The battle over a proposed high-rise in Bergen-Lafayette has officially spilled into the courtroom as a local non-profit has taken legal action over an ordinance allowing residential and commercial development at property allegedly set aside for a park expansion.
On January 29, the Morris Canal Redevelopment Area Community Development Corporation (MCRACDC) filed a lawsuit against Jersey City and their planning division in Hudson County Civil Court. Formed in 1999 to ensure inclusion of residents as the Morris Canal Redevelopment Plan progressed, the organization’s complaint centers around a proposal that has emerged at 417 Communipaw Avenue.
Known as the Steel Tech site, Skyline Development Group has pitched a revitalization that includes a 17-story residential building, a public STEM school, recreation center, and a Business Enterprise Incubator with eight affordable commercial working spaces for minority-owned businesses. But the MCRACDC says in their lawsuit that the 3.3-acre parcel was intended as part of a Berry Lane Park expansion that has yet to materialize.
“This is a case of promises — and a community-driven public-private partnership — broken, all to pave the way for a developer to profit,” the complaint says.
The filing asserts that the Steel Tech parcel was meant to be one of the jewels of the neighborhood. Per the Morris Canal Redevelopment Plan which was put together by a community coalition, “the City had until recently intended to purchase the property and turn it into greenspace,” the case claims.
MCRACDC’s lawsuit alleges that the redevelopment plan “expressly identifies the [Steel Tech] property as ‘To Be Acquired’ by the City” and claims that the land’s industrial zoning was kept in place as part of an effort to buy the parcel at a lower price. But the city’s view supposedly changed in December last year when the tract was rezoned to allow high-density, high-bulk residential development.
“The City passed an ordinance that effectively allowed a prominent developer to construct a massive, 420-unit residential high-rise on the Steel Tech site,” the complaint says.
MCRACDC argues that the ordinance violates a New Jersey law prohibiting so-called “spot zoning,” which generally refers to the re-zoning of land for the benefit of an owner over the community. The complaint alleges that “the illicit spot-rezoning of the Steel Tech property is slated to net the aforesaid high-rise’s developer nearly $3 million in profit.”
To support their claims against the ordinance, the lawsuit cites a 1997 agreement between the Jersey City Redevelopment Agency (JCRA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. A Brownfields Pilot Program from the era allegedly requires the MCRACDC to be consulted and notified of plans for parcels within the redevelopment plan at least 21 days prior to a proposal’s hearing, something the group claims didn’t happen when Steel Tech was rezoned.
The lawsuit alleges that Ward F Councilman Jermaine Robinson made clear during an August meeting regarding the Steel Tech property that Skyline Development and the city’s planning department had been discussing the proposal “for approximately two years.” The case claims that both city planning and the JCRA failed to inform the MCRACDC during that time about plans to rezone the site for mixed commercial and housing.
The filing notes that the nearby area is defined by small scale residences and the MCRACDC claims that the city has provided “virtually no evidence, let alone required substantial, credible evidence, of why this dramatic, materially divergent amendment to the Plan is warranted.”
An inquiry sent to Jersey City seeking comment on the lawsuit has not been answered. Despite being mentioned throughout the lawsuit, Skyline Development Group is not named as a defendant in the case.
MCRACDC is requesting that the court strike down the ordinance, reverse the rezoning of the property, and “compel the defendants to follow the procedural and substantive scriptures of…the [Morris Canal Redevelopment] Plan to include [the property] in Berry Lane Park’s expansion.”
Matsikoudis & Fanciullo are representing the plaintiffs in the case, with co-counsel from the New Jersey Appleseed Public Interest Law Center.