Sunday, January 19, 2014

More on HobokenGate (updated)

Yesterday, I passed a guy on the street who said "Cold enough for ya, young man?" He said "young man" in the same sense that you might call a seven-foot bruiser "Tiny." I've been in a foul mood ever since -- and today's headlines did nothing to improve it.

Brian Ballard, Mitt Romney's former fundraiser, has some surprising public words for Chris Christie:
"The guy, as a person, is horrific," said Ballard...
Like a lot of other people on the right, Ballard still fumes over the visuals of Christie and Obama working together in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

Oddly enough, Sandy may prove to be Christie's undoing.

In our previous post, we took a long long at the Rockefeller Group, a financial entity headed by David Samson, a high-powered lawyer and Christie ally appointed to run the Port Authority. They bought up three blocks of land in the run-down warehouse district of Hoboken, which they want re-zoned so they can build an elaborate new development.

The group saw Hoboken mayor Dawn Zimmer as an impediment to this scheme. After Sandy struck, her devastated city received little more than $300,000 in aid from the state, even though she had asked for more than $100,000,000 and even though Christie controlled a very large relief fund. Zimmer says that two Christie aides, on separate occasions, told her that the money would start flowing if she played ball with the Rockefeller Group.

In that earlier post, I had questions about Zimmer's allegations. We get a few answers in this new piece by Brian Murphy, who has worked closely with Steve Kornacki, the MSNBC reporter who has brought this story to national attention.
This Hoboken story and the Fort Lee/GWB story might seem like separate tales. But they’re not. Moreover, these latest revelations put to rest the notion that Hoboken’s Sandy aid or the Fort Lee/GWB story have anything to do with local Democratic officials’ endorsement of the governor during his reelection campaign. Forget about the endorsements. It never really added up anyway.

The subpoenaed documents in Bridgegate show that the Christie administration used the Port Authority as an extension of their political operation, although we do not yet know to what end.

And the Hoboken story clearly demonstrates the Christie administration took steps to aid the material interest of a client of the chairman of that agency.
You may not realize it, but “redevelopment” is a technical term – a legal trigger that can shower a project with goodies like tax abatements, tax credits, grants, and vest local governments with sweeping powers to issue bonds, take properties in the affected area by use of eminent domain, and re-zone an area to suit just one developer’s interests and needs...
In decades past, there were horrific examples of cronyism carried out in the name of redevelopment, which is why we now have safeguards in place. Zimmer demanded a study, which the Port Authority paid for, as arranged by Christie aide Lori Grifa.
Months passed. Then a year. Sandy happened, and everything was put on hold.

But in early 2013 the study was completed and Hoboken officials were surprised by what they saw: of the nineteen block studied on the North End, only three were deemed eligible for redevelopment. And they were all owned by the same entity: the Rockefeller Group.
During the weeks before Hoboken’s planning board was set to decide whether or not to endorse that conclusion, Hoboken officials heard from Lori Grifa again. Only this time she wasn’t calling as the commissioner at the Department of Community Affairs; she was calling as the lawyer representing the Rockefeller Group from the firm of Wolff & Samson, where she heads the firm’s regulatory affairs unit.
More emails followed, with the subject line “Hoboken/Rockefeller Group.” Each was cc’d to David Samson. Lori Grifa said that since the “blight study” had been “published” she needed to talk about the “next steps in Hoboken” and get the city ready to “plan for the same.”
But then the Hoboken planning board turned down the study’s recommendation. The owners of the other sixteen blocks had banded together, hired their own lawyer, and filed an objection to the study’s conclusions. Calling themselves “the Other North End Property Owners,” they wrote that it was an “obvious” that “the Study's myopic recommendation favors a particular property owner.” They asked why “a redevelopment plan for the exclusive benefit” of the Rockefeller Group would “[favor] a single property owner to the detriment of all other property owners in the North End Area.” Their argument won the day

That happened on May 8. But although Rockefeller lost the round, it wasn’t a binding decision. The planning board only makes recommendations to the city council. In other words, everything was still in play.

