Vision 20/20 and the Ruben Ramos “Vision for Hoboken”
With Hoboken facing a reval of its taxpayer housing stock, examination of the tax breaks proposed in the massive expansion of the Hoboken Housing Authority warrants closer scrutiny. Two recent City Council meetings presented less than adequate detail in post midnight brawls where the Old Guard council members would try to push Vision 20/20 forward, illicitly hijacking the meeting without a quorum (a required five members present to conduct the meeting).
Hijacking the City Council meeting earlier this month (above) after midnight demonstrated the financial stakes, re: million dollar profits with the controversial Vision 20/20 plan put forward by HHA Executive Director Carmelo Garcia. Vision 20/20 would dramatically change downtown, feature a huge tax break and reshape all of Hoboken for decades to come and is supported by mayoral candidate Ruben Ramos as part of his “Vision for Hoboken.”
If Ramos, a friend of Carmelo Garcia has his way, Vision 20/20 will move forward full speed ahead as originally proposed. Those are the stakes in the November mayoral election.
Talking Ed Note: The following story comes courtesy of Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff, reprinted with permission from the original 2004 article. It’s illuminating and has parallels to the Vision 20/20 plan in ways similar and different.
Don’t count on it.
Truckstop Lenders & Waterfront HUD Hauls:
|2004 kicks into gear. Novellas of political corruption continue to unfold. The upcoming trial of New Jersey developer Joseph Barry will be another sizzling chapter. Real sweeps stuff. Barry faces charges of bribery, conspiracy and fraud. At issue are 8.8 million dollars worth of federal and state grants and low interest loans which Barry and his business, the Applied Development Company received for projects on New Jersey’s Gold Coast. The Gold Coast is the strip of Jersey along the Hudson River across from Manhattan. Much of it lies within Hudson County, where the cities most associated with its glitter are Hoboken, Jersey City and Weehawken. Over the past few years corruption cases have seemed to break with each Gold Coast dawn. When the sun rises it shines on what looks like a wall of Lego. Residential and commercial. Some structures rise to the sky, others crouch by the shore. All in styles made pop deluxe in the Big 80’s and which continue to spell “revitalization”. The high risers brick facade Gotham; the crouchers, wedding cake villas.Though the structures may look toylike, they didn’t come cheap. The taxpayer, via the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Department of Public Transportation picked up a hefty tab. Public funds in the billions helped raise and access these buildings– in the name of urban redevelopment. Yet behind the Gold Coast lies miles of thoroughly urban Hudson County which after decades of massive federal spending is still deeply plagued with poverty, unemployment, slums, poor schools, crime and systemic political corruption. At a December, 1997 Women in Housing and Finance luncheon, developer Joe Barry addressed the issue of why Gold Coast success is only “one quarter mile deep” and “has not impacted the core of Hudson”. According to Barry “the persistent problems of…social growth still present major issues in the ability of our generation to successfully change the welfare state mentality of the 70’s and 80’s.”
Barry’s indictments are part of larger federal investigations in New Jersey, which are generally concerned with bid rigged development deals and public contracts. Aka, pay for play. In the Fall of 2001, the highest ranking government official in Hudson County, Democratic Executive Robert Janiszewski suddenly resigned. And what a few canny cronies had suspected became public knowledge: Janiszewski had been flipped by the feds. For roughly a year, he’d been wearing a wire and setting up hidden cameras. Ultimate insider “Bobby J.” doing a “Radio Shack” was more shocking than the news he was facing corruption charges. Theories as to why he flipped abounded. Some said he did it to keep Beth Janiszewski, his politically powerful wife, indictment free. Others, that he’d had a recent spate of defeats and backstabs and was sick to death of the political scene. When caught by the feds with his hand on a bribe, the will to go to the wall for his buds just wasn’t there. Particularly because the public vendor who bribed him, may have ratted him out to the feds at the behest of a rival.
