Controversial Morris Canal Manor Steel Tech Jersey City
Morris Canal Manor Steel Tech Rendering

At yesterday’s caucus meeting, the City Council indicated that it would move ahead with an ordinance allowing a controversial development in Bergen-Lafayette to advance.

The ordinance in question, which “adopt[s] amendments to the Morris Canal Redevelopment Plan,” would allow Skyline Development and its principal, Louis Mont, to redevelop the 3.6-acre site known as “Steel Tech” at 417 Communipaw Ave.

The project has been beset by controversy since it was first announced in 2020. The development, called Morris Canal Park Manor, includes a 421-unit luxury high-rise, a 22,000-square-foot building with a gym, a rock climbing wall, a sauna, dance studios, music studios, a food concession, and computer labs and classrooms for STEM instruction. Also to be included are eight commercial “incubators” for minority business startups. Five percent of the residential units would be designated “affordable.”

The project was championed by former Ward F Councilman Jermaine Robinson and is thought to be a key reason for his defeat in November at the hands of Frank “Educational” Gilmore.

Critics objected to the fact that only eighteen of the residential units would qualify as affordable. They also decried its size in a neighborhood characterized by one- and two-family homes and the fact that it was to be built on land originally slated to become part of Berry Lane Park.

Despite the neighborhood’s concerns, in December 2020 the City Council voted to amend the Morris Canal Redevelopment Plan to allow the project to move ahead.

Following the vote, Morris Canal Community Development Corporation filed suit, and in August 2021 a judge sent the matter back to the Planning Board to explain how the project was consistent with the city’s master plan.

At a meeting in December, attorney Bill Matsikoudis read from the master plan, which provides that “the scale of new development should be consistent with the neighborhood” and said, “I would assert that this 17-story building is completely out of the character of this neighborhood.”

Nonetheless, the Planning Board voted unanimously to send the redevelopment plan amendments to the City Council for approval.

A few days later, the Executive Committee of the Hudson County Sierra Club voted unanimously to oppose the development.

At its caucus yesterday, the council heard city Supervising Planner Matthew Ward explain how the project, as now envisioned, would conform with the city’s master plan. Ward noted the plans for the gym among things, prompting Ward F Councilman Frank Gilmore to ask, “This is not a state-of-the-art rec center, right?”.

“I do not know how to answer that question,” Ward replied. Ward said the city had a “vision” for other activities like indoor sports, dancing, education, and arts but, he added, “Those programs have yet to be determined.”

This prompted Gilmore to say “There’s a lot of uncertainties here, not a lot of clarity, on this particular site.”

The Morris Canal Redevelopment Plan does, however, require that the Ward F council member be consulted in formulating future recreational programs for the property. If the new ward map, approved by the Ward Commission on Saturday, goes into effect, the responsibility would fall to Ward A Councilwoman Denise Ridley.

Also discussed was whether the city’s newly-passed Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance would apply to the project. That ordinance requires developers of large residential projects in low-to-moderate-income areas to set aside at least 10 percent of the units as affordable. City Corporation Counsel Peter Baker said that because the court’s ruling on the Morris Canal litigation came three months before the city’s IZO approval, “Terms of the IZO would not apply to this project.”

In a written statement today, Matsikoudis took issue with that conclusion. “We will continue to fight against this high rise giveaway to a developer which is atrociously out of context for the neighborhood of one and two family homes that provides minimal affordable housing, based upon a fraudulent promise of a rec center that’s nothing but a white box with a basketball hoop. The previous ordinance died with the end of 2021, the IZO applies to this ordinance and now the developer will have to provide 10% affordable housing.”

In other business, the council:

  • Discussed pending adjustments to the number of aides City Council members may have and to their pay and benefits. With the city’s population having topped 290,000 as of the last census, each council member will be able to hire up to four aides and pay them each between $50,000 and $85,000, depending on whether they are part time or full time. If the latter, they’d be eligible for health benefits. “We’re a major city now, so we have to start thinking big,” said Ward C Councilman Richard Boggiano.
  • Got updates from Greg Kierce, the Jersey City Police Department’s Office of Emergency Management coordinator, about ammunition and security measures. The council is being asked to approve expenditures of $66,000 for 175,000 rounds of ammunition for officers who use .45-caliber; $168,000 for surveillance camera upgrades city-wide; and $61,000 for six automated license plate readers to be installed along the bridge approach linking Jersey City and Kearny. Kierce called them “a valuable crime-fighting tool.”

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...