Will Hoboken hold the latest real-estate developer accountable for a promised “give back” to the community? On Tuesday, April 17, the Zoning Board could answer “yes” or “no.” That’s when All Saints Episcopal Parish is scheduled to argue for height, density and setback variances to redevelop its Church of the Holy Innocents property on Sixth Street between Willow and Clinton by building an income-producing nine-story residential and school tower. All Saints wants to demolish its historic 1888 rectory and, as Hoboken’s Historic Preservation Commission said, “gut the  parish house for adaptive reuse as All Saints Episcopal Day School.” The developer’s application promises that the 1874 stone church will be “restored and preserved.” Restoration and preservation is All Saints’ promised give-back to the community in return for rights to reduce the light, air, open space, greenery, historic setting and architectural beauty that citizens have subsidized with a property-tax exemption for more than 125 years.
But will that give-back materialize? The developer-parish’s attorney, in response for my request, wrote in a letter that “We have not prepared an engineering report on the feasibility of modifying the Parish House. This report is certainly not a requirement of any board and our architect could address any board concerns.” There should be structural-engineering and geotechnical (soil dynamics) analyses of the feasibility of building in, around, next to and atop fragile historic buildings – all of which, including the church’s interior, are listed on the National and New Jersey Registers of Historic Places.
The developer-parish has provided no 10-year pro forma (standard practice in business deals) that estimates construction costs, the marketability of its particular housing product, future school enrollment, future school tuition, construction contingencies, capital-reserve requirements, debt service, cash flow and community response to fundraising.
Restoring the church is Phase 2. How much money will be available? The developer-parish has offered no guarantees that it can and will restore the church structure (no promise of a performance bond, escrow account or letter of credit). The developer-parish’s promise of preservation will require recurring income. Will the developer-parish set aside sufficient funds in a separate account?
Will the Zoning Board require these guarantees as a condition of preliminary zoning approval, which is virtually the same as final approval? An applicant that depends heavily on community goodwill and support for its many valuable ministries presumably would eagerly offer parishioners, clients, supporters and city officials credible, fact-based assurances. When an applicant chooses not to do so, city officials must step in and test the financial viability of a proposed give-back before the City gives away valuable development rights.
Perhaps the Zoning Board will insist that it never looks at the economics of a proposed development. Here, however, where the price of inadequate due diligence could be the total loss of irreplaceable, nationally recognized historic structures, the Zoning Board must get dollar-denominated guarantees from the applicant that its project won’t destroy the very thing that it vaguely has promised to pay to restore and preserve.