Shock at Janiszewski turning Judas rippled well beyond the borders of Hudson. Janiszewski was one of the most prominent New Jersey public officials to ever wear a wire. Despite (or because of?) perpetual corruption, Hudson County, with its 12 tightly packed municipalities, is a major political force in New Jersey. The Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO) where Beth Janiszewski once served as “de facto head” was described in the 12/14/03 New York Times as “one of the most formidable political machines in the nation”. In the same article, Congressman Robert Menendez, the current HCDO “de facto head” and the fourth ranking member in the U.S. House of Representatives chimes in: “Hudson County not only has state reach, but national reach as well”.
Robert Janiszewski was Hudson County’s chief Executive for 14 years. He was a former state assemblyman and Port Authority commissioner and served on the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority (NJTPA) since 1993. In 2000, he became its chairman. The NJTPA is a federally mandated regional planning agency that recommends which projects in 13 northern and central counties will receive U.S. Department of Transportation funds. Janiszewski was also chairman of the Hudson County Democratic Committee and a member of the Democratic National Committee. In 1992 and 1996 Robert Janiszewski managed Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in Jersey.
After resigning, Janiszewski dropped out of sight for a year. Possibly into witness protection. In the fall of 2002 he surfaced with a bang, pleading guilty to extortion and tax evasion. In a plea bargain, he acknowledged taking graft in exchange for delivering Hudson County public contracts and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) development deals. Several months later, at the trial of the Hudson County Freeholder who ferried the bribe that got Janiszewski busted, Janiszewski as federal witness stated he started taking bribes right after becoming county executive. He also named a few people he claimed had paid and conveyed some of that graft. One was political consultant and attorney Paul J. Byrne, sole member of the eponymous PDJ Group. Another was developer Joe Barry of Applied Development Company. A considerably larger operation.
Paul Byrne, who’s never held elected office, has been a Hudson County deal maker for decades. He and Janiszewski were friends since childhood. Alter boys at the same Jersey City church. When a consultant to Joe Barry and Applied, as well as to other public vendors, Byrne allegedly ferried cash bribes to Janiszewski. Being a private citizen made Byrne a barrier between bribers and bribee. As an Applied consultant, Byrne also received fees by check. After the checks were cashed, part of the payment went to Janiszewski. Testimony and tape evidence cited in federal indictments paint a picture of Paul Byrne skillfully calculating how to extract greater amounts of graft from those paying for Janiszewski’s favors. On several occasions, Byrne discusses how some new form of HUD funds can be exploited as justification for upping pay offs. Also discussed is how bribe payers can direct payments to public officials other than Janiszewski, in the form of gifts and political contributions. Janiszewski would benefit in terms of clout: recipients of the largesse would apparently know from whom the bounty truly flowed.
Quoted conversation and taped material from bribe payers suggest they suspected Byrne of passing along too little to Janiszewski. On the other hand, Byrne conveys to Janiszewski that bribe payers are holding back. In the Spring and Summer of 2001, Joe Barry was allegedly making monthly payments of tens of thousands of dollars to Janiszewski and was growing restive with passing payments through Byrne’s fingers. He started paying Janiszewski directly. Barry kept careful handwritten notes of what he paid Byrne and Janiszewski and what he expected to get in return. According to the feds this payoff sheet was found when Joe Barry’s office at Applied’s Hoboken headquarters was raided in Autumn 2001, right before Janiszewski’s resigned and vanished. In Autumn 2003, one year after Janiszewski pled guilty, Joe Barry and Paul Byrne were indicted on charges of bribery, conspiracy and mail/wire fraud. Paul Byrne got a few extra charges of tax evasion. Having to do with his lone member PJB Group being a corporate tax dodge. Allegedly.
By the early 70’s, Hudson County’s cities had been washed up on the post industrial shore. Manufacturing and shipping had taken a hike. Race riots and crime had sped the flight of a dwindled middle class. But change was in the wind. As New York City housing costs climbed, more and more New Yorkers, particularly young professionals, were moving across the river to Hudson County. The influx was beneficial financially and brought some new faces to local politics. Hoboken was the most popular point of destination. It had the quickest train trip to Manhattan. Adding to its attraction was social cohesion. Hoboken was largely a working class community. Family centered. The dominant religion, Catholicism. In Hoboken, the trickle of newcomers became a flood. Over a few short years a sleepy blue collar town morphed into Sharkville, USA. Real estate fever raged, turning people who’d previously lived together in reasonable harmony into economic enemies. Hoboken had a sizable Hispanic tenant population, largely the result of post WW2 Puerto Rican immigration. Property in Hoboken was largely owned by descendants of earlier European immigrants. Since Hoboken is only a mile square, property is easily held within small circles. As gentrification overwhelmed Hoboken, the Hispanic population was rapidly pushed out. Sometimes by any means necessary. So many tenements were torched and so many tenants died in fires, that the FBI dubbed Hoboken “Arson City”.
