Zimmer, Mason divided over uptown redevelopment

Zimmer, Mason divided over uptown redevelopment

February 21, 2009 - Hoboken Reporter

The Hoboken City Council had several contentious votes on weighty issues Wednesday night, foreshadowing the likely tenor of meetings through the May mayoral election.

Council members Dawn Zimmer and Peter Cammarano have already declared that they will run for mayor, and Councilwoman Beth Mason is rumored to be a candidate as well.

Wednesday night, the council voted to approve a redevelopment study for the now-19 block area near the Burlington Coat Factory, where a subsidiary of the Rockefeller Group has been buying land. The area now under review by the Planning Board was expanded westward to the Palisade cliffs, including the land occupied by the Academy Bus Company.

If a city declares an area a redevelopment zone, the city can change the zoning, seek developers with plans that conform to the new guidelines, take over certain property by eminent domain if necessary, and possibly offer a tax abatement agreement.

Zimmer and her ally, Councilman Peter Cunningham, took a stand against continuing the process of designating the area for redevelopment, while Mason found herself on the opposite side of the fence.

Mason said, “If [Hoboken] stops building, it will die. It will die. You have to continue to grow to some extent. You cannot stop.”

She said it was those administering the development process who were to blame for past mistakes, not the process itself. Some have said the city has been too generous with developers in the past, letting them build too high and not demanding enough givebacks like park space, affordable housing, or recreational facilities.

$1.1 billion uptown project

At the previous meeting, the council had sent the uptown redevelopment measure to a committee. However, the committee never discussed the area. Instead, it made its way back onto last week’s agenda in the expanded form.

Zimmer complained that the council was circumventing the committee, and Cunningham made a motion to table the measure until the committee could discuss it.

Cunningham said he was embarrassed that he never received a courtesy call that the resolution would be voted on, since the redevelopment would be in his ward.

Only Zimmer agreed with him to table the matter, so the vote went forward.

Many of the usual development critics spoke against the measure: Dan Tumpson, Jim Vance, Mary Ondrejka, Helen Hirsch, Richard Pasquarelli, Cheryl Fallick, and Jim Doyle.

Doyle said, “Redevelopment zones are kind of like fraternities. They are a good concept, but they often in practice tend to not work out all that well, especially here in Hoboken.”

Fallick said, “This is the same resolution we saw at the last council meeting, just bigger. Should I simply reread my comments from the last council meeting, just louder?”

Only two members of the public spoke in favor of the redevelopment study. Lane Bajardi backed Mason’s claim that the process has been misused in the past, and that development could be a good thing, especially when competing with Jersey City.

Only three members opposed the request for a redevelopment study: Zimmer, Cunningham, and Councilwoman Terry LaBruno.

LaBruno said there were enough redevelopment plans – southwest, northwest, western edge – for the city to deal with already. Several of those plans have been stalled while the city deals with its fiscal crisis.

LaBruno also complained that the upcoming mayoral run was playing into policy decisions.

“Some people have been so anti-redevelopment plans,” she said, “[but after] the Rockefellers come into town – and everybody stands up and takes notes – it has nothing to do with a mayoral campaign?” She added sarcastically, “Of course not.”

Mayor David Roberts said in an interview on Friday that he was glad that the council was moving forward with the project. “I’m very pleased with their judgment and their vote,” he said.

But he agreed with LaBruno that mayoral politics played into the debates.

“Now that they’ve gotten me out of the way, they can’t galvanize behind any one candidate,” he said.

Cutting Roberts’ salary

The council voted unanimously in a non-binding resolution to “pledge” 10 percent of their salaries to local charities.

But a binding ordinance – called “symbolic” by critical council members and residents – to actually cut City Council salaries by 10 percent failed with a 4-4 vote. Mason voted present since she does not accept her council salary.

Zimmer, Cunningham, and council members Theresa Castellano and Michael Russo voted in favor of the cut.

Council President Nino Giacchi said he was not comfortable cutting other people’s salaries and would rather have them individually volunteer for a cut.

“I’m not ready to make an example of this council. I know how hard you work,” Giacchi said. “I don’t know who puts food on your table.”

Russo said, “The symbolism is absolutely necessary. We need to show the public that we’re willing to do it.”

The next measure on the agenda was an ordinance to cut Roberts’ six-figure salary by 10 percent, and the council voted 5-4 in favor. Mason agreed to make the cut for the mayor.

She said afterward that the mayor’s salary was already high in comparison to other cities, and that his performance was not acceptable.

Later in the meeting, the council voted down an ordinance requiring council members to pay for a portion of their health benefits.

Castellano and LaBruno abstained because they do not take the city benefits, they said, and Mason voted present.

Only Zimmer, Cunningham, and Cammarano voted in favor on first reading.

Residents give recommendations

Resident Scott Siegel spoke at the meeting last week, giving rapid-fire ideas to a City Council that hasn’t strayed very far from business as usual since the state takeover.

He asked the council if they ever considered threatening to secede from Hudson County in order to push the county to give the city more services for the amount of city taxes that go to the county.

“If we had some political guts, it might make sense to work with Newport [in Jersey City] and try to form the 22nd county of New Jersey, the Gold Coast County,” he said, citing a recent unsuccessful attempt to succeed in Essex County as a jumping off point.

He also recommended exploring use of a “virtual Town Hall” where the city would used pooled, privatized resources to minimize the city payroll.

“If you could have a neutral company doing certain functions this town does, you don’t have pay the match on Social Security, you don’t have pay their pension, you don’t have pay their benefits. This could be a way to save money,” Siegel said.

He also asked whether the city had figured out why, as reported recently, a botched early retirement incentive plan was going to cost the city an extra $4.2 million from the state Division of Pensions.

“Is anyone ever held accountable for anything like that? Someone really should lose their job over something like that,” he said.

Councilman and Assemblyman Ruben Ramos said at the meeting that he, Mayor David Roberts, Fiscal Monitor Judy Tripodi, and other officials, would meet with state representatives Thursday about the matter. No further information was available about the meeting by Friday.

Ravinder Bhalla, a resident and attorney who plans to run for council, said he disagreed with the city’s stance that the early retirement incentive plan was nearly identical to a plan that was approved by the state for Newark.

“That is completely false,” Bhalla said. “The devil is in the details.”

Bhalla said the Newark plan paid out an incentive based on years of service, while the Hoboken plan tapped into the state pension system early to entice retirement.

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