By David Cruz
What’s best for the future of Hoboken’s waterfront commuter terminal? That’s the question at the core of a disagreement between the city of Hoboken and New Jersey Transit. Both sides say they want to improve the terminal and the surrounding neighborhood, but can’t agree on the best way to achieve that goal.
Commuter trains have been pulling into Hoboken’s Lakawanna Terminal for more than 100 years. Once part of a network of waterfront commuter terminals in Hudson County, it’s now the last one standing, part of a 52-acre waterfront site, the future of which is the subject of intense debate between NJ Transit, which owns the property, and the city of Hoboken.
“We just want to make sure to protect the character of Hoboken,” said Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer. “We want something that supports and builds on what is so fantastic about our city.”
And that is a less dense, smaller scale development with a premium placed on calming traffic, and creating and maintaining open space, but NJ Transit has a different idea of what to do. The agency says it wants to include the Hoboken plans, but it also needs to put a plan in place that makes economic sense for them. A few years ago, NJ Transit proposed a 70-story building and 9 million square feet of commercial space for the site, an idea that was immediately rejected. Since then, says NJ Transit spokesman Paul Wyckoff, the sides have gotten a little bit closer.
“We’ve come a long way and the plans are more similar than they are different now,” said Wyckoff. “The city is at 2 million square feet total and we’re at about 2.9 million and there’s some difference in the commercial/residential mix. We’ve got a little more residential, they’ve got a little less and our heights are a little higher than their vision.”
Not quite that close, if you ask Zimmer. As she shows in artist’s renderings, the NJ Transit plan, which includes residential development along Observer Highway, would add around 2,100 new residents to the area, as opposed to less than 1,000 under the city plan. Zimmer says had her administration not been adamant about bringing down the scale of the project, NJ Transit would have overwhelmed the surrounding neighborhood.
“The residential that they want is really going to — quite frankly — destroy southwest Hoboken,” charges the mayor. “They want a 27-story building, then another at 18, and another at 18. Right now, you can’t even get out of Hoboken in the morning; it’s extremely difficult. It’s congested, we’ve got traffic problems, we still have some flooding challenges, and so the amount of residential that they want there would simply be too much of a strain on our community and the infrastructure of Hoboken.”
Wyckoff says the agency has been listening to the city’s concerns.
“We’ve taken all that into account and that’s why we’re at 2.9 [million square feet] and we’re always available to talk with her and have been talking with her,” said Wyckoff.
That’s not quite how the mayor sees it. She says she’s ready to stare down the agency in the interest of getting the project into scale. But, Councilwoman Terry Castellano, who’s represented this part of the city since 1995, says that kind of adamance is dangerous and could not only delay this redevelopment further but end up costing taxpayers money.
“I think we’re gonna wind up in court,” says Castellano. “I’d hate to see that because we’re so over the top with special legal counsel. We’re into the millions and millions of dollars and I don’t want to see us go to court.”
Residents at two public meetings gave a thumbs down to both plans. So far, no new talks have been scheduled. The city council, which serves as the city’s redevelopment agency, will have to set the parameters for the site, and as far as Zimmer’s concerned, NJ Transit will just have to fit into those parameters, which makes a court challenge a distinct possibility.
Plans to expand and upgrade the terminal and the rail yards have been kicking around for almost two decades. It seems as if there’s finally an end game in sight But with so many conflicting interests in play, getting across the finish line is proving to be somewhat difficult.