January 28, 2020

Mayor Bhalla delivers second State of the City address at Mile Square Theatre

During his second State of the City address at Mile Square Theatre, Mayor Ravi S. Bhalla highlighted several priorities for the upcoming year: moving forward on the framework for a new light rail station at 15th Street, the replacement of over 2.7 miles of water mains, an expansion on Vision Zero initiatives including a potential reduction in speed limit to 20 miles per hour, and upgrades in four parks.

Mayor Bhalla announced that his administration is working with New Jersey Transit, the State of New Jersey, developers and key stakeholders to create a new light rail station at 15th Street. With the revitalization of Hoboken’s North End continuing over the next several years, a light rail station will help facilitate economic growth and provide connectivity to the region.

Moving forward with Hoboken’s plans to replace over 7,000 linear feet and 2.7 miles of Hoboken’s aging water mains in 2020 was also highlighted by Mayor Bhalla. Hoboken will utilize independent funding including the proceeds from the SUEZ agreement that now provides $33 million in water main upgrades over the next 15 years.

A proposal to reduce Hoboken’s city-wide speed limit to 20 miles per hour was also introduced by Mayor Bhalla, among other initiatives, to help achieve the Vision Zero goal of zero pedestrian deaths and fatalities by 2030.

Four park and open space initiatives were also prioritized by Mayor Bhalla, including the renovation of Legion Park in North Hoboken, Jefferson Park in South Hoboken, the upgrades of the dog parks at Church Square Park and Stevens Park to modern canine turf, and the continuation of efforts to preserve Union Dry Dock for parkland.

The full video of the State of the City can be viewed on the City of Hoboken’s twitter feed by clicking here: https://twitter.com/CityofHoboken/status/1221948734776328193?s=20

The full remarks of the State of the City address, as prepared for delivery, are included below:

Thank you so much, to Chris O’Connor for that wonderful introduction. Let’s give another big round of applause for the performers from Mile Square Theatre for that preview of Snow White. This is the final weekend to see the performance, so I encourage everyone to go to the Mile Square Theatre box office and buy tickets!

Ladies and gentlemen, members of the City Council, friends, neighbors, family and colleagues: thank you for joining us at this year’s State of the City. Thank you also to those tuning in online. I’m incredibly proud to hold this address, for the first time, at this cultural institution in our city. The Mile Square Theatre is the type of organization that makes Hoboken special and unique. It is made up of members of our own community, offering some of the best productions in the entire state of New Jersey. It’s places like this that bring people together, away from the commotion of life, together, side by side with our neighbors, to enjoy the arts, to enjoy theatre, to teach our children the art of acting, dancing, and so much more.

When we decided where to hold this address, I thought, why not hold it here where history is being made in real time, in our growing and vibrant North End?

We all know that Hoboken has so many unique and popular destinations, but what some may not know is that many of those institutions are located here in the Northernwestern part of Hoboken. In fact, just a few weeks ago, we celebrated the ribbon cutting of three locally owned businesses a short distance away – Little City Books, Bwe Café, and Park and Bloom. They add to the other local businesses in the North End including Carpe Diem, San Giuseppe’s, the Biergarden, Gravity Vault, Hudson Table, and in the summer, activities including fitness classes, and coming soon - pickleball under the viaduct. And while I can’t give away details right now, Hoboken’s North End will soon be host to a major, well-known event that will further help put this region on the map.

I’m telling you this because it goes to show we’re making major investments into the north and western area of our City, to turn different parts of Hoboken that have previously been neglected, into public spaces where people can gather. This makes our City an even better place to live, work and raise a family.

Just a few blocks away, one of our largest quality of life projects is currently underway, under the leadership of Director Jennifer Gonzalez. In October, we celebrated the historic groundbreaking of the Northwest Resiliency Park - Hoboken’s soon to be largest park at five acres. The park will become New Jersey’s largest resiliency park, and what could be the entire Country’s largest resiliency park. You may not see it on a regular basis, but construction has been underway, and at its completion – we’ll see a state-of-the-art public space that will become the main attraction in Hoboken with an ice skating rink, playground equipment for children, a large athletic field for soccer, baseball, and lacrosse, a great lawn and amphitheater, a food café and community space, and more. And, the park is currently being built to include flood infrastructure to withhold up to 2 million gallons of rain, to utilize parks as a defense against flooding.

