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2021 in Bayonne: The Year in Review

The city continued to grow despite the challenges of COVID-19

Bayonne officials oversee the vaccination of an eligible child against COVID-19.

If 2020 was the year of the COVID-19 virus in Bayonne, then 2021 was the year of the vaccine.

The city honed in on vaccinations from the start of the year. Meanwhile, the city’s redevelopment boom continued unabated by the pandemic. And most prominently, the virus did not prevent local politics from dominating the talk of the town.

COVID-19

At the start of 2021, the city was distributing its first vaccines at Bayonne Medical Center. The focus of the initial vaccination efforts focused on health care workers and hospital staff, emergency personnel and first responders, and high-risk populations such as seniors in housing authority buildings.

February marked the one year anniversary of COVID-19’s entrance into Bayonne, when a Royal Carribbean cruise ship docked in the city carrying passengers thought to be sick with the virus. While no one tested positive, the scare pushed Bayonne to begin preparing for when the virus actually showed up at its doorstep.

As the months went on, eligibility slowly expanded. In May, the city began vaccinating those age 12 and up. And by November, those 5 and up could get the jab. Coinciding with the expansion in eligibility in the fall, the city began administering booster shots to eligible residents.

Hospital executives, doctors, nurses, and hospital staff across the county repeatedly confirmed the validity of the vaccine, the lack of serious side effects, and its effectiveness across variants.

Medical personnel at Bayonne Medical Center got the vaccine first.

The main municipal point of distribution for vaccines was at the Bayonne Community Museum, but quickly shifted to the ice rink by April in preparation to vaccinate the general public. Meanwhile the museum continued to serve intermittently as a testing site.

Cases were decreasing at the start of the year from the holiday surge experience at the end of 2020, at around less than 400 active cases as of Feb. 11. A “twin-demic” was avoided, as that flu season had not been that bad. By the end of the month, cases had dropped to below 200. By March, cases were down to 130.

Throughout the spring and summer, cases continued to fall and remained low. That is until the virus began to spike in late July and early August. However, cases didn’t climb back over 100 until December, and continued to rise through the end of the year.

By the time 2021 had ended, a total 133 residents have died from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. There were still over 222 active cases and hospitalizations were rising to 19.

Politics

The year was dominated by politics practically from the start.

In March, Mayor James Davis made waves with his ousting of Assemblyman Nicholas Chiaravalloti from the county ballot line. Davis announced he no longer supported Chiaravalloti without giving a reason, opting to instead support crane operator William Sampson for the role. At first, Chiaravalloti was not going out without a fight. However, he eventually ended his reelection bid after the Hudson County Democratic Organization backed Davis’s decision.

Then, campaign season started early in May, with the rumor that Davis was allegedly looking to replace City Council President Sharon Ashe-Nadrowski and Second Ward City Councilman Sal Gullace on his ticket in the May 2022 municipal election. Meanwhile, rumors that Ashe-Nadrowski would challenge Davis in that election also began to solidify.

Mayor James Davis and City Council President Sharon Ashe-Nadrowski speak at the renaming of Edith Ferrell Way. Photo by Daniel Israel

In the interim, $500,000 secured by Chiaravalloti to complete a portion of the waterfront walkway on Newark Bay was removed from the state budget, allegedly as retaliation from the state against Davis. Less than a week later, the county announced it would provide the city with the necessary funds to complete the project.

Davis was challenged by a former city councilwoman Mary Jane Desmond for the chair position of the local Democratic committee, but he ultimately secured reelection. Davis continued under fire, with an attack ad campaign launched against him in September, dubbing him “Dirty Davis,” to which his spokesperson said it was an “out-of-towner led plot.”

Sampson sailed to victory in November, making the 31st Legislative District represented by a trio of African-American lawmakers for the first time. In December, Ashe-Nadrowski officially announced she was running for mayor, to which Davis also confirmed he would be seeking a third term. The race was now on.

City council busy amid the pandemic

The Bayonne City Council had a busy year amid COVID-19. The council returned to in-person meetings in May after operating remotely for the year, keeping the virtual option with TetherView available until the end of the year. The council adopted a $150 million budget in 2021.

The city received $39.2 million in American Rescue Plan funds from the federal government. So far, the city has spent a few million of the funds on small business grants, payroll for public health workers, public health expenses, stormwater management, and the hiring of police officers and firefighters.

Later the council decided to form a committee to oversee the funds after discussion of how CARES Act funding was spent. However, that committee was met with resistance from City Hall.

The council approved a number of payments-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOT) agreements. And although discussion about the length continued repeatedly throughout the year, the council did not act to further limit the length of the agreements to 15 years.

