Plans for a controversial 17-story, 421-unit residential tower in Bergen-Lafayette have been stalled anew.
The City Council narrowly voted Feb. 9 to delay ratifying a deal to greenlight developer Louis Mont’s plan to build the tower at the Steel Tech site at 417 Communipaw Ave. Mont’s proposal also includes a retail space for startups and a municipal recreation/community center.
Council members Mira Prinz-Arey (Ward B), Richard Boggiano (C), James Solomon (E) and Amy DeGise (at-large) sided with Ward F Councilman Frank Gilmore to table an ordinance adopting changes to the Morris Canal Redevelopment Plan.
Those changes incorporated the 17-floor tower configuration and a five percent affordable housing set-aside and had been sanctioned by the city’s Planning Board.
But area residents sued, contending that the tower’s height would negatively impact a neighborhood of predominantly one- and two-family homes and that the developer’s pledge to set aside five percent of the apartments as affordable units fell short of the 10–15 percent target called for in the Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance (IZO) adopted by the city in December 2021.
A court subsequently ruled that the Planning Board should revisit the proposed changes at a new hearing and articulate the reasons it felt those changes conformed to the city’s master plan. Then, the court said, the City Council should take appropriate action.
At a new hearing in December 2020, the board concluded that the public concessions contemplated by the developer facilitate compliance with the city’s master plan. Now it’s up to the council to accept or reject the planners’ conclusions.
In an effort to press home the residents’ objections that the proposed tower is “just too big” for that neighborhood and to learn more about what—other than a basketball court—is planned for the rec center, Gilmore, accompanied by Ridley, met with Mont the day before the council meeting.
Gilmore said Mont appeared open minded. Nevetheless, the lawmaker said he wanted the council to table voting on the changes because residents “overwhelmingly, time and time again” insist that the tower would negatively impact the neighborhood.”
Gilmore asked if the city was under any court-imposed time constraints to act on the Planning Board’s findings. City Corporation Counsel Peter Baker said no.
Ridley, whose Greenville ward would encompass the project site under a newly adopted redistricting plan, asked Baker whether the city, under the newly adopted IZO, could compel Mont to designate at least 10 percent of the total number of apartments as affordable units. “No,” Baker said, because the amendments to the Morris Canal Redevelopment Zone originally approved by the council in 2020 pre-date the IZO.
Ridley voted against tabling, saying that she expected to “go back to the table” with Mont and the residents to continue discussions about increasing affordability along with “maybe spreading the building out” instead of going straight up and getting more details on the community benefits.
“Both sides are going to have to give a little,” the councilwoman said. No final decisions will be made until the Planning Board conducts a site plan review of the project, she added.
Boggiano, saying he’s witnessed similar unwelcome development incursions in his ward, voted to table, as did DeGise, Gilmore and Solomon, who said he saw “no harm” in continuing to meet with Mont to discuss the project.
Before the council debated the issue, the members heard from attorney Ronald Shaljian, representing the developer. Shaljian told the governing body that their “focus tonight”—determining whether to accept the Planning Board’s recommendation—“is very narrow.”
They also heard from Renee Steinhagen, executive director of the Public Interest Law Center, which is advocating for residents litigating the project. She contended that the Planning Board’s findings were inconsistent with the city’s master plan in allowing a building of that size and permitting a tradeoff of less affordability in return for community benefits.
June Jones, president of the Morris Canal Redevelopment Area Community Development Corp., which is suing the city over the project, credited Gilmore and Ridley for their efforts to scale back the tower and provide more affordability. Jones, who also attended the recent talks with Mont, said she found the meeting “productive” and was “hopeful” that a compromise could be reached that included a well-planned community center for people of all ages.
But, she said, “This is a work in progress. Right now, the project is only conceptual.”