With a soon to be 5 acre park, more small businesses, residents and visitors coming to the North End, there inevitably comes a need for greater connection to the region. That’s why today, I’m reiterating my strong support for the creation of a new light rail station at 15th Street. Mass transit infrastructure is a critical tool to facilitate economic growth, which is why a light rail station at 15th Street is essential to the continued success of the area. I look forward to working with the State, New Jersey Transit, developers, and key stakeholders to come up with a funding mechanism that would create a light rail station as soon as possible.  

And in the coming months, working with 5th Ward Councilman Phil Cohen and his colleagues, we will finalize the North End Redevelopment Plan, which calls for redeveloping 30 blighted acres in North Hoboken. I thank the Council and Director Chris Brown for prioritizing smart development – with responsible residential growth, and an emphasis on commercial development. Hoboken, it’s important you know that the days of prioritizing a developer’s bottom line over the interests of our residents are long gone. It is my mission to create a final redevelopment area that instead encourages more businesses like Bwe Café, Little City Books, Park and Bloom, and of course, Mile Square Theatre to set roots.

Mile Square Theatre is thriving in large part thanks to the leadership of Chris O’Connor, his staff and board members. Chris is also an integral part of our efforts to boost to the arts in Hoboken, and chairs our arts advisory council. Thanks to an executive order we signed a year and a half ago, Hoboken now has dedicated funds to install works of public art like the Michael Chang tennis mural above the Columbus Park Tennis Courts. This has been an important priority and one I’m thrilled it is now under way. I look forward to the installation of additional works of public art, things all residents and visitors can enjoy, with the guidance of the arts council this year.

While we continue to beautify and revitalize certain areas of our City, we need to ensure that we’re taking the necessary steps to upgrade Hoboken’s infrastructure city-wide. I’m proud to say, we’re now delivering real, concrete, results to make that a reality. Last year, we reached a historic agreement with SUEZ that provides for an unprecedented $33 million to upgrade our aging water mains. Combined with our own independent multi-million-dollar capital investments, we have already replaced over 2,000 linear feet of our oldest watermains, along with 48 service lines. By the end of this year, we will have replaced over 2.7 miles of our water main system.

Turning the tide of Hoboken’s historic lack of investments in our watermains wasn’t easy, but by working together with the Council, we found a path forward, and I thank Councilmembers Tiffanie Fisher, Ruben Ramos, Vanessa Falco, Business Administrator Stephen Marks, and the members of the sub-committee for their assistance. We are finally implementing plans not just to put band aids on our infrastructure problems, but instead providing lasting solutions for Hoboken’s future. That also includes our roadways, where we’re currently paving over 50 blocks of roads, thanks in large part due to the guidance of our City Engineer, Kimberli Craft.

When we’re repaving our streets, we’re also implementing safe street policies that ensure our roads are upgraded with the most modern designs that shorten crossing distances, enhance visibility, and ensure our children and seniors aren’t put in harm’s way. Those are the basic principles of Hoboken’s Vision Zero safety campaign, led by Director Ryan Sharp, with the goal of achieving zero deaths AND injuries in Hoboken by 2030. We formed a task force made up of residents, activists and elected officials, who will help develop a concrete action plan and steps to achieve this ambitious goal.

But, while the process continues, we aren’t waiting for that report to create safer streets. Over the past year, we’ve used grant funding to invest in pedestrian safety improvements such as new curb extensions with rain gardens, partnered with the Hoboken Police Department to promote safer driving, and began construction on new traffic signals on Hudson Place and on 14th Street. I’m also glad to report that in 2020 we’re installing over 5 miles of bike lanes. This includes bike lanes on several County Roads for the first time ever, including Hudson Street, Garden Street, and Park Avenue, connecting our bike lane network along Observer Highway to Jersey City, as well as a repaving and restriping of the dedicated bike path on Sinatra Drive below 4th Street.

That’s not all that we’re doing as a part of Vision Zero. The unfortunate reality is, if a pedestrian is struck by a vehicle traveling 30 miles per hour, they are four times more likely to die from an injury than if struck by a vehicle traveling 20 miles per hour. With this in mind, I have asked my transportation staff to review the feasibility of a citywide reduction in speed limit to 20 miles per hour. While this may take motorists an extra minute or two to get from one spot in town to another, that extra minute can save a life, so it’s worth it in my book.