Young professionals moving into Hoboken were not wealthy. Most were on the first rungs of middle class, at early career stages. Many could only afford apartments by living in multiple roommate situations. Yet 3 or 4 single people, each kicking in $400 or $500 monthly, added up to far more rent than one or two earners in a moderate income family could manage. Rents gouged from warrens of young white collar workers, many of whom were naive consumers, set Hoboken’s market rate. Section 8, in order to insure that landlords take subsidized tenants, matches and sometimes surpasses market rates. Section 8 is also a market stabilizer. It plugs vacancies during slow times and seldom responds when market rents sink. Ultimately, affordable apartments in Hoboken including Applied’s, ended up renting for considerably more than before they became affordable. Joe Barry became a multi millionaire and Hoboken’s biggest landlord.
If Hoboken rents seemed not to reflect market ebb and flow, market comparisons were hard to make– if you consulted the 7 weekly Hudson County newspapers owned by Joe Barry. Several had existed pre Barry and were local shopping sheets focused on church suppers and yard sales. With some politics thrown in. After Barry became helmsman, they turned into real estate Pravdas. With some politics thrown in. Even papers covering the most far flung, least gentrified cities of the county pushed listings with gentrified prices. Newcomers to Hudson County consulted Barry’s weeklies: they were free and available at every realtor and bar. Long term residents used local dailies.
By the mid 80’s Hoboken had changed completely. There were almost no Hispanics left. It was no longer family centered or particularly Catholic. Parochial schools closed and congregations shrank. Hoboken was stratified by housing arrangements. There were unsubsidized “Roomies” and subsidized “Affordables”. Roomies were young, white and single. Most treated Hoboken like a flop. They worked long hours in New York City, slept in neo dorms and spent free time in Hoboken’s burgeoning bar scene. Public drunkenness became a town problem. Affordables were the tenant remnants of old Hoboken. But not completely representational. Affordables who weren’t elderly, disabled and/or indigent, were tenants who chose to accept government housing subsidies. Those who didn’t, left for cheaper digs further back in Hudson County. The area where according to Joe Barry, the welfare state mentality hadn’t been sufficiently addressed.
By the time Joe Barry’s Section 8 reservation was in full bloom, less desirable tenants receiving housing assistance in Hoboken had already been exiled to public housing projects. Underclass gulags. The kind of places Snake Pliskin would be dropped into. Applied’s tenants were Hoboken’s affordable upper crust. Who were occasionally (and only coincidentally) relatives and friends of public officials. Barryland is well managed. Folks living there naturally laud Uncle Joe as Friend To All Tenants and seek to stay, regardless of income. Barry has a rep for ruling with an iron fist and his tenants have a rep for voting as Joe Barry wants. For pols with reps for coming through for Joe Barry. But these reps may be misreps– spread by spoilers out to wreck the Barry vision.
On the other hand, Barry and Applied’s rep for well run multi family buildings was confirmed by a HUD audit of 1995. Though the same audit did tongue click at Applied using HUD project funds for college tuition payments for employees’ children and for donations aimed at establishing “community relations”. That these items got bounced through Applied’s books and ended up under “Office Supplies and Miscellaneous Maintenance Expense” also bugged HUD. Applied defended itself: “the costs were valid expenses to generate good will among its employees and the local community”. Joe Barry has always believed in spreading good will. In 1989, high ranking officials in HUD’s New York regional office (covering New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands) were found to be soliciting funds for favorite causes, charities and for benefit fetes– from the very same people the office regulated. They included housing authority directors, housing managers, architects, lawyers and builders. Joe Barry, in a New York Times article of 6/24/89 is described as having “given generously”. Said Barry: “Does it help you? I’d say yes. I figure its not bad to be a good scout and honor the regional administration. Then I could call Geri McGann or Monticello with such and such a problem and I think they’d get on the phone more readily.” Geraldine “Geri” McGann was HUD’s regional administrator starting in 1988. Preceded by Joseph Monticello. Though funds solicited by the HUD heads went to noble causes, an ability to gather contributions certainly can enhance clout.
