Van Vorst Park: Won’t You Be Their Neighbors? (Originally Published Nov 2013)

The post below – originally published in November 2013 on my other blog – is a primer for an upcoming article that will show how the “Bright & Varick micro units” are now sitting squarely at the intersection of public schools, taxes, and abatements in Jersey City.  Stay tuned as we connect the dots in Jersey City…

The “Bright & Varick Micro Unit Project” has become a bit of a sound byte in downtown Jersey City.   From those living outside the Van Vorst Park (VVP) neighborhood or unaware of the full facts, it typically garners responses like “it’s all about parking” or “this type of change is inevitable in a growing city.”

But when you get under the hood of this thing, it gets ugly and unjust.  None of us should be treated the way the VVP community has been treated by the city.

First, I think it’s important to acknowledge the Van Vorst Park community’s contribution to the rest of downtown.  The Van Vorst Park neighborhood is one the oldest communities in the city and has led the city in a series of “park firsts in downtown…first historic park renovation, dog run, computerized irrigation systems…”  The park itself is a city gem, maintained by Friends of Van Vorst Park and offering a summer farmers’ market, two dog runs, swing sets and a sandbox for younger kids, a playground for older kids, a gazebo, and gorgeous landscaping maintained entirely by volunteers.  Friends of Van Vorst Park partner with the Van Vorst Park Association to bring us summertime movies in the park, a weekly series run by volunteers and open to the entire city.  But the neighborhood is about more than just the park; the community is actively engaged in improving our public school system.  The local middle school is MS4 and the local elementary school is PS3, and its PTA is strong, engaged, and has helped spear-head the development and growth of the dual language program which now starts in Pre-K4 and is being implemented in other schools based on its success at PS3.

So why is this community being treated so poorly by the city?

Here is the backstory.  A developer wants to build an 87 micro unit project that is billed as “experimental” and targeted at young professionals instead of families.

The 5th floor layout of the micro-unit building on Bright & Varick. Each unit measures approx. 11' x 29', or 319 square feet.

The 5th floor layout of the micro-unit building on Bright & Varick. Each unit measures approx. 11′ x 29′, or 319 square feet.

The project was approved unanimously by the city council without density specified.  The assumption was that density would fit into the existing zoning permits and neighborhood plan, i.e. an “R1″ (1-2 family) structure.  But once approved, the plan went to the Jersey City Redevelopment Agency (JCRA) where it was transformed into 87 micro units…with zero opportunity for public comment.  The city essentially cut the Van Vorst Park community out of the conversation, and the public documents show a trail of city officials seeking to promote an “experimental” project downtown without soliciting feedback from the public.  Is this fair?  Is this right?

But it gets worse…ongoing concerns laid out by the Bright and Varick Action Group include:

  • The city blighted the property despite its ongoing use as classrooms for 60 pre-K3 aged children.  Trailers were an imperfect solution to the demand for school space, but now that the trailers are gone, children from VVP’s neighborhood are being bussed out of the neighborhood.
  • There was no environmental impact study performed.
  • There has been no information provided to the public around regulations or impact of excavating and building an 87-unit structure across the street from two schools.
  • There are known sewer issues in the area yet the plan will call for 87 toilets on a plot originally planned for less than 10 toilets.
  • The list goes on – read more here.

But the final insult to the Van Vorst Park community was that the new city administration has been lackluster at best in representing the residents’ interests against the developer.  It required hundreds of phone calls to City Hall simply to get a town hall meeting with Mayor Fulop, which is memorialized in part here.

To the rest of downtown Jersey City: I encourage you consider that if this can happen in Van Vorst Park, then you better believe it can happen in Hamilton Park, Paulus Hook, Harsimus Cove, and the Village.  Zoning be damned.  Public comments be damned.  Passionate representation by city administration be damned.  But developers be blessed.  Developers wield considerable leverage with elected officials because they have deep pockets and can promise “x” new residents and “y” millions of property dollars invested; such metrics are necessary for city leaders to progress in their careers, but at what cost to the neighborhoods and families that are left behind?

When the city partners with developers against you and your neighbors, do you want to be left out in the cold, standing alone while the rest of the city stares on?  Or do you want the rest of the city to have your back, to be standing shoulder to shoulder with you, telling the Mayor and City Council that we are one coalition of neighbors?

The precedent is up to you.  Act today or regret it tomorrow.

Call to action (relevant to original post published in November 2013):

  1. Contact our elected representatives and request an immediate HALT to this project by the Planning Board.
  2. Contact your local neighborhood association and ask them to support the Van Vorst Park community.  Tell them you want to stand with your neighbors in Van Vorst Park.
  3. Help the legal efforts by donating here: http://vvpa.org/about-us/donate/
  4. Sign up for updates on meetings and how you can help: http://vvpa.org
  5. Stay in touch with the Van Vorst Park Association on their Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/VanVorstParkAssociation or through the Bright and Varick Action Group blog here: http://www.brightandvarick.blogspot.com

Contact information for city officials:

  • Mayor Fulop: info@stevenfulop.com, (201) 547-5200
  • Ward “E” Councilwoman Candice Osborne: cOsborne@jcnj.org, (201) 547-5315
  • At-Large Councilman Rolando Lavarro: RLavarro@jcnj.org, (201) 547-5268
  • At-Large Councilman Daniel Rivera: DRivera@jcnj.org, (201) 547-5319
  • At-Large Councilwoman Joyce Watterman: jwatterman@jcnj.org, (201)-547-5134

Update (May 8, 2014):

The VVPA hired a law firm and pursued this through legal channels.  The City has acknowledged issues with the change in density, and now the fight appears to be between the developer and the City.  For more details, read the Bright & Varick Redevelopment Page.  Also – stay tuned for follow-up post which will explain how the micro units now intersect with public schools, taxes, and abatements.

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