Lincoln Equities Group completed its acquisition of a 153-acre site on MOTBY, called the Bayonne Logistics Center, in June. In 2007, Ports of America purchased the land and buildings. The old warehouses will be demolished, and the land raised by six feet, which will require two million tons of fill.
The city will continue to fight NY Waterway (NYW) for the former Union Dry Dock (UDD) property, which the ferry company purchased in 2017 for a refueling and maintenance facility. The city wants the waterfront site for public open space. It offered the company $11.6 million, but after NYW refused to sell, the city moved to obtain it via eminent domain in February.
This spurred NJ Transit to offer to purchase the property and lease it back to NYW, causing the city to cancel eminent domain proceedings. Despite the hundreds of residents who spoke out against NYW at a public hearing held by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers (USACE), in December the USACE granted permits to NYW. The city awaits a study of alternative sites being conducted by the state.
Construction will begin next year on the new Hilton Hotel, which was approved by the city council after months of negotiations between the administration and the developer, KMS Development Partners. Developers will renovate the Frank Sinatra Post Office on First and River streets and provide $4.85 million in community givebacks. Mayor Ravi Bhalla said this would set a precedent for other developers hoping to build in Hoboken.
Washington Street is still under construction and will likely not be complete until May, 2019, despite the original summer 2018 deadline. The glacial pace is the result of ancient, below-ground, often undocumented infrastructure that causes unforeseen problems, though test pits, field surveys, and reviews of records and drawings were performed prior to construction. The original contract with Underground Utilities has ballooned from $17.5 million to $19.2 million. The project so far has cost a total of $21.9 million, which includes the $2.8 million for T&M Associates, which manages the project for the city.
The 2018 Hoboken Master Plan Reexamination Report and 2018 Land Use Element Report were finalized, addressing how Hoboken’s socioeconomic profile, population, vision, and needs have changed since the 2010 Master Plan. The plan’s objectives include more facilities and events for the arts and education, protecting historic structures, more affordable housing, nonresidential facilities in underserved areas, and reducing traffic.
Recommendations include an arts and cultural district, a linear park along the west side, enforcement of rent control laws and affordable housing rules, and flood prevention. A major recommendation of the Land Use Element is a new zoning map with seven residential zones, with height and size restrictions.
On Nov. 6 residents voted to reinstate runoff elections. The city could see runoffs as soon as November 2019, when six council seats will be up for grabs. The two top finishers in a ward race would go to a runoff in early December, if neither draws more than 50 percent of the vote.
Mayor Dawn Zimmer and her allies led the charge to do away with runoffs by public referendum in 2012.
The city council enacted marijuana legislation that would permit three medical dispensaries in Hoboken, no more than one per zone, but temporarily ban recreational dispensaries until the state votes on whether to legalize recreational marijuana. The council could revisit the ordinance if the state legalizes recreational marijuana in 2019.
Hoboken has a long history of alleged voter fraud; the U.S. Attorney’s Office in October indicted longtime Hoboken political player Frank “Pupie” Raia – a former councilman, mayoral candidate, and current real estate developer – for his alleged involvement in a vote-buying scheme in Hoboken in 2013. Raia, 67, was charged with “conspiracy to violate the federal Travel Act for causing the mails to be used in aid of voter bribery.” Hoboken resident and 2013 campaign worker Dio Braxton, 43, was also charged. Raia and Braxton both pleaded not guilty.
Several public meetings were held to discuss features of the Rebuild by Design project for flood-resistant structures and storm-water control systems to protect areas vulnerable to flooding along Weehawken Cove to the north, and in and around NJ Transit’s Hoboken rail yard to the south. The structures include floodwalls and soft landscaping such as berms and levees. Construction is scheduled to begin in 2020.
A final design for the city’s largest park will be chosen in 2019 with construction soon after. The six acres between Madison and Adams streets will be a key element in Hoboken’s flood resiliency strategy, and will manage at least 1 million gallons of storm water.
After winning reelection by a decisive margin in 2017, Mayor Steven Fulop began his second four-year term in January, setting an agenda that included enlarging the police department, increasing affordable housing, and expanding development to portions of the city beyond the waterfront.
The 2017 revaluation of property was felt in 2018. Many longtime residents in upscale areas, who bought at low prices decades ago and were taxed under the 1988 valuation, complained when the assessed value of their homes and their taxes skyrocketed. People in poorer neighborhoods whose assessments went down or remained unchanged were also unhappy because the revaluation showed they’d been overpaying taxes for years while wealthy neighborhoods sometimes underpaid significantly.
The state returned local control to the Jersey City school district in September after nearly 30 years. Meanwhile, Jersey City teachers held a one-day strike in April, which concluded a four-year-struggle to get a new contract. The district faces a severe budget shortfall; only through reductions in other areas were teacher layoffs averted. An agreement among state power brokers resulted in massive cuts of state aid to the district. These were partially offset by a new payroll tax approved over objections from the business community.
