The Hoboken City Council debated the process and the merits of how a popular bar was able to construct a new parklet in a residential neighborhood without any input from residents or the governing body, as well as why state regulations were followed instead of local ones.
By Daniel Ulloa/Hudson County View
Hoboken resident Michael Schreiber spoke to the council about the noise issues he and other 1st Ward residents have had regarding the new Bloomfield Street parklet McSwiggan’s Pub had built due to COVID-19 regulations as the weather gets warmer.
He argued that the city set standards on parklets to prevent these sorts of issues in the first place.
“ … The city’s legal counsel noted that the state law made all local rules moot. External legal review has said the state law does not preclude in any way the city from following its process for notification and zoning approvals,” Schreiber said.
“It’s odd that weekly cardboard recycling and occasional snow removal are more strictly regulated, more heavily monitored, and more strongly penalized than any of the noise, trash, physical obstruction issues arising from the parklets.”
Both Business Administrator Jason Freeman and Corporation Counsel Brian Aloia said that state regulations are in place that must be followed over local legislation across New Jersey.
“Our understanding and the guidance we have been given is that the governor’s implementation of all this supersedes whatever initial plans the city had,” Freeman said.
“The law actually indicates that not withstanding anything temporary, it is a temporary ordinance or a temporary statute from the state … and it actually stays in effect until November 2022 or until the restrictions on indoor dining are completely removed,” Aloia added.
6th Ward Councilwoman Jen Giattino jumped in to say she personally met with McSwiggan’s staff on Monday, along with other city officials including Assistant Corporation Counsel John Allen, to discuss the parklet and indicated that they were explicitly told to construct their parklet on Bloomfield Street.
Freeman said he’s working on the issue as well and explained that McSwiggan’s has already indicated they’re considering moving it, but that’s wouldn’t be a small feat.
“It comes at a fairly tremendous cost to them, so again, we’re talking about a number of different alternatives, potential relocation, things like that,” he explained, disagreeing with the notion that they had already committed to moving their parklet.
Giattino said she has been working to find cost effective solutions, noting that the city could help with federal monies issued to them during the public health emergency, calling the current set up “a thoughtless place to put it in the first place.”
1st Ward Councilman Mike DeFusco explained that he was also informed McSwiggan’s had already committed to moving the parklet to 1st Street (their address is 110 First St).
“There shouldn’t be any reason with all the federal funds intended for issues such as this to help small businesses such as this that we wouldn’t use a portion of it to move the parklet,” he stated.
Additionally, DeFusco disagreed with Aloia’s interpretation of the state’s COVID-19 emergency rules and that “people in Trenton” disagreed as well, declining to get into the specifics of who he spoke with.
Other residents also weighed in on why they had a problem with this situation after Council President Ruben Ramos asked his colleagues to halt their discussion until after public portion was finished.
“The quality of our life has been severely impacted by a one-sided decision process that has left us completely powerless. This has stripped us of our rights as citizens and negated the rules within the city’s own zoning code,” Ana Sanchez said.
“My apartment is surrounded by four very loud pubs that have excessive noise every weekend with little to no oversight from the police department, despite it being right next to City Hall and down the block from the police station,” noted Nikki Diaz.
Later, DeFusco contended that while state regulations reference parklets in the streets, the local Hoboken ordinance empowers them to regulate street parklets, blasting Aloia’s interpretation and calling for a new legal opinion.
Aloia doubled down that the state law is clear, though left the door open to research the matter further.
This led to 2nd Ward Councilwoman Tiffanie Fisher asking where the state statute references streets.
“‘In the streets?’ I believe it does not reference in state law but I’d have to review it completely, but ‘in the street’ it does not reference,” Aloia answered.
“ … I don’t feel like those parklets, those structures, seem to be governed by the state law. So if that is true, it’s not being caught under the state law, then the whole discussion about McSwiggan’s and the parklet that’s in the street and having to give notice to the residents … is actually not governed by the state law,” Fisher stated.
At that point, Aloia conceded that if a structure is operating in the street, it is not governed by state law.
A short time later, Giattino asked Aloia if Scott Carlson, counsel to the Hoboken Planning Board, served as the mayor’s liaison to developers. When she was told that wasn’t the case, she sought further clarification.
“If someone was going to the planning board for whatever reason, Mr. Carlson wouldn’t be the one to speak with the developer to see what is he kind of needed, correct?,” she questioned.
“I don’t think that’s the case,” Aloia said, appearing visibly confused as to why this would happen outside of the planning application process.
“Would it be appropriate for the ABC attorney to be the liaison to the mayor for bars and restaurants?,” Giattino continued.
When Aloia expressed further confusion with this line of questioning, Giattino became much more explicit.
“I went to a meeting on Friday and I was with the mayor and the ABC attorney [John Allen] who was introduced to the bar owners and restaurant owners as ‘this is my liaison to you, if you have any issues you reach out to him and he will call me. Is that appropriate?”
” … I would need to look into it I’m not sure,” Aloia said after a long pause.
Giattino further stated that she believes Aloia needs to issue an opinion on this since it could open the city litigation in multiple instances.
5th Ward Councilwoman Phil Cohen chimed in that he had a big problem with this entire exchange.
“There’s a trend on among certain members of this council when they get a legal opinion they don’t like that they threaten the legal counsel and bully the legal counsel when they don’t get the answer they want to hear, which is wrong … it’s shameful, treat our professionals like professionals.”
The council did not take any formal action on the parklet at the meeting, but DeFusco and Giattino both indicated today that they feel McSwiggan’s will relocate their outdoor structure.
” … There are certainly questions that need to be answered about how this was handled by our law department and the mayor’s office, but right now I’m happy we’ve reached an agreement that is favorable for my neighbors who elected me to represent them and the business directly impacted,” DeFusco stated.
“I am now even more confident we will find a solution that will protect the neighboring residents’ quality of life while still supporting our local businesses,” Giattino indicated.
Additionally, this afternoon Fisher questioned if the administration legitimately did not know the difference between state or local regulations, or if McSwiggan’s was rewarded for making campaign contributions to Mayor Ravi Bhalla.
According to campaign finance reports, the owners of McSwiggan’s donated a total of $3,000 to his re-election bid on December 2nd, 2020.
City spokesman Vijay Chaudhuri said that the administration has worked with the city council to adopt a framework to allow restaurants and bars to build parklets and streateries to allow safe outdoor dining during the pandemic.
“Over the course of several months, over 75 restaurants and bars built some of New Jersey’s best streateries and parklets, which have been enjoyed by thousands of Hoboken residents and contributed to the economic recovery of the city,” he said.
“Just as it has since last summer, the city will continue to work to lend a hand to restaurants and bars for expanded outdoor dining that takes into consideration the major challenges they continue to face from the pandemic, while also taking into account the valid quality of life concerns from nearby residents.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with a comment from city spokesman Vijay Chaudhuri.