Jersey City Ward F Councilman-elect Frank “Educational” Gilmore held a hybrid town hall meeting last night to discus the Morris Canal Manor and SciTech Scity projects.
By Daniel Ulloa/Hudson County View
While Gilmore is still about a month away from being sworn into office after defeating Councilman Jermaine Robinson by roughly 23 points in November, he said projects like these require immediate attention.
“I just wanted to make sure I reached out to the developers and their attorneys and keeping in mind the vision of Ward F. We’re not anti-development. We’re just pro responsible for development,” Gilmore said.
“We want the community to be considered at every phase of development. We need to make sure everyone is on board when we’re fighting for the people.”
The Morris Canal Community Development Corporation filed suit over the Morris Canal Manor project, alleging the plan is only possible due to “illicit spot zoning.” In August, a judge voided amendments to the project and sent it back to the planning board.
Lou Mont, the developer of the manor project, explained the property still has industrial zoning.
“It could be done as of right with no community input. At least personally, I think that would be a horrible outcome for that property.”
He continued that Jersey City spent years negotiating a price with the owner but they were unable to come to an agreement.
“I came into the picture three years ago. I negotiated with the seller of the property under the premise we might go to the city and change the underlying zoning,” Mont explained.
Mont said he’s held several community meeting and incorporated their feedback and the plan fulfills several goals of the city’s Master Plan, such as affordable housing, a recreation center, retail, parking spots, job creation, and open space.
The project currently includes five percent affordable housing.
“Our intention is to bring many of the uses that were originally dreamed of what would go into that space if it were part of Berry Lane Park,” Mont said.
While he noted the building is larger than most want, “If you look at it fairly … this is a huge opportunity.”
The planning board is scheduled to hear the revised project this evening.
“If you’re willing to work with the community, why don’t we table this till next year?” Gilmore asked.
“I put in three years of my life to this project to date. I have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to get to where I am. I have had multiple community meetings before this point,” Mont replied.
While Gilmore was sympathetic with the effort Mont had put into the project to date, he said he had to consider the impact on the community at large.
“I understand you’ve been dealing with this project for three years. There’s some residents that have been living here for 30 years,” Gilmore stated.
“I’ve had seven or eight different community meetings. I have heard a lot of input. I’m not willing to put a further delay on trying to get my approval,” Mont said definitively.
With that said, Gilmore indicated he could not get behind this development.
“This is business as usual. I’m still going to ask that this project be tabled. I’m not in support of this project.”
Residents also had the opportunity to weigh in via Zoom or in person at The Factory.
“I understand you have all this money invested. If this isn’t approved tomorrow, are you going to be open to building something different? We only learned about this project like a year ago. Are you willing to consider something downscale,” asked Chris Perez.
“This is in the middle of Communipaw. If we start a precedent with this project building a high rise … we’re going to end up having a tunnel downtown,” stated Alika Muhammad.
Mont said that it would be impossible to scale the project back at this point and still include the amenities residents requested, also noting the park space, the retail space, the recreational facilities, and the landscaping of three and a half acres of land cost millions of dollars.
“What is the acquisition price?,” Morris Canal Development Corporation President June Jones, who unsuccessfully sought a council-at-large seat last month, asked.
“It’s a private transaction, June,” Mont answered.
Jones explained they have been working on the project since 1999 and believed some of the land was earmarked for Berry Lane Park.
“I thought this was going to happen until a deal was made,” she said.
“I didn’t make any deal with Councilman Robinson,” Mont replied.
Jones continued that while the community supports many facets of the project, affordable housing is paramount and many aspects of the development also remain ambiguous.
“We need to know exactly what’s going to into this project,” she said to the applause of those attending in person.
“I don’t want to debate it or air it out in a public forum. I’d be absolutely thrilled to sit down with you and look at the design of the components of my project regardless of the outcome of the planning board,” Mont stated.
He further stated that it would be impossible to adjust the height of the project at this point from a fiscal point of view.
“The court required it to go back before the planning board and city council. “We’ll make sure the community is included at every juncture of the project,” Gilmore said.
Liberty Science Center CEO Paul Hoffman then discussed the Scitech Scity project. The first component is an eight-story office building called “Edgeworks,” a 120,000 square foot-space focused on STEM businesses that will include Research & Development labs, offices, restaurants, and a conference center.
Additional phases with a county school and residential components are still being developed, he noted, though county and city officials broke ground on the $300 million project in October.
“The idea is to not let the future passively happen to us but try to use science and technology to create a better future. We have a shortage of start-up companies and activity in New Jersey, especially in science and tech,” he began.
“Why is Paul Fireman on your board?” Gilmore asked.
Paul Fireman, who owns the nearby Liberty National Golf Course, has sought to expand into the Caven Point area of Liberty State Park, though his plans are on hold at the moment.
“His foundation made a contribution to the school. It’s a public school. It is unusual to get donations for a public school. But it helps,” Hoffman answered.
To that end, former Council-at-Large candidate Elvin Dominici said Jersey City shouldn’t be chipping in at least $2 million a year to a county school without any added benefits.
“Jersey City is sacrificing the most. I feel that Jersey City should be the only city sending students to this school,” he said.
“There wasn’t an easy mechanism to do that to cover the capital costs, and give us participation in the governance of the school. The county offered a vehicle to fund it and participate in the governance,” Hoffman replied.
Former Ward B Councilman Chris Gadsden, who voted against transferring city land to the local redevelopment authority as one of the early stages of the SciTech Scity project in 2017, said Mayor Steven Fulop assured him this would be a local school.
“The mayor lied to me, he said this would be a Jersey City public school,” he asserted.
While speaking in favor of the LSCHS plan earlier this year, Fulop said that the city attempted to work with the board of education on this project under previous Superintendent of Schools Dr. Marcia Lyles but they could not reach a consensus.