JERSEY CITY -- A plan to build a $276 million science and technology complex near Liberty Science Center cleared another major hurdle at last night's City Council meeting when the council voted to transfer 12 acres of city-owned land intended for the complex.
The 6-3 vote came after 11 p.m. at the end of a four-hour public hearing in front of a crowd that initially numbered about 150 (Councilwoman-at-large Joyce Watterman described the meeting as "another intense night."). The action transfers the city land to the Jersey City Redevelopment Agency, which intends to sell a total of 16 acres of city property to SciTech Scity, a new arm of Liberty Science Center, for $10.
Council members who voted in favor of transferring the land were Watterman, Rolando Lavarro, Daniel Rivera, Frank Gajewski, Candice Osborne and Jermaine Robinson. Councilmen Chris Gadsden, Rich Boggiano and Michael Yun voted no.
City officials have argued that SciTech Scity would be a boon to the neighborhoods to the project's west, areas of the city that have long struggled with crime and poverty. Robinson, who represents Ward F, where SciTech Scity would be located, echoed that argument last night.
"My vision is for the children of Ward F to because astronauts, brain surgeons, engineers," he said.
Yun has argued that Liberty Science Center is not financially capable of undergoing a project of SciTech Scity's magnitude. Last night he said he worries about what will happen once the land is transferred to the JCRA and "it is completely out of our control."
"The JCRA, their own board members, (are) not elected by people but appointed by the mayor. They're going to do what the mayor asks them," Yun said.
SciTech Scity would be a massive science workshop and office building that would include a K-12 school focused on science, technology, engineering and math and a 50,000-square-foot residential facility with dorm-style rooms, a hotel and apartments. It would be located on Phillip Street, adjacent to Liberty Science Center.
LSC CEO Paul Hoffman, in his comments to the council, dismissed complaints about Liberty Science Center's finances, saying the museum has been "in the black" since he took over in 2011. Tax documents that show LSC operating with a deficit are misleading, he said, because they include the value of depreciation on the building itself and do not include philanthropic donations raised by LSC.
Hoffman said SciTech Scity would allow more Jersey City students to receive a specialized STEM education; include a 24-hour coding academy for anyone who wants to learn programming skills; provide space for start-up companies to create products and technology; and more.
"It's an investment in the future of our kids and it's an investment in the future of this city as a high-tech center," he said.
The SciTech Scity deal has galvanized some homeowners to join with more regular critics of Fulop's administration who expressed dismay at the city giving away 16 acres of land at a time when an impending property revaluation has some residents worried about losing their homes to escalating property taxes.
Daniel Sexton, a former city attorney under Bret Schundler, called the land transfer "scandalous."
"You saw it's swampland. Well so was Newport, swampland. So was Harsimus Cove ... so was Liberty National," Sexton said. "This is a valuable asset."
City officials have argued that the deal isn't a giveaway, citing a revenue-sharing portion of its agreement with SciTech Scity. Once the complex turns a profit beyond $78 million, the city would share in the profits, initially getting 50 percent and, once the value of the city's land is paid off, 20 percent. If the project doesn't get off the ground, they say, the land reverts back to JCRA control.
"There is literally zero risk to the city," Lavarro said last night.