Recently, we sat down with Ward B Councilwoman Mira Prinz-Arey for an extensive interview covering everything from the Pompidou Jersey City to the city’s tree canopy.
JCT: Tell us about your background?
MPA: I am from California; I grew up in the Bay Area. I moved to the East Coast 23 years ago. My father was an elementary school teacher, my mother was a phone operator, and I was the oldest of three. I met my husband, who was from Jersey City, and 11 years ago we moved into the house where he grew up so we could take care of his mother. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and we couldn’t really manage it from where we were living in Morningside Heights at the time.
I got my bachelor of arts in art history and history; it was a dual concentration from N.Y.U., and I am currently in a master’s in public administration program at Farleigh Dickenson. My work background is mostly in the arts and entertainment industry. I’ve worked for for-profits and non-profits. I’ve done a lot of event planning and fundraising.
JCT: How’d you end up running for city council?
MPA: When we came to Jersey City, I wanted to meet people and make friends, so I started to do lots of volunteer work. So, that led to positions of leadership on boards. I had no intention of running for any office. I was perfectly happy doing my community service, doing my advocacy work, but when you’re in that world for a while, inevitably people see the work that you do and ask you ‘so when do you think you want to run for office?’”
Back in 2017, people were asking me if I was going to run. I had a conversation with the ward leadership, I had a conversation with the mayor, I had a conversation with my husband. I decided that this was a unique opportunity, so why not take it and see what happens? I won the election in 2017, and that’s what got me on the council.
JCT: What were you doing in the community before you ran?
MPA: I was on the board of my neighborhood association and the Westside Community Alliance. I was the co-founder of two farmers’ markets, one over by me, over by NJCU, that one’s no longer running; the one by Lincoln Park is. I did a lot of work with Liberty Humane Society. I was on their board for a time. I also started Westside Arts and Music with my good friend Gaye Dunstan. A quarterly arts and music event turned into a summer music series. This will be our sixth season for that.
I was also one of the original committee members for Keep Jersey City Beautiful, which is one of the first Keep America affiliates in the state of New Jersey. We organized the Great Jersey City Cleanup. We did successfully for a couple of years, obviously before the pandemic.
JCT: What do you think your biggest accomplishments on the city council have been?
MPA: One of the biggest accomplishments of my first term was putting forward the legislation to create the Westside Partnership, which is the special improvement district. Westside Avenue and Communipaw were really the last major two commercial corridors that did not have a special improvement district. This is something that I worked on when I was a board member of the Westside Community Alliance and other community groups and the business community to move that forward. It’s brought more services to businesses in the area. We’ve had over ten businesses take advantage of the façade improvement program. We’ve done supplemental cleaning services, supplemental off-duty services, we’ve installed some video cameras in strategic areas across the corridor to help people feel a little bit safer. They’ve also become a lot more involved in events on the West Side. We’re starting to see the benefit of that. The late Jane Burns, who owned Jay’s Uniforms on Westside Avenue, was telling me when we were walking through the legislation and the board creation that she remembered having a conversation with the late Michael Yun when Central Avenue was forming their SID, and she liked that the Westside was kind of sleepy and no one was in their business, but she said to Michael on the night that we were voting on the legislation that she probably should have been with him twenty years ago doing the one on Westside Avenue, and she was glad that it was created finally, even though it took them a while to get there.
Another major accomplishment is some of the work that I do with Councilwoman Ridley sitting on the committee for the Bayfront Advisory Board. It’s a major, major project, and we’ve been able to accomplish a number of goals as it relates to affordable housing and diversity in contractors.
JCT: The word on the street is that you guys were pushed into the affordable housing by Jersey City Together. I that true or were you always in favor of this high number of affordable units?
MPA: I think Jersey City Together did a great job of advocating for that high level of affordability, and I think what was great about that [was] that it gave us a way to look at how we could actually get to that number. So, no, I wouldn’t say that we were forced into it. I think that we said okay, if this is the goal, and this is what people are going to work towards, what’s the best way to get us there? We found a way through bonding. I think that if everything is done correctly, this is going to be a very successful model for other cities in the state and across the country moving forward.
JCT: Is there anything else you’re particularly proud of?
MPA: Also, some of it is the little things, too. In my ward we have a major highway, Route 440. There were a lot of accidents, people would cut through. Finding a way to fix those problems, making a simple change to one-way direction of a street. Little things like that make a really big difference in people’s lives.
