NY Times, Jan. 20, 2014
By Patrick McGeehan
HOBOKEN, N.J. — The fenced-off piles of rubble at the northern end of this city bear no resemblance to the limestone towers of Rockefeller Center in Manhattan. But the connection between the two plots on opposite sides of the Hudson River is at the core of Gov. Chris Christie’s latest political headache.
Hoboken’s mayor, Dawn Zimmer, has repeatedly and very publicly alleged that members of Mr. Christie’s cabinet applied pressure to get her to support a large-scale commercial development on the derelict lots in her city. Those lots are owned by the Rockefeller Group, which built Rockefeller Center and is represented by the law firm of a close associate of Mr. Christie.
Ms. Zimmer, a Democrat, said that Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno told her that federal money for rebuilding and fortifying Hoboken against another storm like Hurricane Sandy would hinge on her backing of the project. The mayor said Ms. Guadagno, a Republican, told her that Mr. Christie had sent her to deliver that message personally because the project was so important to him.
Those allegations came just days after Mr. Christie, whose second inauguration is Tuesday, apologized for the intentional disruption of traffic in nearby Fort Lee in a retribution scheme engineered by some of his associates. But the Christie administration is not conceding Ms. Zimmer’s charges. On Monday, Ms. Guadagno disputed Ms. Zimmer’s account of their meeting at a Shop-Rite supermarket in May.
“Mayor Zimmer’s version of our conversation in May of 2013 is not only false, but is illogical and does not withstand scrutiny when all of the facts are examined,” Ms. Guadagno said at an event to commemorate Martin Luther King’s Birthday. “Any suggestion that Sandy funds were tied to the approval of any project in New Jersey is completely false.”
Another state official, Marc Ferzan, weighed in on Monday to counter the idea that Hoboken had been shortchanged on its share of hurricane aid. Mr. Ferzan, executive director of the governor’s Office of Recovery and Rebuilding, said, “We’ve tried to have an objective process, we have tried to design programs with application criteria that are objective, that prioritize the communities most in need, with the least financial resources.”
Ms. Zimmer has complained that Hoboken received just two grants worth $342,000 out of $290 million the state had to pass along to municipalities for mitigating flooding and other storm damage. She pointed out that 80 percent of Hoboken, a densely packed city that encompasses only about a square mile, was underwater after the storm.
In an interview on Monday afternoon, Ms. Zimmer did not back down from her allegations, which she laid out in a meeting with federal prosecutors on Sunday. The United States attorney in Newark, Paul J. Fishman, had already begun an investigation into the Fort Lee traffic matter.
Speaking of Ms. Guadagno, Ms. Zimmer said, “I’m not surprised that she denied it.”
Ms. Zimmer said the Rockefeller Group wanted to build over two million square feet of office and commercial space on four acres it owns in the part of Hoboken closest to the Lincoln Tunnel. She said she had never opposed that proposal, but had insisted that the city must first develop an overall plan for redevelopment of the entire north end.
But Ms. Guadagno wanted her to expedite the Rockefeller Group’s plan, Ms. Zimmer said. She has produced several emails from the Wolff & Samson law firm asking for meetings with her about the project, all of which she has turned down.
Wolff & Samson is well connected in Trenton. Mr. Christie appointed David Samson, a founding partner of the firm, to be chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Lori Grifa, another partner in the firm who has been lobbying the Hoboken government on behalf of the Rockefeller Group, was Mr. Christie’s commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs for two years.
The Rockefeller Group’s presence started raising a lot of eyebrows in Hoboken last spring when the city’s planning board considered a study of the north end. The study had been paid for with $75,000 from the Port Authority, whose deputy executive director at the time was a Christie appointee, Bill Baroni. (Mr. Baroni resigned over his involvement in the scheme to tie up traffic in Fort Lee, apparently as punishment of the borough’s mayor for failing to endorse Mr. Christie for re-election last fall.)
In a draft report, the planning firm that conducted the study recommended that just three blocks out of 19 in the industrial north end of Hoboken should be designated for redevelopment. That designation would make those properties eligible for significant tax abatements.
With the exception of two gas stations, all of the lots in those three blocks belonged to the Rockefeller Group. Some residents thought it looked as if the company was getting “special treatment,” said Ron Hine, the executive director of Fund for a Better Waterfront, which has opposed some proposals for tall buildings in Hoboken.
Michael Sullivan, a principal in the architectural firm based in Trenton that conducted the study, Clarke Caton Hintz, said it was not written to favor the Rockefeller Group. “The process we used in our report and our study is no different than we used in any other redevelopment study,” he said on Monday.
A member of the Hoboken City Council who currently has a seat on the city’s planning board, Ravi S. Bhalla, said that he believed the mayor’s allegations and that residents were angered by the idea that the city’s receipt of the aid it deserved “might have been contingent upon advancing a private interest.”
Mr. Bhalla said, “The emotions are still raw in Hoboken over the damage caused by Sandy.” He added, “What I see is that those raw emotions are manifesting themselves in a lot of residents’ anger.”
Alan Feuer contributed reporting from New York, and Kate Zernike from New Jersey.