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Must Be Wary of Square Plan

Letter to the Public From the Riverview Neighborhood Association

After decades of neglect, Journal Square is to be "improved." Mayor Jerramiah Healy and the Redevelopment Agency are expecting the City Council to approve a redevelopment plan for the area. The plan encompasses 244 acres with the Square as its hub. While no one who has traveled through the Square can argue that improvements need to be made, the Journal Square Redevelopment Plan will benefit a few developers at the expense of the majority of Jersey City's residents.

It is easy to overlook any drawbacks when the words and pictures presented by the city at its "visioning meetings" sound so right: transit-oriented, pedestrian-friendly, sustainable, green with "signature" buildings and a new PATH station. So what is the problem?

The plan includes buildings that are out of scale for the neighborhood. As envisioned, the area can include buildings up to 100 stories. This is just shy of the former World Trade Center's 110 stories, and over 32 stories taller than the recently approved "Harwood" project at the former Hotel on the Square site.

Many of the neighborhoods within the 244 acres consist of two-families and small, multi-unit dwellings. Do we really need buildings this tall and development this dense that will place much of the surrounding area in shadows, add significantly to our population, and overburden our already taxed roadways and schools?

The transit-oriented components of the plan require huge investments by the Port Authority and New Jersey Transit, yet there is no commitment or buy-in from these entities other than more studies. Without that commitment, these elements are a pipe dream.

More importantly, the city has signaled that it will create, for the first time in Jersey City and only the second time in New Jersey, a Revenue Allocation District (RAD). This is a complex funding mechanism that can only be used in an "area in need of rehabilitation," assuming the state makes legislative changes in zoning law.

In a RAD, the incremental increases in revenue generated from the development will be used to fund infrastructure improvements only in the RAD area. While there are plenty of infrastructure improvements that need to be funded in Journal Square (open space, roadways, water/sewer, etc.), RADs have many unintended consequences.

Assuming property values and other revenue streams in the district increase as a result of the new development, much of the increase in revenues would not go into the general funds of the city. Instead, they can only be used within the Journal Square Redevelopment Plan area. This means that the rest of us are left to fight over fewer and fewer funds for our infrastructure needs or be hit with a tax increase (to which those in the RAD will be exempt). These new residents and businesses will require fire, police and other services, yet their contribution to the general funds will be fixed for years to come at today's property valuation.

But those in Journal Square will not get a free ride. Properties in the 244-acre Journal Square area will, in all likelihood, need to be revalued for tax purposes periodically (or the tax rate increased) in order to capture the incremental increase in revenues needed to fund the improvements. In other areas where RADs are used, regular property re-evaluations are standard. In Jersey City, the last one was in 1987. The city needs to explain how they will capture the forecasted increase in revenues and whether it will lead to increased property taxes for those residing in the 244-acre area.

Any incremental increase in revenue from the new developments will only minimally contribute to the school system or county coffers. The new residents could require up to three schools (according to the Redevelopment Agency and their consultant, A. Nelessen Associates), yet they will not be contributing to them. It will be left to those few of us paying conventional property taxes to make up the difference.

The funding for the development will be dependent on Revenue Bonds that are paid back using the incremental improvement in revenues (property taxes, PILOTs, hotel taxes, etc.) While not all revenue bonds need to be guaranteed by the municipality, in this economic environment it is likely. If the revenue projections are wrong and there is a default on these bonds, the city would have to pay higher interest rates on future municipal bonds at the expense of all taxpayers.

Let's be real: most people would like to see positive changes in Journal Square. But both the Journal Square Redevelopment Plan and the funding mechanisms proposed for it need careful scrutiny by the affected public - and that means ALL of Jersey City's residents.

We suggest that all concerned residents and businesses review the Redevelopment Plan (at www.thejcra.org) and let your views be known to the mayor and City Council immediately. As of this writing, the City Council introduced the ordinance yesterday and a public hearing and vote will be held at the Feb. 25 meeting.

It is time to get involved.