JCT: What would you like to accomplish in your next four years if you’re reelected?
MPA: We are starting the Westside Avenue Streetscape Improvement, which is going to give us new sidewalks and curb cuts. We’re going to have some rain gardens and ways to collect water, because we have some flash flooding issues in certain corridors of the ward. I’m also excited to bring services and consistent leadership to the ward. In my ward I will be the first person in fifteen years to complete a term and run for reelection. I think that that’s really important because some of these projects take a long time to get through. You need to make sure that these projects get shepherded along.
I’m also very much looking forward to working with our arts community and our newly established arts fund and to be a part of that process as it relates to the re-granting of monies to help our arts community to thrive and sustain themselves.
JCT: It’s interesting that you bring up the arts. You seem to have a pretty deep background in the arts having studied it in college and having worked for some arts organizations. Obviously, front and center in everyone’s mind is the Pompidou Center. Are you concerned given the amount of money that it’s going to cost to run the Pompidou Center and build it—we’re talking about $40 million between purchasing and improving the building and another $12 million a year to run it—are you concerned that that amount of money that will be needed will drain off corporate and government giving to local arts organizations like Nimbus or Art House or any other of the local homegrown arts organizations?
MPA: With the Pompidou partnership, what we’re going to gain from that is the opportunity to partner with an international organization that has deep institutional knowledge as to how to successfully run museums and work with other local organizations to do local programming. I did research into how they work in Shanghai and how they work in Brussels and have had conversations in how they approach Jersey City, and they’re very much interested in integrating into the community, and they want to be a good partner, and they want to work with our local organizations to make sure that we’re providing not only great gallery shows but also arts education. So I think there’s lots to gain.
With the question of costs and finances, we did the non-binding resolution to start the conversation on the MOU [memorandum of understanding]. And now in the next number of months we’re going to be looking at what some of the hard numbers are, what it’s going to cost to run it. This location is a little different in that in the more traditional museum model, what you see is 10 percent of the collection. Most everything else is in catacombs or storage. And because of our relationship with the Pompidou, we’re not going to incur that expense.
So yes, I’m always concerned how city finances are going to be spent. But, I also think, too, there’s the other end of that. What else do we have to gain because the research has shown that for every one dollar spent on the arts, the ancillary income around that can be up to thirty-three dollars. So that’s a pretty good return, and that supports the arts community in Jersey City, that supports the small businesses, and that is also a very important piece.
As it relates to them taking money from corporate giving and other institutions, I’m concerned about that, too. We don’t want our local homegrown organizations to suffer from this. So, that’s going to part of the conversation we have as we move forward from this.
JCT: When you mentioned the spin-off thirty-three-dollar number, that’s arts generally. There haven’t been any numbers produced as to what the Pompidou itself might actually generate itself as to ancillary benefits, isn’t that right?
JCT: Is that something you’re going to want to see?
MPA: That’s absolutely something I’m going to want to see. That’s why I’m looking at the kinds of shows they’ve done in Brussels and Shanghai. We will be their North American outpost, so I think there’s great opportunity there. There’s concern about the five-year partnership, but I think that’s also smart. It’s long enough to establish a relationship and programming but it doesn’t lock the city into a long-term partnership. I am actually comfortable with the five-year relationship.
JCT: What about the idea that this $40 million that’s being spend building out Pompidou could be spent on things like rec centers in your ward or on the South Side where we know that there are lots of at-risk kids that are not getting the after-school extra-curricular opportunities they need? Do you think there’s a potential problem there when we haven’t seen a rec center built in your ward or Ward A in the last eight years. Does that concern you?
MPA: I think that’s a fair question. I think that sometimes when an opportunity presents itself, you should explore it, and you should look at it, and you should take it. Because you would have to scout the locations for the rec centers, you would have to understand what it would cost to buy the land there and run the rec center.
I was a very shy kid. I was not good at team sports because I was shy. So, my outlet was the arts. So, you have the opportunity to give young people across Jersey City access to arts programming and also exposure to different types of art.
JCT: Sure, but there would be conceivably the opportunity to build facilities closer to the communities in which they’re needed for arts as well as athletics right? That’s something I would think you would be interested as well as someone who comes out of the arts, right?
JCT: So I didn’t mean to limit it just to rec centers in terms of sports.
JCT: To offer lots of different programs for kids with lots of different aptitudes and needs. You agree on the importance of getting those kinds of programs into the neighborhoods then?
