Bayonne officials have repeatedly denied having prior knowledge of the New Jersey Turnpike Authority’s (NJTA) interest in the former Marist High School property as it relates to the new Newark Bay Bridge project.
However, a number of documents, including email correspondence between officials, show otherwise.
NJTA seeks former Marist High School property
At its Dec. 21, 2021 meeting, the NJTA Board of Commissioners approved a recommendation to deem certain property necessary for the Newark Bay-Hudson County Extension Program Program, and authorized the authority to take the steps to acquire the property, which include the three lots that make up the former Marist High School.
City officials have said on numerous occasions, including the January and February meetings of the City Council, that the city was unaware of any intentions regarding the property until the NJTA’s December 2021 meeting.
However, at the February council meeting in Bayonne, City Council President Sharon Ashe-Nadrowski alleged the city was aware of the NJTA’s interest in the former Marist High School before that time.
Ashe-Nadrowski also alleged that the city was under investigation for its handling of the redevelopment plan. She referenced a letter with attached documents sent to the city administration and city council members describing that the city was aware of the NJTA’s plans. The letter also details the alleged mishandling of the redevelopment plan, and noted it was also sent to several state and federal entities.
Law Director Jay Coffey, who denied in January the city was aware of the NJTA’s interest in the property, denied again in February that the city had any knowledge of the plan. The documents were sent anonymously under a name not registered in Bayonne, Frank Struthers, which Coffey said actually belongs to a descendant of someone who was killed in the Charles Manson murders, and had a return address of City Hall at 630 Avenue C.
Coffeyy said the documents do not prove anything, specifically that the city was under investigation, and that he wasn’t aware of any such probe.
On Friday, Feb. 18, The Jersey Journal reported that it had obtained those documents that showed city officials knew of the NJTA’s intentions for the former Marist High School as early as April of 2021.
The documents were also obtained by the Bayonne Community News, which do confirm that city officials knew about the NJTA’s interest in the property as part of the new Newark Bay Bridge project.
Documents show the city knew
Correspondence between officials shows that the NJTA first made contact with the city regarding the project in March of 2021. The letter from the NJTA’s Chief Engineer Robert Fischer to Mayor James Davis informed the city that the Gannett Fleming, Inc. would be the engineering firm the NJTA “retained to undertake studies for capacity and operational improvements” to the NB-HCE.
However, there was not yet any mention of the former Marist High School property until April of 2021.
Additional documents obtained by BCN which were not included in the Struthers letter, show the Bayonne Law Department’s Deirdre Healey also reached out to city officials via email on April 7 to organize a meeting with NJTA officials regarding the project. Another email from April 12 shows the Mayor’s Office confirmed the meeting for April 20 at 2 p.m.
In an email exchange after the meeting on April 26, the NJTA’s Lu Ding sent the city Notice of Entry Letters that the Authority sent to the properties where it needs “access for design activities.” In the email, Ding noted that the properties in the letters were discussed by officials at the April 20 meeting.
In the attachment to the email, the Notice of Entry Letters indicate that the properties sought for “preliminary engineering and environmental services” for the NB-HCE widening project include Block 13, Lots 1, 15, 16, and 18. Two of those lots, 16 and 18, include the property of the former Marist High School.
The letter states the NJTA will be “undertaking field activities related to the preliminary engineering and environmental services for improvements under the Authority’s Newark Bay-Hudson County Extension Program.” According to the letter, the activities will include: “visual inspection of the site conditions and features; field survey of property to locate features, existing property corners and establish survey baselines; environmental investigation such as wetland delineation, determining the presence of threatened and endangered species, and archaeological shovel testing; monitoring of noise levels; and soil hoeings for gathering information relative to soil characteristics and monitoring of groundwater elevations.”
While the documents do not mention that the NJTA was looking to acquire the property yet, the documents show the city was aware of the NJTA’s interest in the former Marist High School relating to the new Newark Bay Bridge project prior to the redevelopment plan for the site being drawn up. This is in line with Ashe-Nadrowski’s statements at the February council meeting, that “the city has had several meetings over the last year” regarding the project.
Redevelopment approved anyway
Regardless, the city went through with plans to allow the Alessi Organization to redevelop the property. While at first the city was exploring purchasing the site on in conjunction with the Board of Education for educational purposes, it was deemed too “cost prohibitive.”
In October of 2021, the city announced it was no longer involved in the purchase of the former Marist High School due to the cost. The City Council passed a resolution “ratifying and affirming” an assignment of the Purchase and Sale Agreement between the city and the Marist Brothers to Peninsula Court, LLC, an affiliate of the Alessi Organization, as the redeveloper.
Ashe-Nadrowski objected to the nature of the original resolution, which used the words “authorizing,” since Mayor James Davis had already assigned the agreement to purchase the property to the redeveloper.
In November of 2021, Davis took part in a number of meetings about the “Alessi Project Status” from July through at least November, according to documents of the mayor’s schedule included in the Struthers letter.
On Nov. 18, email correspondence shows that City Planner Suzanne Mack reached out to Vincent and Francesco Alessi to discuss uses for the site so officials can complete a redevelopment plan for the site before the Bayonne Planning Board meeting the following month in December.
The redevelopment plan was approved by the Planning Board in December. The City Council introduced an ordinance to approve the plan at its December meeting, before postponing a public hearing and vote in the matter in January as the council sought more information.
Attorney John Stolz of Lowenstein Sandler represents property owner and redeveloper 1241 John F. Kennedy Boulevard IPX, LLC, formerly Peninsula Court, LLC. At both the January and February council meetings, Stolz asked the council to approve the redevelopment plan regardless of the NJTA’s intentions. According to Stolz, the Alessis want to redevelop the land anyway because the Turnpike may not act for years or at all, leaving the property abandoned until it does so.
Third Ward City Councilman Gary La Pelusa, who is running on a council slate with Team Davis and whose ward the site is in, didn’t want the land to sit vacant and agreed with the redeveloper in being in favor of approving the redevelopment plan. Amid the controversy, the council voted 4-1 to approve the redevelopment plan, with Ashe-Nadrowski voting against it because she said there was not enough public input.
Davis donor to redevelop property
The approval by the council likely means the property is more valuable than it was beforehand. Additionally, the Alessis can now construct up to a 14-story residential building or six-story self-storage facility among other uses permitted in the redevelopment plan.
Adding to the political intrigue of the situation, filings from the NJ Election Law Enforcement Commission show that Francesco Alessi has donated $1,795 to the Davis campaign since 2020, with the most recent being a $200 donation in May of 2021.
While the Struthers letter makes a number of other explosive allegations, those are not necessarily backed up by any supporting documents. The letter ultimately alleges that the city coordinated with the Alessi Organization to change the zoning to increase the land value to allegedly make more money when the NJTA moves to acquire the property.
After the February council meeting, Public Information Officer Joe Ryan told BCN he was unaware of the NJTA’s plans for Marist until after the Authority’s December board meeting. Ryan previously told BCN that the city was unaware of the plans when the story first broke in January and reiterated that he personally was not informed of the NJTA’s decision until a reporter inquired about it.
When reached for comment on the Struthers letter and other documents, Ryan redirected inquires to Davis campaign spokesperson Phil Swibinski, who did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
However, Ryan told the Jersey Journal on Feb. 16 that he was unsure of the conversations about the property in April and that the letters were indicative that the NJTA wanted to “take a preliminary look at the site,” not that any properties “were definitely being taken” for the project.
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.