A new park behind City Hall that could dislodge employee parking and a plan to expand services for the homeless near Dickinson High School in Ward C dominated Monday night’s City Council caucus meeting. Also discussed were tree planting, increased police overtime costs, and more fiscal responsibilities associated with redevelopment of the Loew’s Theater.

In anticipation of a vote on the matter at its regularly scheduled council meeting on Dec. 14, 2022, the council considered the merits of awarding a $280,000 contract to Suburban Consulting Engineers, of Flanders, N.J., to devise a master plan concept for a City Hall park, a prospect Mayor Steve Fulop recently tweeted.

Ward A Councilmember Mira Prinz-Arey worried that if the park were to wrap around the building’s perimeter, it would take away room for parking for city workers, elected officials, the disabled, and delivery vehicles. She also questioned the wisdom of the expenditure.

“Should this be money we’re spending now when we have so many other concerns,” Prinz-Arey wondered.

“Anybody on the council who votes for this is crazy,” Ward C Councilmember Richard Boggiano declared. “Who thought that up?  In my 10 years on the council, this is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,” he added. “People don’t come to our meetings now because they can’t find parking.” 

Council President Joyce Watterman questioned the park’s siting on the grounds that the city may have be contractually required to provide employees with parking spaces. Better, she said, to have the consultant focus on the front of the building where there’s a “lot more empty space” to work with.

And Councilmember-at-large Daniel Rivera said that traffic circulation and street parking around City Hall has already suffered given the city’s decision make part of Grove Street near City Hall one-way and to position bollards on the street in connection with that traffic pattern.

But Ward E Councilmember James Solomon found some redemptive value in the  park’s suggested creation and positioning. “This is the seat of government,” he reasoned. “It should be more accessible to public use, such as for public gatherings.”  Further, he said, the council has already reserved money in the capital budget to study the idea.  It’s not an unreasonable ask (to spend it now).”

Even more vocal in defense of the proposal, Ward D Councilmember Yousef Saleh said the rear lot was “disgusting the way it is now.  There’s a dumpster in the middle, (the lot is) very hilly and you can trip and die. If you can improve it, do it.”

Barkha Patel, director of the city Department of Infrastructure, said the park idea “is in alignment with the city’s overall sustainability goal” but that no final scenario had been worked out for how it would take shape. “Some illustrations” that have been circulating were “very conceptual” and “there’s no formal design yet,” she said, adding that the consultants would be asked to devise a “cohesive plan for the entire (City Hall) perimeter.”

An ordinance up for a first reading that would allow Jersey City to enter into a 10-year lease with the Jersey City Housing Authority and the Garden State Community Development Corp. at Hudson Gardens, 514 Newark Ave., for housing for the homeless and renovations providing the occupants with showers, meals, and laundry facilities — met with fierce resistance from Ward C Councilman Boggiano. The lease would cost roughly $1.5 million, and the construction work approximately $2.1 million.

“We have enough problems with the homeless (in that neighborhood),” Boggiano said. After a city bus drops them off at the Gardens, they loiter in the corner bus stop and urinate and defecate on the street, in full view of residents and students at nearby Dickinson High School, he added.

Ward C residents have had to put up with noise and traffic from developments, a lack of parking, and now this type of behavior,” the lawmaker continued.  “Ward C residents are tired of this … Put (homeless programs) away from where people live.” 

Boggiano said the Gardens’ tenant association had not been made aware of the proposed changes and would prefer that the JCHA improve lighting and safety in the project to prevent homeless individuals from “trespassing inside their buildings and sleeping in their hallways.” Indeed, he called for the measure to be “pulled” from the council agenda.

Stacey Flanagan, city director of Health & Human Services, said the JCHA which currently leases space at. Hudson Gardens, has gotten federal approval to “take one apartment off line” to create additional space that will allow Garden State Community Development Corp. to better serve the homeless. She said the city meets periodically with tenant representatives from the buildings and has met with the Hilltop Neighborhood Association to hear its concerns.

Watterman suggested that all concerned parties meet with the Jersey City Housing Authority to iron out the complaints.

Boggiano was also quick to attack an ordinance, also up for first reading, that would authorize the transfer of the Loew’s Jersey Theater to the city Redevelopment Agency and allow the city of Jersey City to fund the JCRA up to $15 million (if needed) to make the theater’s restoration eligible for tax credits and possible city bond financing, if projected restoration costs exceeded estimates.

Boggiano said Friends of the Loew’s, a longtime advocacy group for the theater and a partner in the restoration effort, were “never notified” about the plans for the city ordinance — an allegation denied by JCRA executive director Diana Jeffrey — who insisted that the “deal” negotiated by the JCRA on the Friends’ behalf will remain intact.  

“They’re still going to get dedicated days (for performances and the like) in the theater and storage space,” Jeffrey said. “We consider them to be partners.” 

In consideration of proposed 2022 municipal budget appropriation transfers, the council wondered why the Police Department needed an extra $2 million in overtime pay, particularly when the city has hired more than 300 new cops since Fulop took office in 2013, swelling the ranks to about 950.

Prinz-Arey said that given the city’s fiscal pressures, “we can’t keep having this (overrun). This is not the first time we’ve had a police overage. We need to find out what the money’s being spent on.” She said the council had thought that with the additional officers “we’d be eliminating overtime, but, in fact, it’s getting worse.”

Councilman Saleh agreed that the overtime needs to be “reined in,” but said further research was needed to ascertain how many officers were implicated.

Gilmore, meanwhile, expressed concern about $650,000 in salaries being shifted out of the city Recreation Department budget but was reassured by Kyle Greaves, the city budget examiner, that the money wasn’t being taken away from any existing recreation programs but rather from untapped money left over from summer programs.

Budding Jersey City Johnny Appleseeds can look forward to a spring 2023 reopening for the city’s Adopt-A-Tree program when, according to newly appointed city Director of Sustainability Tye Waggoner, the city expects to begin planting up to 300 new caliper trees requested by residents.

But Ward E Councilmember Frank Gilmore wants some clarity from the city Law Department on whether a homeowner can be liable for repairs to a sidewalk in front of his or her house that has been cracked open by the spreading roots of a city tree. Gilmore said he doesn’t want to see a repetition of such a snafu that impacted residents in the area of Martin Luther King Drive and Myrtle Avenue.

Patel replied that the homeowner is liable for repairs to a damaged sidewalk, although, she added, it’s more likely that it would take a “mature planting” for a tree’s roots to grow to that extent, rather than a newly planted one.

However such issues are resolved, Patel said that while plantings done in recent years were aimed at replenishing the citywide tree canopy, next year’s strategy will shift to “areas in dire need” of new trees in the interest of what Waggoner called “environmental justice.”  And Michael DeCencia, the newly named city forester has pledged to personally monitor new plantings more closely than in years past.

“Making tree beds larger” to achieve improved growth conditions will also be a “prority,” DeCencia said.

The price of new saplings has risen from about $1,000 last year to $1,600 currently, according to Waggoner. And that increase is reflected in a proposed contract between the city and Schichtel’s Nursery Inc., of Springville, N.Y., for the supply and delivery of the trees at a cost of $239,000.

Council members will also be voting on a separate contract with Eastern Landscape Contractors, of Tinton Falls, N.J., for $510,000 for tree planting.

Under terms of the contract, before the baby trees are transported, either the city or the delivery contractor can reject a tree as unhealthy or in poor condition, the forester said.

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Ron Leir

Ron Leir has been a journalist since 1972. That includes a 37-year stint as a reporter, copy reader and assistant editor with The Jersey Journal, followed by a decade as a reporter with The Observer in...