Rockefeller office tower is latest in series of controversial high-rise projects in Hoboken

By Ron Hine | FBW | February 3, 2014

In 2008, the Rockefeller Group bought up a three-block area in north Hoboken that has traditionally been an industrial zone. On two of the blocks office buildings are a permitted use but limited to eight stories. They had big plans: a two million square foot project centered around a 40-story office tower that would be Hoboken’s tallest building.

The project is now mired in controversy. Heavy-handed pressure from lobbyists at Wolff & Samson may have been coupled with strong-armed tactics from the governor’s people in an attempt to force Mayor Zimmer and the City of Hoboken to endorse the project. David Samson of Wolff & Samson is joined at the hip with Governor Christie who appointed him Chair of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey (the Port). The Port provided a grant to the City of Hoboken to create a redevelopment area for north Hoboken. Remarkably the study only found three blocks out of 19 qualifying for designation as a redevelopment area. Those were the three blocks owned by the Rockefeller Group.

The Rockefeller proposal for an office tower is unlikely to garner much support in the Hoboken community. For the past 25 years, development proposals for high-rise projects have been fought tooth and nail. Having been in the midst of most of these battles, I can relate the history.

In the 1960s and 1970s, urban pioneers came to Hoboken snatching up brownstones at bargain prices. Those early renovations planted the seeds for Hoboken’s renaissance. By the 1980s, the redevelopment of Hoboken was in full swing. And some developers began to think big.

In 1986, a development group proposed the Presidential Towers at the south end of town where a plumbing supply and scrap metal yard operated. The project consisted of two 32-story towers in a zoning district limited to five-story heights. Neighbors were appalled at the proposal as were community activists. Opponents hired an attorney to represent them before the Hoboken Zoning Board of Adjustment. After a series of contentious hearings, the Zoning Board approved the project granting a slew of variances.

I was part of the opposition to this project. We appealed the approvals and prevailed in court with Superior Court Judge Maurice Gallipoli declaring the Zoning board’s management of the hearing, “a nightmare.”

Up to this point, most of Hoboken’s redevelopment took place within the town’s existing housing stock, renovations of 3 to 5-story walk-ups, built originally at the turn-of-the-century. Hoboken is densely populated and densely built but these were rows of low-rise buildings at the front lot line, short and squat, on small lots. It was this human scale and the turn-of-the-century ambience, the cheap prices plus easy access into New York City that first made Hoboken so attractive. And it was people’s love of this historic Hoboken character that caused many of us to recoil at the prospect of high-rise towers in our midst.

Later, I helped to organize another group, Downtown Residents for Sane Development. We went into court to oppose a series of 17 story towers proposed by Applied Companies on a 3-block stretch of Observer Highway at the south end of town. The site fell within the I-2 Zoning District limited to 2-story industrial uses. The City of Hoboken proposed to create a redevelopment zone to pave the way for this project. After one of the sites was found to be contaminated with mercury, the project was limited to one block and the building height scaled back to 11 stories.

Based on my recent experience, I found myself in the midst of the next major battle being waged over Hoboken’s South Waterfront. In 1989, a number of us formed the Coalition for a Better Waterfront (CBW) to oppose a 3.2 million square foot project proposed by the Port and the City of Hoboken. The project included a 32-story office complex on Pier A and a half-million square feet of residential development on Pier C. We collected sufficient signatures to place the City’s agreement with the Port on the ballot, based on New Jersey’s Initiative and Referendum statute. The campaign was hard-fought and by a small margin, in July of 1990, the voters of Hoboken rejected the agreement.

Residential street in uptown Hoboken with turn-of-the-century row homes.

Residential street in uptown Hoboken with turn-of-the-century row homes.

CBW prevailed in a second referendum in 1992. By then, the group had formed the nonprofit Fund for a Better Waterfront (FBW). Before the 1992 vote, FBW had developed a plan for the entire Hoboken waterfront detailing how it could be developed in a manner that benefited both the developer’s and the public’s interest. I participated with other opponents of the City/Port proposal in working with the City to develop a redevelopment plan for the South Waterfront. In 1996, the City of Hoboken adopted this plan. Building heights were limited to 12 stories. All development was to take place on three upland blocks, thus creating a continuous public waterfront park east of Sinatra Drive.

More battles over high-rise projects ensued. Civic groups defeated the 43-story Millennium Towers on the Jersey City-Hoboken border and two towers at 1600 Park Avenue. Despite opposition, developers prevailed at several projects at Hoboken’s western edge – the Sky Club and 800 Jackson Street. In 2002, against bitter objections from the community, the City broke its agreement with civic groups to limit buildings at the South Waterfront to 12 stories by amending the redevelopment plan to accommodate the proposal by Applied Companies (which at that time had considerable political clout) to build the 27-story W Hotel.

In addition, transportation planners have questioned the wisdom of building a commercial project at this end of town adjacent to the Lincoln Tunnel and Route 495. Entry to Hoboken from the north is limited to two two-lane roadways: Park Avenue and Willow Avenue that are frequently backed up during rush hour. A remarkably high percentage of Hoboken residents rely on public transportation to get to work. Thus, a residential project would thus have less impact on traffic than a commercial one.

The City of Hoboken has just announced its intent to hire a planning firm to develop a plan for the North End Redevelopment Area. This is one of the last remaining frontiers to be redeveloped in Hoboken and the plan is likely to be hotly debated. This will be a challenge for the City of Hoboken that has had difficulty envisioning what future development should look like.

Related links

Zimmer vs. Christie: the backstory
FBW History
Hoboken Rail Yard Redevelopment Plan fundamentally flawed
1600 Park Avenue shrinks to 8 stories
Court victory over Millennium Towers
Master Plan or master sham? 800 Jackson Street