Promoting safe streets goes hand in hand with encouraging alternative transportation options. It is my goal this year to encourage even more shared micromobility in Hoboken. This includes exploring additional bike share options, potentially with Jersey City, car share, and yes, potential electric scooter operators. There is no doubt that e-scooters were widely used in Hoboken with over 640 thousand trips taken. My commitment to residents today is to consider e-scooters again, if and only if companies are willing to meet our rigorous safety, operational, and technological requirements that result in a safer and more orderly program.

As we move forward with these shared mobility options, last year, Director Sharp and I made the decision to provide HOP bus service free of charge for residents. 10 months after this change, the HOP bus is more popular than ever before, with record ridership and an increase of 30% from last year to 223,000 total rides. We’re committed to not only continuing this free option, but expanding it with the addition of two new HOP buses and an increase in service during peak periods.

Expanding alternative transportation options not only reduces traffic and provides a convenient connection to mass transit, it also fits hand in hand with the comprehensive Climate Action Plan we launched last year, with the goal of exceeding the Paris Agreement and achieving carbon neutrality by 2050.

What has been made clear by President Trump and the White House is that climate change is not a priority. This is a major setback for the future of our country, but one that we can start to overcome with the leadership of cities like Hoboken. We can, we must, and we will address this issue head-on, and I’m glad to report, we have taken major steps forward.

Since signing the executive order establishing our Climate Action Plan, Hoboken became what is likely the first municipality in New Jersey to purchase 100% renewable electricity for all municipal facilities. We also completed comprehensive energy upgrades in 11 municipal buildings with LED energy efficient lighting and high-efficiency heating and cooling. We expanded composting to include free residential dropoff and pickup for schools and businesses, secured funding for electric charging stations, and as I mentioned previously, expanded shared transportation options.

We’re also leading the way in another important category; reducing our consumption of harmful plastic bags. Last year, we initiated a single-use plastic bag ban, authored by Councilman Jim Doyle and members of the Hoboken Green Team, which has largely been a success. But, thanks to feedback from the community, we’re now instituting a FULL ban on ALL carry-out plastic bags. Because, let’s face it – those thicker plastic bags aren’t being reused often, and are just as bad - if not worse - for the environment. So starting March 8th, when the law is updated, Hoboken will have one of the strongest plastic bag bans in the entire State, in addition to a ban on all carry-out styrofoam.

Not only are we making major quality of life upgrades that help our environment, we’re also finding more ways to improve our outdoor spaces and maximize our parkland. 2019 was a milestone year, as we celebrated the grand opening of Hoboken’s newest park at 7th and Jackson. What previously sat vacant as an empty lot is now home to an acre of open lawn space, a playground, state-of-the-art gymnasium, an open plaza that will open later this year, and below ground infrastructure to withhold over 450,000 gallons of rainwater to mitigate flooding.

This is a major accomplishment, and one that was paid for by a developer without utilizing taxpayer dollars. This model for sensible development with substantial community benefits is one we as a City can and should be considering in other areas. I want to take a moment to thank former Mayor Dawn Zimmer, Councilman Mike Russo, and members of the Council sub-committee for helping shape the project. Let’s give them a round of applause.

We also celebrated the grand opening of Madison Street Park last year with new, modern park features, much of which were paid for through funds provided by Hudson County, with the assistance of County Executive Tom DeGise, Freeholder Anthony Romano, Councilman Russo, and initiated by Director Leo Pellegrini and. And, we’re finalizing the design for Cove Park, which will serve as the focal point of our “parks as defense” Rebuild by Design strategy to withstand storm surge. Moving this critical $230 million project forward, in partnership with Dawn Zimmer, the Community Advisory Group, and Assistant Business Administrator Caleb Stratton, continues to be a priority, and I thank Governor Phil Murphy for his strong commitment to our park as defense strategy.