The City Council met in person starting in May. Photo by Daniel Israel

The council also now has all PILOTs reviewed by outside financial advisors to ensure they benefit the city. Some PILOTS adopted included amending the PILOT for the Plattykill Manor Apartments, and a PILOT for the first high-rise at MOTBY.

The council approved an ordinance permitting recreational cannabis establishments, particularly two cannabis retailers and one grower and one processor. The council also awarded the animal control contract to the NJ Humane Society, opting not to remain with the Liberty Humane Society.

The city continued to deal with a garbage issue that predated COVID-19 but became inflamed by medical waste being improperly discarded during the pandemic and the new garbage collection contractor. This was in part helped by the annual Earth Day clean up across the city and a “clean sweeps” initiative by First Ward City Councilman Neil Carroll.

The city’s current water contract with Suez was also a common topic of discussion at council meetings, with many residents citing high water bills. The council approved a contract with A + L Disposal, an alleged political donor, however the city claimed the gift was returned.

The hospital saga at a standstill

The fight over Bayonne Medical Center was also front and center before the city council in 2021.

At the end of 2019, CarePoint announced the sale of its three Hudson County hospitals, including Bayonne Medical Center. Throughout the year, it became a never-ending saga.

As CarePoint Health dissolves and liquidates its assets, including Bayonne Medical Center, Hudson Regional Hospital has purchased the real estate of the hospital. Meanwhile, CarePoint has reached an agreement with BMC Hospital LLC to operate the hospital.

However, Hudson Regional Hospital wants to operate the hospital, not BMC Hospital LLC, sparking a war between the entities.

CarePoint and Hudson Regional Hospital continue to butt heads, with Hudson Regional Hospital starting off 2021 by terminating its lease agreement with CarePoint. The entities were further entangled in a number of lawsuits, and by April the fight had made its way to the Bayonne City Council.

The battle over Bayonne Medical Center continued throughout the year. Photo by Daniel Israel

The council introduced held a public hearing on two ordinances that would condemn the property of Bayonne Medical Center through eminent domain and allow BMC Hospital, LLC, CarePoint’s chosen successor which currently operates the hospital, to also own the land. However, the council has continuously postponed a vote pending approval of the state Local Finance Board, which has said it is waiting on the city and county. Regardless, the ordinances appear doomed to fail due to the opposition by Ashe-Nadrowski and the abstention of Gullace due to a conflict of interest since he sits on the hospital board.

In the midst of the battle, CarePoint announced it would be transitioning to a nonprofit, with its three hospitals will continue to operate in their current form and will be controlled by the new nonprofit organization, a spokesperson told the Bayonne Community News when asked if the hospitals were still up for sale. The move effectively brought the eminent domain process to a standstill, but the council still opts to postpone it monthly.

A public hearing before a state entity finally manifested in the form of a New Jersey Department of Health meeting in December. However, nothing has moved forward since and everything still remains per status quo.

With CarePoint and BMC Hospital, LLC on one side, and Hudson Regional Hospital on the other, sparring between the entities is bound to continue into 2022.

School district copes with COVID-19

The school district started the year off under virtual instruction, opting not to shift to hybrid or fully in-person instruction for the rest of the 2020-2021 school year after the winter break. In the meantime, the district was prepping for an eventual return to the classrooms. Meanwhile, some parents called for a return to in-person learning. By March, the district announced it would shift to hybrid instruction in May.

In May, students returned to classrooms under that hybrid model. While there were plans to return to a full in-person instruction model, COVID-19 did not allow for it. Graduation was again held twice, both in person and remotely. Students returned fully in-person in September and maintained that through the end of the year.

The Board of Education adopted a $154 million budget in 2021 and approved a new contract with educators. The district also received almost $10 million to construct a new technical education facility at the high school.

Students returned to school in person in May of 2021, for the first time since the onset of the pandemic.

The board approved the renewal of Superintendent of Schools John Niesz’s contract for an additional five years. The board also approved a new position, the Assistant Superintendent of Special Education, and named Jennifer Vecchiarelli to role. Additionally, the board created its own Office of Emergency Management, appointing former Deputy Police Chief Walter Rogers as the emergency response and crisis coordinator.

Dwayne Williams was named head football coach at Bayonne High School. After a 4-5 season, his contract was not renewed for unclear reasons according to his attorney, although it likely has to do with a brawl between Bayonne High School and Barringer High School after the last game of the season.

The first Black elected trustee to the Board of Education, David Watson was sworn in at the start of the year. However, by November, he resigned because he had to move for family reasons.

Trustee Ava Finnerty passed away. Her seat was filled by parent Melissa Godesky-Rodriguez. Godesky-Rodriguez was reelected on a “Together We Can” slate alongside Trustees Jodi Casais and Pamela Sclafene.

Three seats on the board were up for election in November, with a crowded race which resulted in the incumbents on the “Together We Can” slate sweeping. For the election, the city held early voting for the first time in history.