Barry has also spread good will among elected officials. In general, developers and development related law firms active in New Jersey are known for their massive generosity to Hudson County’s public representatives. Folks like Applied, Lefrak, Hartz Mountain, Hovnanian, Roseland, Mack-Cali and countless others positively rain money on pols from every corner of the county. At every level. From frosh councilmembers to seasoned congressmen. The bipartisan nature of the donations is a lesson in even handed democracy. Though Hudson County is heavily Democrat, that hasn’t stopped its few Republicans from receiving. Ask former Mayor Bret Schundler of Jersey City. Also remarkable is how often developers and law firms inspire their family members, friends and employees to contribute to the public’s representatives. In similar increments over periods of days.
By the 90’s revitalization had spread to waterfront areas of cities above and below Hoboken. By then it had turned luxo. The waterfront became packed with pricey high rises and Wall Street spin offs and is now among the most expensive real estate in New Jersey. Yet federal and state aid keep flowing into the strip as if it were the tired old wreck of yesteryear. HUD, DOT and major tax breaks pump project after project. Joe Barry and Applied are involved in many of them. Applied’s luxury residential projects have the sorts of names beloved of Lego developers everywhere. Port Liberte’.(Pronounced Li-bur-TAY.) The Gotham. The New Union Club. Constitution North. Pinnacle North. And The Shipyard in two sections: The Independence and The Vanguard.
The Shipyard is in Hoboken. Charges facing Barry mainly involve this project. As mentioned, Hoboken is small. One mile square. The Shipyard is immense. A mixed use residential and commercial project which takes up 45 acres of land and water. It stretches over three city blocks. Studios at The Shipyard start at close to $2000 per month and 3 bedrooms top out at over $4000. Applied’s website markets The Shipyard as “The Gold Coast’s most coveted community” and touts its amenities, including a waterfront promenade, as contributing to “a chic Left Bank’ lifestyle”. According to indictments of Joe Barry, this coveted community and chic lifestyle were greased by graft given Hudson County Executive Robert Janiszewski. What Barry allegedly bought was Janiszewski’s assistance in obtaining $6.69 million in federal loan guarantees from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Obtained in July 1998, through an application submitted by Hudson County’s HUD division. Also, an additional $1 million Economic Development Initiative grant from HUD. That grant was initially given to Hudson County government by HUD for another project in Jersey City. Via a request from Janiszewski, it went to The Shipyard instead.
Barry also allegedly grafted Janiszewski for transportation deals related to The Shipyard. Adjacent to The Shipyard was an Applied project called the Waterfront Walkway, which involved construction of a publicly accessible pedestrian walkway (aka the chic promenade) along the waterfront. Applied received close to a million dollars for the project from the federally funded Transportation Enhancement Program. The funds were applied for by the Hudson County Improvement Authority (HCIA) and its sub agency, the Hudson Transportation Management Association.
Construction of additional roadway to extend several Hoboken streets to access the Waterfront Walkway and The Shipyard was another part of the project. In 1995 and 1996, the Local Aid Division of the New Jersey Department of Transportation allotted approximately $1.064 million to the Hudson County Engineering Department for the needed construction. Another street required similar extension and in 1999, through NJDOT funding, Applied Companies received $365,000 from the Hudson County Engineering Department.
As an aside, if Barry’s reasoning re public access is correct, one wonders if it cuts both ways. Are taxpayers entitled to space in the Applied projects they help finance or enhance? If so, everybody into Port Li-bur-TAY! Where Robert Janiszewski used to live. And where he kept the hidden cameras rolling.