This year, I’m glad to announce that Hoboken will advance on three new park initiatives. First, we’re beginning plans to renovate Legion Park to transform the existing pocket park into an even more attractive area for families, children and seniors. Thanks to the leadership of Councilwoman Emily Jabbour, and our partnership with the Hoboken Special Needs Parents Group, led by Megan Yavich and Sheillah Dallarah, this new park will include modern playground equipment for children with special needs. And, I’m looking forward to renaming this park after one of Hoboken’s finest, the late Tom Olivieri. Tom provided so much to our community as one of our first tenant advocates, and I’m pleased that thanks to the advocacy of Council President Jen Giattino and the City Council, we’ll be renaming Legion Park in Tom’s honor this year.

Second, we’re going to begin construction on the renovation of Jefferson Park in Southwest Hoboken with brand new playground equipment. And finally, thanks to the feedback from many dog owners like Council President Giattino, we’re moving ahead with plans to replace our dog parks at Church Square Park and Stevens Park with modern canine turf. These new dog runs will be modeled after the widely popular dog run we created from scratch at 2nd and Hudson Streets on previously unused land.

And, in the coming weeks, we plan to launch Hoboken’s first ever “friends of parks” program. Cities across the country, including New York City, have created a community model that truly works and invests in their park system, with the most notable example the “Central Park Conservancy.” The concept involves enlisting enthusiastic participants of our community interested in helping maintain and upgrade our parks on a regular basis, and there’s no reason we shouldn’t replicate the same here in Hoboken.

Speaking of parkland, I would be remiss if I didn’t reiterate my administration’s unwavering commitment to securing Union Dry Dock to create a waterfront park. While you may not have heard many updates recently, rest assured that we are making real progress behind the scenes with both New York Waterway and the Governor’s office. I’m optimistic that we will finally see a positive ending this year that preserves Union Dry Dock for public, open space.

Defending our precious waterfront from massive overdevelopment also includes preventing the two Monarch towers in Northern Hoboken. This year, a central priority of mine is to work with the Council to finalize an agreement that would prevent, once and for all, large scale development along our northern waterfront.

Needless to say, our waterfront area, our parks, and our recreation facilities are the true gems of Hoboken, and provide space for all residents to enjoy. Over a two year span, Director Pellegrini and our recreation department have created four new recreation options for our youngest generations. Last year, we brought back flag football, created new tennis classes for children, and this year we expanded basketball for children in grades three and four, as well as a new division for female athletes. And, I’m excited to announce, thanks to the new gym at 7th and Jackson, we’ll be providing recreation volleyball for girls for the first time this spring.

Improving the quality of life for residents also includes our efforts to revitalize our commercial corridors to spur business development. More businesses are opening up on our main commercial corridor and across the City, with over 125 permits issued for new businesses and commercial properties in 2019. Our new Special Improvement District is also in the final stages of creating real, positive investments for our local businesses in the form of events, street decor, marketing, and support that will now be available for the first time. With a newly hired Executive Director and an independent budget dedicated solely to economic revitalization, I anticipate even more progress being made this year. Let’s take a moment to congratulate Director Stephen Marks and Councilwoman Fisher for helping spearhead this effort.

Speaking of quality of life, I am pleased to report our Office of Constituent Services has made major progress over the past year in assisting hundreds of residents on a wide variety of city issues. In fact, Caroline Caulfield and Migdalia Pagan-Milano have fielded over 2,500 calls, emails and in-person visits, and provide an incredible service to our City since we established the office in 2018. Let’s take a moment to give them a round of applause.

While we’re making critical quality of life upgrades in transportation, parks, roads and more, we’re doing so in a way that does not place an additional, undue burden on the taxpayer. Our parks utilize dedicated Open Space Trust Funding that is separate from our City budget, grants from Hudson County, funding from Green Acres, and in some cases like 7th and Jackson, are funded by developers. Our City’s biggest project, the Northwest Park, is projected to save taxpayers $19 million over the life of the project because we qualify for and sought out low interest loans and principal forgiveness. We’re utilizing a number of grants, including over $2.5 million from the State Department of Transportation to help pave our roads, taking proactive steps to reduce energy costs in City buildings, created a separate funding mechanism through our renegotiated contract with SUEZ to fund water main upgrades, and much more.

While taking a fiscally responsible approach to spending and prioritizing as much alternative funding for City projects as possible, the unfortunate reality is that this year, we have a tougher than normal budget due mainly to rising fixed costs. These include an enormous increase of $1.5 million in our healthcare costs and benefits contractually mandated to employees, three-quarters of a million dollar increase in the pension bill mandated by the State, previously negotiated contracts with multi-million dollar increases in salary, and several other factors.