Redevelopment booms unabated

The Bayonne Planning Board and Bayonne City Council have been busy in 2021, approving a multitude of new projects. This includes: an eight-story mixed-use residential building with 126 units at the corner of East 12th Street and Broadway; a UPS distribution center at the former Military Ocean Terminal at Bayonne (MOTBY); various commercial uses were permitted as part of an adaptive reuse of the former Frank Theatres; an adaptive reuse of the former Mt. Carmel School which will be transformed into a residential building with 31 units; a seven-story multi-family residential building at 1207-1211 Kennedy Boulevard with 42 units; the Bayview project consisting of two eight-story buildings and one twelve story building with 797 units and plans for an additional 12 story tower; a rail-serviced construction supply hub; and a six-story residential building with 40 units at 196-200 Avenue E.

Redevelopment plans were approved for the site of the DaNoi restaurant, Resnick’s Phase Two, the Rite Aid on Broadway, PDQ Plastics and Atlantic Cement at 7 and 9 Hook Road respectively, and the shuttered Delta gas station at 218-222 Broadway, among others.

A rendering of what the center of the Bayview project will look like when completed.

A redevelopment plan for the Caschem site was approved, despite redeveloper objections to height limitations on part of the site. The plan was withdrawn before the city council as the redeveloper sought to submit an alternate redevelopment plan. When the original redevelopment plan was approved, the Gamal Group had claimed that its neighbor, Togus Urban Renewal, owner of the Texaco site seeking to construct a film studio, had not communicated its site plans for the site with them and that the height limitation was put in at Togus’s request. Meanwhile, resident Robert Archibald has filed a lawsuit to have a public hearing for the original Caschem redevelopment plan prior to the council taking any action on the new Gamal Group East redevelopment plan.

The renovations to the former Holy Family Academy to open a new Head Start location at the school continued, eventually coming to a standstill after the bids kept coming in too high from contractors to complete the upgrades. Finally, the council received a worthy bid, awarding the contract to Billy Contracting and Restoration for over $2 million. The BEOF also unveiled the new name and logo of the school at Holy Family, while it seeks further federal funds to complete the rest of the renovations. The planning board also approved plans for the district to reuse the closed St. Andrew’s School as a school.

However, one former Catholic school was not as lucky. The former Marist High School is being eyed by the New Jersey Turnpike Authority as part of a project to construct a new Newark Bay Bridge. It is unclear how this will affect the current redevelopment plan for the property, which was approved by the Bayonne Planning Board in December and offers residential and industrial options. The re-developer assigned to the property, Peninsula Court, LLC, a subsidiary of the Alessi Organization, has not yet submitted final site plans for the board. Prior to the reassignment of the re-developer, the city in conjunction with the school district was looking to purchase the property for educational uses.

Other redevelopment continues across Bayonne, including the implosion of military buildings at MOTBY, the planned construction of a ferry terminal, ongoing library renovations, and other construction slated. Additionally, the Building Department moved out of City Hall, and into one of the parcels of the former Frank Theatres to better serve the public.

Co-founder of Black in Bayonne Camille High led the “Power in the City” parade down Avenue C. Photo by Daniel Israel

Activism prominent in the peninsula

Black in Bayonne, founded in 2020 following the police killing of George Floyd, kicked off the year celebrating Black History Month, emphasizing its importance all year long. Meanwhile, the Bayonne Branch of the NAACP regained local prominence with new President Donald Byrd at the helm. The local organization’s various committees working with the city on various issues.

Co-founder of Black in Bayonne Camille High held an annual vigil for survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence in April. Following the guilty verdict of former police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, Black in Bayonne’s Clarice High said there was still work to be done.

The group helped get out the vote to people of color ahead of the June primaries, as the city hired its first Black women police officers. For Juneteenth, Black in Bayonne held a march for the second year in a row, this year expanding from a flag raising to a parade down Avenue C to City Hall known as “Power in the City.”

The Bayonne Interfaith Clergy Association in conjunction with the NAACP Health Committee held a series of mental health events in 16th Street Park and online. In July, Black in Bayonne called for a better police response to mental health and substance abuse crises following a recent fatal officer-involved shooting in Bayonne.

The group closed out the year with holiday festivities meant to support the culture including giving away meals for Thanksgiving, hosting a Black Business Crawl for Black Friday, a toy giveaway throughout December, and an opportunity for children to take pictures with a Black Santa.

Lawsuits, legal letters, and food distribution

Business Administrator Melissa Mathews filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against the city and a number of Bayonne officials in April, alleging a toxic culture at City Hall. However, in August, a Hudson County Superior Court judge dismissed three main defendants from the lawsuit, including former Assistant Business Administrator Mark Bonamo, former Municipal Services Director Tim Boyle, and Office of Emergency Management Coordinator Eduardo Ferrante. Mathews has filed an amended suit seeking to reinstate them.

