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.
Reval opened people’s eyes
The impact of the 2017 revaluation of property was felt in every neighborhood in Jersey City. Many long time 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. But even people in poorer neighborhoods whose assessments went down or remained unchanged were unhappy because the revaluation showed they’d been overpaying taxes for years while wealthy neighborhoods sometimes underpaid significantly.
Schools faced with new problems
The good news for the Jersey City school district is that the state returned local control in September after 30 years.
But there was a lot of bad news, too.
Jersey City teachers held a one-day strike in April, which eventually concluded four-year-struggle to get a new contract. Ironically, the settlement came so late that negotiations on a new contract started immediately afterwards. Also, the district faces a severe budget shortfall, and only through extensive reductions in other areas were teacher layoffs averted.
But an agreement among power brokers elsewhere in the state resulted in massive cuts of state aid to the district. These were partially offset by a new payroll tax that state legislation allowed and the city council approved late in the year, over significant objections from the business community. The tax is expected to raise about $75 million, not enough to fully offset the massive cut to state aid, so a school tax increase in 2019 may be a possibility. At the same time, the state is reexamining legislation passed in the mid-1990s that allows for development of charter schools, of which the coity has several, supported by the local school tax levy.
New chief dealing with old problems
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 charged and later 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 ultimately phased out the program, to end just after the start of 2019.
The police department also mourned the death of Lt. Christopher Robateau who was struck by a vehicle on the New Jersey Turnpike while he was 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. This coincided with the development of a community court in February.
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. The shootings and other crimes have become part of an intensive anti-crime initiative that is expected to pick up speed in 2019.
In May, a new building began to rise in the Bergen-Lafayette section of the city, 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 that once resided there. Many of the city’s offices were relocated to the Annex over the rest of year in an effort to encourage new business and development along streets like MLK Drive and Ocean Avenue.
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 – which has the most visible building in the city – broke ground in the fall on the second tower of the three-tower project.
New center of the arts?
In purchasing a building in Journal Square from the county college in January, the city took the first steps towards building a world class performance center and to create a new home for the city museum.
This sidesteps some of the stubborn issues that the city encountered with redeveloping the Historic Loew’s Theater.
Fulop, however, noted that the city will likely take action there when the current lease with Friends of the Loew’s expires in 2019.
Bayfront purchase authorized
In June, Mayor Fulop and the City Council opted to purchase a 95-acre track along the Hackensack River, making the city its own master developer of the largest development since the Newport area in the 1980s.
To cover the purchase as well as needed infrastructure improvements, the council adopted a $170 million bonding ordinance in July. The property, known as Bayfront, has the potential to significantly increase the affordable housing stock in the city, although numerous problems remain to be worked out, such as traffic impact.
Traffic safety moves ahead, plastic bag ban stalled
Pedestrian fatalities in 2017 pushed the city to begin work on a traffic plan for the city. This would include safety developments, parking planning and enforcement as well as a bicycle master plan. While not fully detailed by the end of the year, much of the work gathering data took place in 2018, and is expected to lead to unveiling a plan in 2019.
In March, the city took the next steps in a proposed traffic bridge at the end of Jersey Avenue. This is designed to steer traffic away from high volume areas near the edge of downtown. Jersey City has serious traffic and parking issues, something that became very evident in November when an early snowstorm created gridlock throughout the city.
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. Although the ban is designed to help prevent a massive build up of plastic in the ocean and ingestion of plastic by fish and other animals, the ban was opposed by business owners small and large. The ban would also have had the most impact on poorer residents in the city. City officials, however, are expected to revise the ban and 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, however, the state legislature was still bogged down and no legislation was approved.
In April, Hudson Pride – a key center for providing 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 continued to be a local concern with numerous events held through the city during the year to highlight them. The most significant of these was Pride Week and the Pride Festival that took place throughout the city in August.
A new obscenity law?
In early May, the city was forced to revise its obscenity ordinance after city officials closed down an artistic striptease act at one of the clubs. This resulted in a number of protests and an eventual upgrade of laws long out of date. Although some of the details were still being worked out by the end of the year, the strip show was allowed to go on without interference.
In late May, Mayor Fulop supported moving the Kaytn Memorial statue from its current location at the end of Montgomery Street near Exchange Place. This was to accommodate the development of 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, the highlight of which featured a chilly visit from the president of Poland. The City Council approved the move in June, but activists eventually got a referendum on the ballot in November to let the general public decide. But before it could be voted on, a Hudson County Superior Court judge nullified the council’s ordinance that authorized moving the statue.
Obamacare brings Al Sharpton to the city
Rev. Al Sharpton came to Jersey City in late August, promoting federal healthcare facilities located in Jersey City and North Hudson. He also used the opportunity to defend the Affordable Healthcare Act, known as Obamacare. By year’s end, the future of Obamacare was in doubt after a federal judge ruled that some of its provisions were unconstitutional.
In October, Coptic Christian Pope Tawadros visited Jersey City. He appeared at two churches during a two-day period. Jersey City has the oldest Coptic Church in America.
Free press and Snoop Dogg
Jersey City stumbled into the middle of a national debate over access to a free press in July when Mayor Fulop ordered the removal of newspaper boxes throughout the city. This brought both local and national attention, eventually resulting in the city restoring the boxes it removed.
Jersey City’s Fourth of July celebration at Exchange Place brought legendary rap star Snoop Dogg to perform. Thousands of people crowded the streets to hear him and others perform as part of an annual event. This was followed by a massive fireworks show, part of an effort by Fulop, to distinguish Jersey City as a world class city, which has lived in the shadow of nearby New York.