MPA: Absolutely. I’ve worked with some of our arts organizations to do that. I’ve tried to connect them in ways that will help them to take on more of that role.
JCT: Shifting gears, you were leading a committee to re-write the forestry standards for Jersey City. To your knowledge, what is the tree canopy now and what is the plan to get it to where it should be?
MPA: My understanding is that the tree canopy is still holding at around 14 to 16 percent based on the tree inventory and the work that Forestry and Sustainability has done to inventory our trees working with NJCU and also a group out of Monmouth University. One of the things that is important is also making sure that the city has the resources and equipment to maintain the trees. When I first came into office, and working with the Parks Coalition, we saw there was no line item for tree maintenance. We went to then-director Stamato, and we had that put in the annual budget for trees within the city. Because you can plant trees, and that’s great, but if you don’t have the resources to care for them, the trees won’t grow, they’re going to die. Then you’ve had no impact on the canopy.
Now with the work on Chapter 321 and the forestry standards, we’ve strengthened the forestry standards, we are just about ready to get that resolution to counsel. Ed O’Malley has been doing a fantastic job in inventorying our trees, working with our vendors to make sure that we’ve got solid contracts, and the work is going to be done the right way. Also making sure that we have diversity in our tree species and tree population.
JCT: Is there a plan and a will on the part of the city to spend the money to get the tree canopy to where it should be which from my understanding is somewhere over 20 percent?
MPA: Correct. When they first came out with the report, I think for a city of our size, I think it was somewhere around 24 percent. Yes, there is a commitment. We had started the program to plant trees in tree pits for homeowners, free of charge. In my ward we have a couple of those grass islands, they all now have trees planted in them. We’re also going to be breaking ground on Skyway Park, the memorial park that is going to have 500 trees planted there. It’s really important there for a number of reasons. It was a brownfield,. and then there’s a lot of traffic that goes right through there because of the turnpike.
There’s tree canopy, and there’s tree inventory, and they’re equally important and one cannot be successful without the other.
JCT: Do you think there’s a viable plan to get the canopy to 24 percent?
MPA: We’re working on a plan to get it there. We’re putting together the data because you need to know where the trees need to go. You need to understand what’s been successful and what hasn’t. Then you have to have a really strong tree replacement program because a lot of the trees in neighborhoods are beautiful but they’re really not the right trees for the location. Some of them are coming to their life cycle end of about one hundred years. I think that with the tree replacement plan, the work of the Shade Tree Committee and a commitment to getting the trees where they’re needed that will be a really good way to get us to an appropriate canopy for a city of our size. But it’s going to take a couple of years.
JCT: I’ve asked everyone on Team Fulop whether they’ve been able to vote their conscience as opposed to what the team is expected to do. Do you feel you have independence on important matters according to your conscience and your belief as to what is best for the city?
MPA: Yes, I do. I take every vote very seriously. I do a lot of research on everything I’m voting on. At the end of the day, I have to be able to answer to all of the residents as to how I got there. I think there are times when I agree and times when I disagree. If there’s something that I think should be changed, I will speak my mind about that. I’ve never felt forced to vote in a way that I felt uncomfortable with.
JCT: Are there any votes that you recall where you voted out of step with the team? Have you ever cast votes in opposition to something the team was in favor of?
MPA: There’s the team, and then there’s the council body as a whole. As council people we will often defer to our ward council colleagues because we feel they know what’s best for their wards. There was the time when the salary adjustment ordinance came around and we wanted our aids to be taken care of first and separate from everyone else. It didn’t come to us that way, so we voted it down and we got the legislation we wanted.
JCT: Did you personally vote in opposition to the way your colleagues were voting or were you voting as a group?
MPA: We voted as a group, [and] voted it down. Most recently we had the Garden State Episcopal facility near Ferris High School. That was one where Councilman Boggiano was not for moving ahead with the improvements that the Housing Authority and Health and Human Services and Garden State were going to bring to the facility, and that was a time when I voted the opposite of what my council colleague had wanted. I felt it was a better move for the city.
JCT: Is there anything you wanted to add that we didn’t discuss?
MPA: I think that one of the most important things as a councilmember is the ability to listen and meet people where they’re at. We’re a city of almost three hundred thousand people. My ward has forty-five to fifty thousand people in it, and that’s a lot of different points of view and a lot of different areas of concern. And if you don’t have the ability to listen and sift through all of that, it’s not going to be good for the city or your ward.