At the trial of X-Mayor Saunders and Rayfield James, a few of the thousand or so tapes Solomon made got an airing. Saunders and James, in the process of trying to buy Ms. Solomon’s vote, talked up a storm. In one instance X-Mayor Saunders gave a job description of consultant Rayfield James, saying James handled “my little dirty work”. Explaining that as an elected official, he didn’t want to speak about bribes directly with the “preferred developer”. On other tapes, Rayfield James waxed loquacious about the demands of being a consultant. A tough job. He was juggling developers and their mega bribes until the best deal could be struck. James told Sheila Solomon that hundreds of millions of dollars would be pouring into Asbury Park. He figured equity in oceanfront redevelopment might be a smarter way to go than cash up front. And James wanted to be careful how the deals went down because “You can’t enjoy your money in jail”. Rayfield James was also concerned that public officials wouldn’t get a big enough piece of redevelopment pie, saying “Now how do we take care of the people who are elected?”
During the Saunders and James trial, the developers who’d allegedly besieged the administration with bribes were identified. Among several prominent names was Joseph Barry of Applied Companies. Barry was also said to be the “preferred developer” who was going to provide money to pay off Ms. Solomon’s mortgage and tax liens. Joe Barry and the other developers deny the allegations. To date no charges have been filed. As well as Councilwoman Solomon’s vote on a developer, Saunders and James sought her vote on the choice of the city’s redevelopment attorney. Saunders and James wanted attorney Glenn Scotland for the job. Scotland had held the job until 1999, but in a surprise city council vote lost the position. Councilwoman Solomon was one of those who’d voted against him.
Glenn Scotland is a prominent Newark development attorney, partner in the firm McManimom and Scotland. According to Sheila Solomon’s testimony, Rayfield James claimed Scotland would help get the councilwoman’s debts paid. On tape, James alleged Glenn Scotland was a fixer who would be able to “cover up any illegal activities” and “If we bring Glenn in, Glenn has dealt with these situations in Newark, in Jersey City and Woodbridge.” In the context of Woodbridge, Rayfield James references New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey. McGreevey was Woodbridge mayor between 1993 and 2000. Woodbridge’s current planning director says Glenn Scotland held one contract with Woodbridge for redevelopment advice during McGreevey’s tenure. On tape Rayfield James claims that “He [Glenn Scotland] has done things where McGreevey and this is just us talking-has benefited. These guys have benefited because he, he knows how to do this so that it indemnifies you all from saying,’Well, I, you, took a bribe,’ basically.”
When this material aired in court, Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark McCarren asked Ms. Solomon: “In fairness to the governor, do you know any details about this?” The former councilwoman said she did not. And Governor McGreevey’s spokesperson in Trenton, responded in the 12/09/03 Asbury Park Press: “We have no idea who these people [James and Solomon] are or what they’re talking about.” Attorney Glenn Scotland opined: “The only thing I can think of is [James] was saying these things because it would make a difference to Solomon. It is really sad and unfortunate.”
Rayfield James is small political potatoes. Certainly no Robert Janiszewski. James is black as is former Councilwoman Sheila Solomon and X Mayor Kenneth Saunders. Asbury Park is poor. Except for its oceanfront Asbury Park has little to bring to the political table. Rayfield James was on the financial edge. Mayor Saunders regularly bought his lunch. James also had drug issues. So when a Robin Leach lifestyle seemed to beckon, he may have gone into delusional overdrive. He’d have known Scotland in his stint as redevelopment attorney for Asbury Park. James, a low level buffer, might easily seek to impress Sheila Solomon with yarns about how he and Glenn Scotland were involved in similar activities. Given Scotland’s prominence.
When Governor elect Jim McGreevey was transitioning into office in the autumn of 2001, Glenn Scotland served on his 28 member budget review team along with banking and financial luminaries with major state and federal credentials. And for some 15 years, Scotland has held major contracts with Hudson County. According to a 12/20/03 Jersey Journal story) county political observers described Glenn Scotland as being on Robert Janisewski’s “preferred list”. The same Jersey Journal story covers the impressive roster of work Scotland and his firm have done for Hudson County. Including: annual contract work for the past five years related to Environmental Protection Agency regulations, federal loan programs and affordable housing programs. Scotland’s firm also holds two contracts with Hudson County and the Hudson County Improvement Authority (HCIA) for counsel related to bonding issues. Scotland is also general counsel for the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority (NJTPA). The U.S. Department of Transportation funded entity which oversees roughly $2 billion in spending for transportation projects in 13 counties in northern New Jersey. As you may remember, Robert Janiszewski himself was on the NJTPA board for seven years before becoming chairman in 2000. In late 2001, records from the NJPTA and an HCIA sub agency (the Office of Transportation Management) were subpoenaed by federal authorities in the investigation of alleged corrupt payments made to Robert Janiszewski by developer Joe Barry of Applied Companies in Hoboken.
