This is the final installment of a four-part series. To read earlier installments, begin by clicking here.
“Very Costly Penalties”
For over two years Jersey City developer Peter Mocco had stalled, postured, obstructed, litigated, and cajoled. And by any reasonable measure he had come out ahead. His oversize penthouse—recast by city Zoning Officer Nick Taylor as an attic—was still standing albeit with a few inexpensive “wellness” and “sustainability” tweaks that gave it a patina of environmental and social responsibility.
I was curious what Gerry Bakirtjy and Eric Hofmann, two local architects intimately involved in local development issues, thought of Taylor’s decision.
Said Bakirtjy, “In my professional opinion it isn’t an attic. The definition [of an attic] talks about a sloped roof. Any reasonable person would say this isn’t an attic.”
Hofmann agreed. “The text seems crystal clear to me.”
To drive the point home, Hofmann pointed to a passage in the International Building Code Handbook, that provides that “once such a space is utilized for some degree of occupancy, it is no longer deemed an attic.” With its two kitchens, bathrooms, a game room, a lounge and bar, a reception area, and a tele-conference room, “some degree of occupancy” was the very purpose of Mocco’s penthouse.
No one I talked to could offer an explanation for Taylor’s decision. But what is clear is that after the fact Mocco had succeeded in forcing Taylor to unilaterally change the well-settled definition of “attic” so he could renege on his promise to take down the illegal penthouse. Why would Taylor have agreed to do this?
I decided to put the question to Taylor’s boss, Mayor Steven Fulop, by way of his press secretary Kimberly Wallace-Scalcione. Had the mayor, who is known to have a longstanding relationship with Mocco, interceded on his behalf?
She replied tersely. “Peter Mocco’s actions resulted in the largest penalty ever rendered in the history of Jersey City.” She added that “the Mayor does not get involved in decisions with the Planning Board as it is an independent body. The Board’s strict and very costly penalties imposed on Mr. Mocco due to his violations sends a clear message that Jersey City is not the place to come and try to build outside of approvals, unless you want to pay severely.”
I asked Wallace-Scalcione if I could interview Taylor. I received no response.
Wallace-Scalcione’s claims, though, begged another question. Had Mocco really paid “severely” as she had asserted? Without access to Mocco’s books, arriving at a precise cost-benefit calculation is impossible. But using some commonly known metrics, one can arrive at a rough answer.
Take 333 Grand Street, where Mocco illegally added 6,198 square feet to his penthouse. According to Realtor.com, each of those square feet is currently worth approximately $840. Thus, the penthouse enlargement added the equivalent of $5.2 million in value to the building. After deducting his additional building costs of $1.5 million [assuming an estimated building cost of $250 per square foot], Mocco’s property is now $3.6 million more valuable than it would have been had he followed the law.
In addition, a source close to Mocco reported that he saved approximately $1,000,000 by using the unapproved EIFS (exterior installation finishing system) bringing his total gains to $4.6 million. (In order to keep things simple, this analysis leaves out the numerous other improvements Mocco made without approval.)
In the end, after paying the fine of $580 thousand—apparently the largest penalty ever rendered in the history of Jersey City—Mocco’s gains on 333 Grand Street may have totaled as much as $4.1 million.
Given this windfall, the fine may not have sent the “clear message that Jersey City is not the place to come and try to build outside of approvals” that Mayor Fulop thought it would.
At 245 Newark, Mocco’s gains are a little more difficult to calculate with any certainty. If the mezzanines remain closed off and unusable as the city has apparently ordered, he will undoubtedly take a financial hit. But those who know Mocco consider that outcome unlikely.
Insuring that the mezzanines remain unused would require the city to make yearly inspections for the life of the building. Most observers consider it doubtful that the city will have the will or resources to do so.
Just as Mocco was able to make massive changes to both buildings during construction without the city’s officials knowing about them, so too would he, or a subsequent owner, likely be able to reopen the mezzanines unnoticed. This is because the city doesn’t have enough manpower to inspect new construction let alone follow up on completed buildings.
Commenting on the Mocco case, Ward E Councilman James Solomon said that the city is dealing with a “resource crisis.” Solomon continued, “We don’t have enough construction code officials…The city’s leadership is doing the best it can, but we don’t have the tools.”
Hofmann agrees with Solomon. “As a decade-long Jersey City resident, I believe development is so prevalent there is definitely a staffing issue [in tracking and monitoring projects]. Getting boots on the ground and policing what’s happening is a monumental task.”
And indeed, I asked Wallace-Scalcione if the city had inspected the building. She responded by saying that the penalties against Mocco were being “strictly enforced by Planning and Zoning.” However, when asked for dates of such inspections, the spokeswoman did not respond.
If Mocco reopens the mezzanines as seems likely, he will enjoy another windfall. The spaces added a total of 7,500 square feet of usable space to the building. At $678 per square foot, the additional space may have added as much as $5.1 million in value. After deducting $1.9 million in building costs, Mocco would still have netted $3.2 million in increased property value.