Chief of Police Michael Kelly was sworn in to help solve a number of problems, most immediately a scandal in the misuse of off-duty police assignments. A number of officers were convicted for fraudulent activity in regard to the program. Former Police Chief Phil Zacche also pleaded guilty in January. Kelly, along with Mayor Fulop and Public Safety Director James Shea phased out the program. The police department also mourned the death of Lt. Christopher Robateau who was struck by a vehicle on the New Jersey Turnpike while assisting a stranded motorist. Changes to the city prosecutor’s office and the appointment of Jake Hudnut as the new prosecutor shifted the focus to helping those charged with crimes rather than jailing them. Although gun violence was down in 2018, there were several temporary spikes, including one in late October and early November when the city reported 13 shootings in a two-week period.
In May, a new building began to rise in the Bergen-Lafayette section, signaling a giant stride in redevelopment in that area. To advance this redevelopment deeper into Ward F, the city unveiled its City Hall Annex, renaming the HUB areas as Jackson Square, a tribute to a family of farmers who once lived there. While projects continue to rise along the waterfront, other projects slated for areas near the Hoboken border took off this year, as well as a new residential building in the Hamilton Park area and a new public park. Journal Squared – the most visible building in the city – broke ground in the fall on the second tower of the three-tower project. In purchasing a building in Journal Square from the county college in January, the city took the first steps toward building a world-class performance center and creating a new home for the city museum.
The city sidestepped some of the issues encountered with redeveloping the Historic Loew’s Theater.
In June, Mayor Fulop and the city council opted to purchase a 95-acre tract along the Hackensack River, making the city its own master developer of the largest development since the Newport area in the 1980s; it has the potential to increase affordable housing stock in the city.
Pedestrian fatalities in 2017 pushed the city to begin work on a traffic plan. This would include safety developments, parking planning and enforcement as well as a bicycle master plan. In March, the city took the next steps in a proposed traffic bridge at the end of Jersey Avenue designed to steer traffic away from high volume areas near the edge of downtown. A plastic bag ban introduced in June had to be scrapped later in the year when Gov. Phil Murphy refused to endorse state legislation that would allow municipalities to charge people for using some types of bags. City officials are expected to reintroduce a version early in 2019.
In anticipation of the state’s legalization of recreational marijuana, the city created a new zoning overlay that would allow local officials to determine where marijuana could be sold. By the end of the year, no legislation was approved by the state legislature.
In April, Hudson Pride – which provides services to the LBTGQ community – relocated from Journal Square to temporary offices at Christ Hospital. The center had plans to relocate to more permanent facilities on Newark Avenue, but by year’s end, the move had not yet taken place. LBTGQ rights were highlighted at numerous events, including Pride Week and the Pride Festival in August.
In late May, Mayor Fulop supported moving the Kaytn Memorial statue from the end of Montgomery Street at Exchange Place to accommodate a new park many protestors claimed would benefit wealthy patrons of local hotels. The proposal led to a war of words between Fulop and high officials in Poland, and a chilly visit from the president of Poland. But before a referendum could be voted on, a Hudson County Superior Court judge nullified the council’s ordinance that authorized moving the statue.
A plan for the North Bergen Liberty Generating power plant was first announced in April 2018. The plant will channel electricity across the Hudson River to a Con Edison plant in Manhattan. Liberty Generating claims the plant will burn natural gas in a way that’s “34 percent more efficient than the average NYC fossil fuel power plant today.” It estimates the plant will create 620 long-term jobs. North Bergen officials have proposed a Payment in Lieu of Tax (PILOT) plan, with North Bergen Mayor Nicholas Sacco claiming there will be “no impact on residential neighborhoods and little to no strain on municipal services.” According to protestors, the facility “will emit hundreds of tons of ozone and particulate matter annually.” In 2017, Hudson was one of 11 New Jersey counties to receive an F grade in an evaluation by the American Lung Association.
The Board of Education received voter approval to fund a major expansion project on Dec. 11. The school will move forward with a $60 million bond issue to purchase the former High Tech High School campus on Tonnelle Avenue and divide the township high school into a west and east campus. Schools Superintendent George Solter announced plans to start a partnership with Hudson County Community College, so that students would be able to receive college credits prior to graduation.
The former Manhattan Trailer Court Park has been cleared to make way for a project by developer James Dematrakis. The site at 48th Street and Tonnelle Avenue will see 240 housing units adjacent to the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail station. On Paterson Plank Road, the Hudson Mews development will accept rental applications on Jan. 15. Six wood-framed residential buildings hold 288 units. The developer is also constructing a 1.5-acre park adjacent to the site.
The prospect of federal aid for the Hudson Tunnel Project remains up in the air. The $13 billion project aims to construct a new railroad tunnel below the Hudson River for Northeast Corridor use, and rehabilitate the current North River Tunnel after Superstorm Sandy caused extensive damage. The entrance will be the same for that of the North River tunnel on Tonnelle Avenue.
President Trump scrapped an agreement made during the Obama administration for the Federal Transportation Administration to fund 50 percent of the project. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo met with Trump on Nov. 28, but no further consensus was reached.