From left to right: City Council President Sharon Ashe-Nadrowski, Business Administrator Melissa Mathews, and Law Director Jay Coffey. Photo by Daniel Israel

Boyle later resigned following an incident in which he allegedly illegally recorded a conversation he was not part of, which involved Mathews. The council appointed Gary Chmielewski to fill the position left empty by Boyle.

An appellate court panel also reinstated the “sexting” lawsuit filed by former deputy register Stacie Percella in 2018. And in December, a judge ruled that Davis alongside other Bayonne officials can be deposed in the case.

A Bayonne police officer has filed a lawsuit alleging retaliation after being accused of reporting a superior’s drinking and driving. While the officer has denied filing the report, he allegedly still faced pushback as if he did.

Bayonne Food Bank funding is in limbo, pending a letter of no conflict of interest for co-founder Melissa Mathews from the city of Bayonne Law Department. However, a rift became evident between Law Director Jay Coffey and Business Administrator Melissa Mathews.

By July, it was announced the matter had been handed off to outside counsel. While no movement had occurred for some months, the matter is being handled “administratively,” officials said in December.

Meanwhile, in August, Hunger Free Unity in the Community asked the city for help in finding a permanent location to distribute food from in Bayonne. By November, the council was exploring a few options, however, there had been no solid leads.

Hurricane Ida, stormwater management, park upgrades, and street renaming

The remnants of Hurricane Ida dumped more than nine inches of rain on Bayonne on the night of Sept. 1, causing numerous floods across the city. By Sept. 7, FEMA teams had surveyed Bayonne with canvass teams arriving on Sept. 15 to help residents eligible for federal assistance.

Cars were strewn about, left abandoned following flooding by Hurricane Ida. Photo by Victor M. Rodriguez

In August, the city council passed a resolution asking for federal help in financing its Long Term Control Plan to address combined sewer overflows (CSOs). City officials say the city is working on a number of stormwater projects, including one at Cottage Street and Hobart Avenue, to continue to address the flooding problem in Bayonne.

The over $3 million renovations to Fitzpatrick Park including playground and stormwater management upgrades continued, finishing and reopening in early December. The final touches were installed to the park and the park was completely open by Christmas Eve. The city saved the bells of the now-demolished St. Joseph’s Syriac Catholic Cathedral back in 2020, with the intention of incorporating them into the new East 25th Street pedestrian bridge. Instead, the city will now construct a bell and clock tower in Fitzpatrick Park using the recovered bells. Meanwhile Collins Park is under construction, as well as Morris Park and 28th Street Park among others.

Streets were renamed after prominent locals Rev. H. Gene Sykes, Edith Ferrell, and Jack Graham. A street near 16th Street Park was renamed after the late Det. Joseph Seals, as well as a memorial bench dedicated in his honor.

Miscellaneous facts from 2021

The year started off with two incidents of racism. The first was when a Black woman filmed herself being the subject of racial slurs. In March, another video went viral showing a woman hurling racial slurs at a person of color. Both women from the viral videos were later charged with bias intimidation.

The wind turbine is still broken. The city is still negotiating with the manufacturer to fix it.

The CMA CGM Marco Polo sails under the Bayonne Bridge.

Cruises by Royal Carribbean, which had ceased since the onset of the pandemic in 2020, began work to resume operations over the summer, and cruises set sail again in September. And in November, it amended its agreement with Royal Carribbean to mandate all passenegers age 12 and up need to be vaccinated to board a cruise. And speaking of ships, the biggest cargo vessel to ever dock on the East Coast, the CMA CGM Marco Polo, passed under the Bayonne Bridge in May.

While it was announced in late April that the annual Memorial Day Parade in the city would not be held due to the state of the committee and its veterans. Then the city stepped in to take over, with a new committee appointed by the mayor set to organize the parade again in 2022. Veterans were honored throughout the year, including the unveiling of a statue of war hero Stephen Gregg in the Bayonne county park that bears his name.

Mayor James Davis helped police catch a robber who allegedly dragged a woman from their vehicle. And TEDx Talks are coming to Bayonne.

Remembering the past and moving forward

While Bayonne has paid a toll due to COVID-19, the city continues to charge forward. However, it will not forgot those it lost in 2021, such as Zoning Board Chairman Mark Urban passed away after a battle with cancer, or Maria Ambrocio, the Bayonne nurse who died after she was assaulted in Times Square.

As the city continues to strive towards normalcy in 2022, the challenges of 2021 will not be forgotten, as many are still present and growing worse.

For updates on this and other stories, check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Daniel Israel can be reached at disrael@hudsonreporter.com. 

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