While Mocco did reportedly pay the neighboring building $100 thousand in settlement over its blocked views, he likely offset most or all of that with his unapproved use of EIFS on the façade, which lowered his building costs substantially.
It’s “an attic…or a penthouse or a level”
There was one piece of unfinished business.
To settle his lawsuit with the Planning Board, Mocco had made two concessions. First he agreed to make the “wellness” and “sustainability” changes to 333 Grand Street.
The second concession involved a future building at Liberty Harbor North, 333 Morris Street (not to be confused with 333 Grand Street).
On October 5th, the Morris Street piece of the settlement came before the city council at its caucus. Director of Planning Tanya Marione called in to explain the deal. Her words immediately highlighted the confusion that Taylor had wrought. As punishment for his violations, Mocco, she said, “would lose an attic…or a penthouse or a level. So, it’s a penthouse for a penthouse or a top floor for a top floor.”
No one noticed that Marione had conflated three words” “attic,” “penthouse,” and “top floor.” But it spoke volumes. The words’ differences had been eviscerated in service of Mocco’s need to keep his penthouse, which was now officially an “attic.” Apparently, in Marione’s mind, the words were now interchangeable thanks to Mocco.
Mocco had succeeded in getting the rules changed ex post facto. In building a penthouse over twice the permitted size, he had won a seemingly calculated bet that he could skirt the city’s rules. But he had done one better: With Taylor’s help, he had re-written them.
It isn’t clear whether anyone on the city council fully appreciated the deviousness of Mocco’s feat. But when Marione had finished, Ward C Councilman Richard Boggiano, clearly sensing that Mocco had pulled a fast one, shook his head and said, “What a joke.” City Council President Joyce Watterman laughed. Her words can’t be made out.
And, as it turns out, Boggiano’s reaction was fully justified. A review of the redevelopment plan shows that at 333 Morris Street, Mocco gave up only an “attic story,” not a future penthouse as Marione, Mocco’s lawyers, and the administration wanted to spin it. The zoning didn’t permit a penthouse on the “M class” 333 Morris building.
So, in the end, Mocco with Taylor’s help had outmaneuvered everyone. He had “given up” a “penthouse” on 333 Morris Street that he didn’t have to give up in the first place to save a penthouse at 333 Grand Street he had never had the right to build. It was a trick that would have made illusionist David Blaine proud.
Mocco did not accept Jersey City Times’s request for an interview and declined to answer questions put to him in an email.
Eric Hofmann (who is president of the Village Neighborhood Association in addition to being an architect by profession) commented that, “Peter Mocco was the straw that broke the camel’s back…Now we are all poised and alert.”
“The big lessons already learned from our experience have to do with vigilance on behalf of the community” because “there’s no mechanism in place for the city to catch deviations during construction.”
But some would ask whether the future that Hofmann describes is a solution. Should neighborhood associations have to shoulder the responsibility for policing developers’ compliance with the zoning laws, a core responsibility of the city?
The building 333 Grand Street is a prime example of the pitfalls of such an approach. The often-litigious Van Vorst Park Association was apparently lulled into grudging acceptance of Mocco’s behavior believing that the fix was in. Architect Tom Ogorzalek, who, along with his architect-wife Ceci De Leon, heads up the VVPA construction committee, explained, “I reached out to somebody at city planning and said what’s the story with this? They said it’s a fait accompli, it’s a legal matter; nothing can be done.”
Of course, had the city forced Mocco to take down the penthouse and deconstruct his mezzanines, some feel a message would have been sent that the city was serious about enforcing its rules. Then, the thinking goes, civilian enforcement of the zoning laws would be less necessary. But the city appears to have little incentive to hold developers’ feet to the fire when so much real estate money finds its way into the campaign war chests of city officials.
The “Coalition for Progress” political action committee linked to Mayor Fulop and managed by his wife’s business partner has received 3.2 million in donations largely from developers. Dixon Advisory, a property owner and developer in Jersey City which figures prominently in a scathing article about the mayor in Bloomberg, gave the PAC $300 thousand. Roseland/Mack Cali donated $250 thousand. Many other developers have made contributions to the Coalition for Progress ranging from $15 thousand to $50 thousand dollars.
Whether the mayor pressured Taylor to cut Mocco a break is unknown. His relationship with Mocco is opaque. While he has used Mocco’s Zeppelin Hall and Surf City bars almost exclusively for local fundraisers and victory celebrations, he or his committee did pay for the use of these venues on several occasions, according to public records.
I asked Wallace-Scalcione whether the mayor has received cash or “in-kind” donations from Mocco. She did not respond.
There are few people familiar with Jersey City who haven’t heard of Peter Mocco. His ambition, audacity and cynicism are the object of both derision and grudging respect. How, people wonder, does this guy get away with it again and again?
In a 2012, The Jersey Journal wrote, “With his political acumen, Mocco has been sought out by almost every city administration. What is the main thing people should know? Whatever Peter wants, Peter gets.”
It appears that nothing has changed.
Header image is of faux stone façade at 333 Grand Street.
Ron Leir assisted in the preparation of this article.