Everywhere the Barrys go in town these days, a devoted band of citizen activists seems to follow, kicking up their own dust in the face of the family that operates the Applied Companies, the largest real estate management and development company in town.
Whether it is the Applied Companies’ proposal to build on a pier, or their recently-implemented regulatory agreement with the state that changes the rent scale in certain low- and moderate-income housing buildings, the activists have been complaining, petitioning and even suing.
Led on various issues by activists Annette Illing, Dan Tumpson, and Ron Hine, they have repeatedly charged that the developer’s recent actions are not in the best interests of the city.
So it came as no surprise a week ago Wednesday when Annette Illing led a gaggle of residents to the podium during the City Council meeting to raise pointed questions about the Applied Companies’ development at Pier C on the city’s south waterfront. In conjunction with the Starwood-Heller group, the company is constructing a 13-story building that will be used to house 522 apartments and more than 60,000 square feet of retail and office space.
The activists who spoke at the meeting, many of whom live across the street in Marine View Plaza, said that the number of stories and the amount of retail space has grown since the project was first envisioned in 1996. At that time, according to a site plan the city drew up, an 11-story structure was envisioned for the River Street block between Third and Fourth streets. And according to documents released by Applied and Starwood/Heller, in 1998, 51,000 feet of retail space would be provided. Today, the company, which also has built hundreds of units of moderate- and low-income housing in Hoboken, says the building will be 13 stories tall and will include almost 62,000 square feet of retail.
“All the numbers keep changing,” said Illing Tuesday. “They keep trying to cram more and more into that space. Now we are taking about 11 stories on top of three stories of parking, with one story underground. The structure of this building has changed significantly since it was first presented to the public.”
Applied executive Michael Barry was unruffled by Illing’s charge. What matters, he said, is not how many stories high the building is, but how tall it stands. In 1996, the city finalized a redevelopment plan that said that no building constructed in the area could excede 125 feet. The plan, which also laid the groundwork for the development of Pier A park and the city’s riverfront walkway, was developed with significant input from the major waterfront activists at the time, including Hine.
“The guidelines don’t speak to stories, they speak to height,” explained Barry. “We are in compliance with the height limitations. If you are doing an office building there with 14-foot ceilings, you are going to have less stories. But we are doing residential with about nine-foot ceilings, so we can fit more stories.”
Human Services Director Bob Drasheff, who oversees development of the city’s waterfront, had met with Marine View Plaza tenants a week before the council meeting to discuss concerns. Drasheff agreed with Barry last week. “The overall envelope of the building is the same,” he explained. “The guidelines for construction are tightly controlled by the redevelopment plans. There were five public hearings on these plans. Two in front of the Planning Board and three in front of the City Council. To come and say, at this stage of the game, while construction is underway, that it is too large, well, it is just a little late to stop a construction project like this. There was plenty of opportunity for public input on the building before.” Several residents have also complained that the construction project is kicking dust up in the air that is causing them to become sick. While Drasheff urged residents to “document” the problem so that appropriate action could be taken, Barry called the claims “absurd.”
“It’s a construction project there!” Barry said. “We are building a concrete structure no different from any other project up and down the waterfront. The Port Authority has on-site engineers who monitor the construction activity on a daily basis. The contractor also has safety compliance personnel on site at all times.”
Several other officials who have worked on the project said privately that they believed the complaints that were coming from the Marine View residents probably had more to do with the fact that the new project would block their view than with anything else.
Illing said that she had heard this criticism as well. But she pointed out that was not her motivation. Her view looks north across the park, she said, not east across the river.
“All I want is for everybody to know what is going on here,” Illing said.
While Barry said that he respected the citizens’ right to speak up, he made no secret of the fact that his life would be easier if the activists were not perpetually dogging his company’s activities.
“It would be nice if these people could use their energy for a constructive purpose,” he said. “We invest a lot of time and money in the city. And it seems like this group is just trying to make us spend more money and more time to try and get to the same place. It’s just not constructive.”