I can assure you that every decision that I make regarding the budget will be done with the utmost respect and awareness for the taxpayer of Hoboken. We’re tightening our belts, working to reduce spending, and doing more with less. Since taking office, we have reduced the legal budget by half a million dollars by utilizing in-house attorneys, focusing on efficiency, instituted a hiring freeze at City Hall, downsized my own office and moving to right size almost every office and department, and more. In the coming months, there will be difficult decisions ahead, but I look forward to working with the Council to find smart, realistic solutions. Hoboken is lucky to have the talents and collaborative spirit of Councilmembers Fisher, Cohen and Jabbour, serving on the Council finance sub-committee. Together with Finance Director Linda Landolfi, we will produce a budget that maintains Hoboken’s fiscal strength for the long term.

As we move forward with our ambitious agenda for Hoboken over the next year, I also want to take a moment to recognize the immeasurable contributions to our City by two people who are no longer with us, Vinnie Wassman and Shirael Pollack. It’s a vast understatement to say that both Vinnie and Shirael were larger than life figures, and gave so much to our community that they loved. Vinnie, a life-long resident, was incredibly proud of his City and wore his heart on his sleeve at countless parades, ceremonies for veterans, or when he was simply sitting on his stoop with his dog, Cole. Vinnie’s legacy will live on through the brand new American Legion building he helped create and recently celebrated with his follow veterans.

Shirael, like Vinnie, cared deeply for her family and city she called home for her adult years. Her fighting and resilient spirit lives on through all of us as we continue her mission to deliver resources to our children through the Hoboken Public Education Foundation, which she co-founded.  Shirael would have been so proud to know that last weekend, funds from the foundation were used to help create sensory hallways in our public schools. I want to thank and recognize two of Shirael’s friends, and leaders of the public education foundation, Jackie Dowd and Erica Gavin, as well as Shirael’s husband, Dylan for being here today, and forever helping keep Shirael’s memory alive.

Shirael was immensely proud of the progress our public schools have made over the years, and I’m thankful to have Dr. Christine Johnson as Superintendent of our schools, as well as the nine school board members at the helm, most of whom are with us here today. With their leadership, the four year graduation rate in our public school district has risen to 94%, SAT scores have increased by 59 points since 2016, and the district is one of the top 10 in the State for growth in AP exams, with students scoring a 3 or above, tripling in the past four years. Perhaps most impressively, our senior class has earned a staggering $15 million in scholarship awards, and on pace for over $20 million. This is compared to a total of $1.4 million in 2015. Let’s give Dr. Johnson and our school board members a big round of applause for their accomplishments and dedication to our students.

And last but certainly not least, I want to highlight the tremendous work of our Police and Fire Departments. Police Chief Kenneth Ferrante has become my partner, not in crime, but in stopping crime.  As 2019 has just come to a close, Hoboken saw a double digit drop in both violent and non-violent crimes. In partnership with Chief Ferrante, we have made real investments and promotions in the Police Department and we are all reaping the benefits, and I want to thank Captain Mike Detrizio for joining us as well today.  And when it comes to Fire Chief Brian Crimmins and the Hoboken Fire Department, I cannot say enough about their commitment to our community. Our Fire Department has been integral in autism training in our schools, deploying firefighters to help with emergencies around the country, as well as constantly looking for upgrades to their systems to more effectively keep us safe. Thanks in large part to these law enforcement agencies, Hoboken is a safe city to live. Let’s give a round of applause to our Police and Fire Departments, Volunteer EMS, and the Office of Emergency Management.

Hoboken, I’ve laid out an ambitious agenda for this upcoming year, to make our great City an even better place to live, work and raise a family. Thank you for coming out tonight and for logging on and watching from home. Thank you for trusting me to lead Hoboken forward. It is a tremendous privilege to be the Mayor of Hoboken. And while I know there will be bumps in the road, I’m confident that by working together, with the sole goal of moving our City forward, we can achieve even better things in the years ahead. Because for Hoboken, and for all of us - as the great Frank Sinatra once said - the best is yet to come.

Thank you and good night.