The shallow Hudson County revitalization Joe Barry once referenced is least evident in Hoboken. Where size, easily controlled real estate and direct transportation to Manhattan are unique factors. Calling Hoboken successful means accepting displacement of family centered populations and increased social stratification. Along with massive public financial support for private development of luxury residential and commercial real estate. It also means believing being dependent on housing subsidies isn’t a step down on the independence scale for middle and working class people. Calling Hoboken successful also means accepting developers dominating the political scene, with democracy undermined in the process. And calling Hoboken successful means ignoring the underclass at the rear end of town.
In larger and less land locked Hudson County cities, the underclass areas are also larger. There are more of them. Some are actually immense neighborhoods. Where schools produce illiterates, drug wars rage and once beautiful buildings have sunk into slums. It’s interesting to wonder what Hudson County might be like now if 30 years of federal revitalization funds had either never arrived, or had only done so in stringently administered and more modestly targeted drips and drabs. The housing crunch in Manhattan would have still forced people over/under the river. Would they have clustered on the waterfront? There wasn’t much housing there prior to the 80’s: perhaps more newcomers would have headed further inland. Who knows what the social effect of a less concentrated but wider influx might have been? Then there’s the corruption thing. Over three decades, revitalization dollars in the billion poured into a county with ingrained corruption habits. Political crooks who’d normally have been penny ante, had non stop access to massive federal funds. Or were rubbing shoulders with developers and contractors who did. With that level of subsidization, carting a few off to jail does nothing but knock a few players of the board. Helping others advance.
Hudson County and New Jersey are by no means the only places where pay for play has become epidemic. Nor is it a Democrat sickness. Check Connecticut where Governor John G. Rowland teeters on the edge of impeachment due to questions about gifts received from public contractors and developers. In the past few years Connecticut has lost several big city mayors from both parties to federal investigations. In a 01/16/04 Reuters story, Stanley Twardy, a former federal prosecutor in Connecticut and co-chief of staff for Governor Rowland’s predecessor Lowell Weicker, linked the scandals to the decline in the state’s once powerful industrial cities. Ones which have suffered an exodus of manufacturing jobs and an influx of crime. Saying that the situation “…has triggered huge increases in federal aid which bolsters the greed factor among local politicians. In an affluent state where you have mayors of poor towns seeing businessmen making hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars…the mayors start feeling a sense of entitlement.”
Federal aid flowing from the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and Department of Transportation has so little meaningful oversight and legitimate use is so easily fudged, that the funds might as well fall from the sky. Except in that case, they couldn’t be steered as easily. Which leads to the issue of accountability. When regional offices of HUD and DOT consistently help fund pay for play practitioners, frauds or perpetual mismanagement, it’s time for investigations to expand beyond politicians, developers and consultants and into the realms of agency enablers.
The endless dollars dished out by Uncle Sam’s agencies have kept old corrupt political machines on life support. And has helped them grow new wings of clout and connections. Public contractors and developers move from city to city, county to county and state to state, gift bags in hand. The bottomless pit of what some pols call “free money” undermines democracy on local levels and gives elected officials a greater ability to ignore, or buy off constituents. Particularly when constituents themselves have some small stake in the same funding sources. Urban residents not on the revitalization gravy train have become increasingly disenfranchised. They include moderate and low income people who resist housing or business subsidies and old style welfare recipients. Though the latter’s existence still serves as rationale for new style urban welfare.
Developer Joe Barry was right when he said the welfare system is horrendous and destructive. And that a welfare state mentality has to do with why revitalization only reaches a quarter mile deep into Hudson County. But when he said it, he was looking in the wrong direction.