Yearly overdose deaths in Hudson County have more than doubled since 2013. Union City High School held a substance abuse awareness seminar on Jan. 25 organized by the NJ Reentry Corporation to discuss the epidemic. The panel highlighted the increased street presence of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 times more potent than heroin. Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal reports that statewide prescriptions for opioids have decreased, but the rate of overdoses has been increasing since 2015. According to the report, fentanyl was involved in 69 of 147 overdose deaths in Hudson County in 2017.
Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner and Union City Mayor Brian Stack were re-elected in May 2018 after running unopposed. Stack’s commissioners ran unopposed. Commissioner Tilo Rivas was replaced by Wendy Grullon following his decision not to run. Stack has held office since 2000; he also represents the 33rd district in the New Jersey Senate. In Weehawken, Councilwomen Carmela Silvestri-Ehret and Rosemary Lavagnino were re-elected, while Councilmen Raul Gonzalez and David Curtis took the helm of third ward and at-large seats, respectively.
In 2018, thousands of residential units were under construction in North Hudson, signaling a change in downtown areas, housing markets, and rental costs. Proximity to New York City makes the waterfront a hot location. At the beginning of 2018, Weehawken approved expanding its waterfront recreational area. By summer 2019, three new pools, a splash park, and an 11,200-square-foot pavilion that can convert into an ice rink are expected to be completed. The extended-stay Residence Inn by Marriott Hotel held an open house at the 154-room Port Imperial complex on Dec. 14. The hotel is within walking distance of the Port Imperial light rail station and ferry terminal. A 210-room Renaissance Hotel is slated to open in the same building this summer. Developer Hovnanian unveiled a complex with 278 luxury condo units on a 2.8-acre lot near the Port Imperial ferry terminal. The development, named Nine on the Hudson, is one of the largest residential structures in the Port Imperial complex.
Secaucus is a small town at heart dealing with many of the problems that urban communities face, including school district controversies, flooding, traffic woes, and crime.
The attempt by the Board of Education to fire high school Principal Robert Berkes was probably the biggest story in Secaucus in 2018. Berkes responded by filing a $5 million lawsuit against the district. In positive news, the new High Tech High School campus opened in September. The $160 million development has 70 classrooms in 350,000 square feet on a 22-acre site near Laurel Hill Park and specializes in culinary arts, design and fabrication, biomedical sciences, environmental science, media, visual arts, and performing arts, in addition to core high school courses. The school board election in November saw the reelection of Trustee Joan Cali, the return of former Trustee Barbara Strobert and the election of newcomer Mary Eccles. Patricia Smeyers, a fifth-grade teacher at Clarendon Elementary School in Secaucus, was named Hudson County’s Teacher of The Year.
Secaucus faced serious flooding at the end of the year, partly because safeguards installed during the 1970s were neglected. As many as 70 homes experienced flooding during late-year storms, an issue the city claims it will resolve early in 2019.
In January, Secaucus launched a shuttle service to the center of town for Xchange residents. While Xchange is within walking distance of the Secaucus Transfer rail station, it is still remote from the other residential and business sections.
The town also tried a shuttle service between Laurel Hill Park and the rail station for commuter parking but shut it down in November when few people used it.
In June, Uber opened a driver hub in Secaucus, competing with a number of cab companies.
In March, the town council changed municipal law to allow non-U.S. citizens to serve on its volunteer fire department. Early in the year, the town also began to enforce zoning laws in order to shut down illegal apartments, which are often fire hazards.
In June, the Secaucus medical marijuana dispensary opened, a state-approved facility that dispenses marijuana to patients with prescriptions. A month later, the town council voted to ban recreational marijuana sales, anticipating state approval that was still pending by the end of the year.
Secaucus in 2018 continued to try to persuade a supermarket to locate in town, possibly in Mill Creek Mall. In August, Secaucus officials announced a repaving program for portions of Meadowlands Parkway, paid for largely by grants.
The American Dream complex is slated to open next April, according to an August release from developers Triple Five. Formerly known as Xanadu, the site was like a mirage in the Meadowlands since construction began over a decade ago. Skepticism about its opening grew as the project cycled through developers, and opening-date promises fell by the wayside.
The complex will occupy 3.2 million square feet in East Rutherford, and will hold the largest indoor ski slope in the Western Hemisphere, a full-sized ice rink, a CMX luxury theater, a 235-foot diameter observation wheel, a DreamWorks waterpark, a Nickelodeon Universe theme park, a Legoland discovery center, and an aquarium.
Secaucus, which holds an annual fishing derby in May, saw a number of curious animal-related events during the year. A dog chasing a rabbit in Laurel Hill Park got trapped in a pipe and took more than 24 hours to rescue. In the summer, someone abandoned a goat at the Walmart on the opposite side of town. In July, several seals were spotted in the Hackensack River near Trolley Park.
A staunch community activist and strong advocate for the animal shelter and rescued animals, former Councilwoman Sue Piro, died this year.