As two New Jersey legislative committees begin probes today of who ordered lanes closed at the George Washington Bridge and why, they’ll examine whether the resulting traffic jams had anything to do with a pair of high-rise developments just blocks away in Fort Lee.
The closures ordered by allies of Governor Chris Christie from Sept. 9 to 12 brought traffic to a standstill in Fort Lee, at the New Jersey end of the bridge to New York. Last week, Christie, a 51-year-old Republican, fired a top aide and jettisoned his campaign manager. Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat, questioned whether the tie-ups were payback for his failure to support Christie’s re-election.
Assemblyman John Wisniewski, 51, a Democrat leading one of the legislative probes, said lawmakers are exploring “competing theories” about the motive for the shutdown. One is that the developments -- the biggest in decades in the town of 37,500 -- played some role, Wisniewski said.
“The decision to close the lanes, and the response to the closure being ended, seems so disproportionate to just an endorsement that it leads to questions that there might be more involved,” Wisniewski said yesterday. “Real estate development involves a lot of money, and when there’s a lot of money involved, there’s usually people doing strange things.”
What’s unclear is what sort of message the delays -- increasing a typical 30-minute trip to as long as four hours -- may have been intended to send about projects on a 16-acre site that sat undeveloped for decades on prime real estate with quick access to New York over the bridge.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney of West Deptford, the highest-ranking elected Democrat in the state, said any possible link between the development and the lane closures needs to be examined. Sweeney said the notion of a connection should be given as much credence as the idea that the closures were purely retribution against Sokolich.
“It’s something that raises questions and that we should be looking at, but again we should be looking at every aspect of this to get to the bottom of what was done,” Sweeney said. “I don’t think we should limit the investigation to any one focus.”
Sweeney offered no specific theory on how the development could tie to the lane closures.
“It’s a huge development so close to the bridge and the fact that the mayor was concerned about the issue of traffic and that development is something that needs to be looked at,” Sweeney said. “You don’t ignore areas that could make sense. You don’t ignore things that are possibilities.”
The developments have given local businesses a lift, said Anthony Clores, a member of the Fort Lee Chamber of Commerce and president of PHI Enterprises LLC, a real-estate management company.
“I’ve lived in town all my life and we’ve all been waiting for it to be developed,” said Clores. “We’ve been waiting 40 years-plus. It’s extremely significant.”
One project, known as The Modern, involves two 47-story glass towers, each with 450 luxury rental apartments. The developer is Fort Lee Redevelopment Associates LLC, a partnership of SJP Residential Properties; attorney James Demetrakis; and real-estate investment firm Palisades Financial.
The other project, known as Hudson Lights, is a mixed-use development that would offer 1 million square feet of retail along with luxury apartments. The developers are a joint venture of Tucker Development Corp., Ares Management and Kushner Real Estate Group.
Highland Park, Illinois-based Tucker Development Corp. is run by Richard H. Tucker, who formed the company in 1996. Besides Hudson Lights, it has two projects in Newark: the 250,000 square-foot Springfield Avenue Marketplace, which it said will be the city’s largest mixed-use development, and the Courtyard by Marriott at the Prudential Center, a 150-room hotel across the street from the six-year-old arena which is the home of the National Hockey League’s New Jersey Devils.
Dallas-based Ares Management LLC acquired its interest in Hudson Lights last year when it bought AREA Property Partners LP, the real estate investment firm led by William Mack, who is also chairman of Edison-based Mack-Cali Realty Corp., a leading owner of New Jersey office buildings.
John Bartling, co-head of Ares’s real estate group, declined to comment on the political moves through a spokesman, Bill Mendel. Christa Segalini, a spokeswoman for The Modern and Hudson Lights projects, declined to comment, as did David McLain, a principal at Palisades. