Bhalla: school in exchange for increased density a ‘nonstarter’

Hoboken mayor also cites traffic concerns
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According to a community message from Mayor Ravi Bhalla to the city council, he will not support a new project in the Southwest Redevelopment Area proposed by Academy Bus that would include a new middle school, and would require “major changes to the existing Southwest Redevelopment Plan.”

The proposal includes office space for Academy Bus, a new Hoboken Middle School, 439 residential units, and public open space.

Bhalla said he supports the original southwest redevelopment plan, passed unanimously by the council in 2017, and he has concerns about the increased density of the Academy Bus proposal.

Superintendent of Schools Dr. Christine Johnson did not answer requests for comment on Bhalla’s message. In the past Johnson and Board of Education members have said they may need more seats for students in the coming years.

“If enrollment continues to grow at the rate we’re seeing recently, we will surely face the need for additional space or buildings,” said then-school board president Thomas Kluepfel a year and a half ago at a school board meeting.

Bhalla said since learning about the project he has received several inquiries from residents of Southwest Hoboken, “who are rightfully concerned that the proposed dramatic increase in building heights and residential density would be harmful to their neighborhood and make the already existing traffic problem worse.”

One of the main gateways to the city for vehicles is in southwest Hoboken, which is regularly gridlocked during peak travel periods. City administrations and the council have tried to relieve the congestion with the Southwest Traffic Circulation Plan.

The Southwest Redevelopment Plan was created after several community meetings, surveys, and property owner meetings.

“The plan that was passed unanimously was a result of substantial collaboration between Mayor Zimmer’s administration and the City Council, and incorporated substantial resident feedback,” said Bhalla noting that the feedback from residents often included a request for limited residential density.

“Residents of the Southwest (and throughout the city) are rightfully concerned about over development that poses a threat to our quality of life and to the charm and character of our city,” wrote Bhalla. “In addition, particularly in the Southwest, which is the southern gateway into and out of our city, traffic is an enormous problem. With these concerns in mind, the plan that was adopted provides for residential density additions consistent with the density levels in most of the other residential neighborhoods of our city, while also keeping the plan financially feasible for property owners.”

“To be clear – I remain 100 percent supportive of the scale of residential density permitted in the existing Southwest Redevelopment Plan, and I will not consider any developer proposals inconsistent with the Plan’s scale and vision…,” he wrote.  “For all the above reasons, the Academy Proposal (which includes massive increases in density on the Academy property – 439 units versus the 192 units -19 affordable permitted under the current plan) is a non-starter for me.”

The administration negotiates redevelopment agreements for the city and proposals cannot move forward without the administration’s support.

Southwest Park would be next door

The city has pursued Academy Bus land for the expansion of it’s Southwest Park. The existing Southwest Park is a small, triangle-shaped 1-acre piece of land with passive space, rain gardens, café tables, and a dog run.

In Nov. 2017, the city received an appraisal for the land conducted by Federal Appraisal and Consulting which established the fair market value of the property at $5.3 million less than the $13 million the company said it was worth.

The company offered the land to the city if they would be permitted to develop part of their remaining property into high density mixed use buildings, but the city denied the proposal.

Of the park, Bhalla said the city is still evaluating options to expand the park including Block 10, which Academy Bus owns.

“I remain committed to transforming this currently vacant [lot] into a park, doubling the size of the current Southwest Park,” said Bhalla. “It is my hope that we can acquire this land via direct acquisition that does not place an undue financial burden on the City of Hoboken… We are continuing to explore direct acquisition and consider it the preferred course of action, but if a development agreement could be struck based on a fair value, I would consider an amendment to the Southwest Redevelopment Plan that would incorporate the build out of the Southwest Park.”

Currently block 10 is not part of the redevelopment plan.

“Aside from the Southwest Park buildout, I would not be supportive of any other changes to the current Southwest Redevelopment Plan that would present added residential density,” he said.

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