The Bayonne City Council has adopted an ordinance approving a redevelopment plan for the former Marist High School.
The council introduced the ordinance in December before postponing a public hearing and vote in the matter in January, as the council sought more information about the New Jersey Turnpike Authority’s (NJTA) plans to acquire the property to construct a new Newark Bay Bridge.
At its Feb. 16 meeting, the council adopted the ordinance, approving it by a vote of 4-1.
The move came amid allegations that the city was aware of the NJTA plans to acquire the site before the redevelopment plan was brought before council and that the city is being probed by the state over its handling of the plan, according to City Council President Sharon Ashe-Nadrowski, who is also running for mayor against Mayor James Davis in the May 10 municipal election.
Redeveloper asks for approval
Attorney John Stolz of Lowenstein Sandler represents property owner and redeveloper 1241 John F. Kennedy Boulevard IPX, LLC, formerly Peninsula Court, LLC. Stolz asked the council to adopt the ordinance, on behalf of the entity, which is affiliated with the Alessi Organization.
Stolz previously advocated for the plan at the January meeting when the ordinance was postponed. He again said it was important to advance the Marist redevelopment plan in spite of the NJTA’s intentions.
“Why should the ordinance still be adopted?” Stolz said. “The answer is simple. Doing so ensures that the Marist High School is being redeveloped in a way benefiting and befitting its location truly as a gateway entry to the city of Bayonne. This would be to the extent that the Turnpike does not actually need or require the entire site for its improvement program.”
Stolz said that his client didn’t ask to be put in this situation and is now left “holding the bag.”
“All our client is trying to do now is protect its reasonable investment-backed expectations when it purchased the Marist site in the first place,” Stolz said. “If we play this out, and if the ordinance is not adopted this evening, that means our client has invested millions of dollars to acquire, environmentally remediate, and demolish improvements on a site that cannot be developed or redeveloped… At worst, it will cause our client to lose the value of their investment.”
According to Stolz, the Alessis are Bayonne residents who still want to develop the land even after the NJTA’s announcement.
“Even after the entry of the Turnpike Authority, they still want to do what’s best for the city,” Stolz said. “They want to continue cleaning and remediating the site. They want to preserve it by way of adoption of this ordinance this evening. At least some chance of some ability to put a portion of the site back to productive use to the extent it’s not used in the Turnpike project.”
Was the city aware of the Turnpike’s plans?
Following Stolz, resident Mike Morris addressed the council with concerns regarding the project. In response to resident Morris’ questions about what the Turnpike would need the land for, Ashe-Nadrowski said she was not sure. However, she alleged the city was aware of the NJTA’s plans for Marist ahead of December of 2021.
“At last month’s meeting, we were told the city was not aware of it. But I did find out since then the city has had several meetings over the last year,” Ashe-Nadrowski. “The council was not privy to that. I know that I have found out there are maps that were made about what’s going to happen. There are maps that were drawn up by the Turnpike Authority. But again, this council is not aware of them. We don’t have the information, although we did request it.”
Morris said he preferred that the land be redeveloped for residential or commercial uses as opposed to the Turnpike plans. Ashe-Nadrowski said the NJTA will likely take the land through eminent domain if they need it, which Morris said would likely also include nearby homes. She said she is still planning to meet with the NJTA, however she doesn’t have a date set yet.
Ashe-Nadrowski then revealed that the city was allegedly under investigation for its handling of the redevelopment plan: “There is an ongoing investigation of the state into the city’s handling of this matter. I know that a number of city officials have been contacted by a state office and have been asked questions and told of an investigation going on… I’m not sure if it’s pertinent that if there’s an ongoing investigation on the city side … should we be voting on this?”
Law Director Jay Coffey said he didn’t know if there was an investigation.
“I’m not aware that there’s an investigation,” Coffey said. “I don’t know who was contacted, the law department was not contacted. We didn’t receive anything in writing on it.”
City ‘under investigation,’ says Ashe-Nadrowski
In response, Ashe-Nadrowski said the council, as well as numerous law enforcement agencies including the New Jersey Attorney General Office, U.S. Attorney General, the New Jersey Office of the State Comptroller, and the New Jersey State Commission of Investigation, was forwarded a document outlining how the city mishandled the redevelopment plan.
“We all received a copy of the document that was filed with them,” Ashe-Nadrowski said.
Coffey reiterated he was unaware of any investigation and that the letter did not prove anything.
“I’m not aware that anything has taken place on that and I get these types of documents filed with us all the time by anonymous individuals or people who don’t leave themselves subject to the laws of the State of New Jersey filing complaints against individuals representing the municipality,” Coffey said. “I’m not aware of any investigation.”
Ashe-Nadrowski grilled him for a yes or no answer, but Coffey only said he didn’t know if there was an investigation.
“I was told by people that were contacted and we all received this so,” Ashe-Nadrowski said. “I know how we don’t want to act on things that are part of an investigation. Is the city’s legal opinion that there is no investigation?”
Coffey retorted: “I don’t know if there’s an investigation. An anonymous individual wrote a letter to four entities alleging things about the transaction: that’s all I know.”
The letter was alleged signed by someone alleging to be Frank Struthers, a name not registered in Bayonne, according to Coffey. He said the name is actually that of the son of someone who died in the Charles Manson murders.
Council approves anyway
Despite the controversy surrounding the redevelopment plan and the Newark Bay Bridge, most of the council was in favor of moving forward with the plan. Third Ward City Councilman Gary La Pelusa, whose ward the site is in, didn’t want the land to sit vacant. La Pelusa is running on a council ticket with Team Davis.
“The last thing I wanted to see is a piece of land sitting fallow,” La Pelusa said. “If you put this off, the Turnpike drags its feet, and nothing gets done. That’s the last thing I want to see. This would give them some options if the Turnpike doesn’t come through. I’ve seen millions of deals fall through… We have to do the redevelopment plan, give them the option. If the Turnpike comes in, so be it. If they do come in, I am going to scrutinize this really well because that’s our gateway.”
The council voted 4-1, with Ashe-Nadrowski being the sole person to vote against the ordinance. Her objection was ultimately because she said there was not enough public input on the matter.
After the meeting, Public Information Officer Joe Ryan told BCN he was unaware of the NJTA’s plans for Marist until after the December meeting. Ryan previously told BCN that the city was unaware of the plans when the story first broke, and reiterated that he personally was not informed of the decision until a reporter inquired about it.
For updates on this and other stories, check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Daniel Israel can be reached at email@example.com.