Remember that this is May 2013. Sandy grants were being awarded, applications were being filed, and Hoboken was asking for almost $100 million in aid to recover from the hurricane’s damage and plan for future storms. The city had a lot at stake.
That's when, according to Zimmer, two Christie aides bluntly told her that the money would start flowing if she played ball with the Rockefeller group.

Although Republican propagandist Jennifer Rubin is now making Mayor Dawn Zimmer out to be some sort of liberal hatchet-woman, Murphy makes clear that Zimmer was, in fact, a Christie admirer -- in fact, she owes her present job to him.

A reader of this blog suggested in a comment that the real kingpin here is David Samson. Murphy's article suggests that Christie was actually a player in Samson's game:
Was the governor telling his aides to act on David Samson’s client’s behalf? Or did they just know to do so? Were they so attuned to the power dynamic between the state and the Port Authority, an agency that’s putting $1.5 billion into New Jersey projects, that they thought they had no choice but to do a favor for the agency’s chairman. Those projects, after all, are filling critical holes in New Jersey’s state budget.
Samson, you will recall, was the direct supervisor of Bill Baroni, the man who did so much to create a traffic nightmare on the Bridge of Doom. Last year, a lot of people were betting that Christie would appoint Samson to a Senate seat left vacant by the death of Frank Lautenberg.

So we still have a couple of big questions. It's clear that the Rockefeller Group wanted those three blocks, and no other, to be developed. What do they intend to build, and why are they so insistent on their island of development being surrounded by warehouses and blight?

The other question: Although the polls still favor him, can Christie's presidential ambitions survive? A few days ago, I would have said yes. Now? I don't think so.

Update: I've discovered this Hoboken blog which started talking months ago about the Rockefeller Group's strange redevelopment scheme. The graphic above came from this site. Allow me to quote what they wrote last April:
As you probably already know – this section of Hoboken is kind of beat. Zoned mostly for industrial use – we have a large section of the city that would flourish if it could be re-zoned for more uses. That would quite possibly lead to real progress and incentive for existing businesses to sell to mixed-use developers. Did you know at one point in time, a proposal was floating around to make 15th Street another “Washington Street” like area? It was rejected by the city.

Anyway, some interesting questions about this whole “study” have crossed my desk here.
The first question is out of ALL the blocks in this study, only three were deemed “in need of redevelopment.” See graphic above.

Now regardless if they met some kind of “legal criteria,” it still seems odd that the only properties that were approved were Rockefeller owned.
The next question is – have you ever heard of a developer starting demolition of a property before any plans have been submitted, etc.?

Who would invest the time and money demolishing anything, without a solid guarantee that their new property has the green light?

Some suspect that whatever they plan on building here has been discussed in the “back room,” and possibly promises may have been made (contributions, guaranteed approvals, etc.) which is why this demo is diligently taking place. Who knows, maybe after election time later this year everything will come out in the open? Just seems very strange.
One thing I never understood is that these redevelopment studies are almost like no-bid monopolies.

The city is supposedly “transparent” in many other areas – especially with contracts that receive multiple bids. I’m not saying that even those can be riddled with corruption and under-the-table maneuvers, but why would we rely on only ONE company (Clarke Caton Hintz in this case) to prepare these studies?

Even though this study was funded by the Port Authority – why don’t the same rules for “multiple bids” apply here?

Because in almost any circumstance, you can tailor any of these “studies” to meet your desired outcome. Whether it’s by exclusion, embellishment, or subjective interpretation of the law, etc.
If you look at the comments, you'll see that -- back in April -- a few cynics in Hoboken were referring to Zimmer as one of Christie's cronies. Things do have a way of changing...!

At any rate, part of this story remains hidden. Why was the Group so focused on those three blocks and no other?


joseph said...

You mean she asked for $100,000,000 not $100,000.

Joseph Cannon said...

Thanks. I've corrected. Hope that's the only major typo...!

Anonymous said...

My husband knows the area and raised the possibility that there might be a plan to build high rises without having to worry about any potential air, light or view impingement lawsuits.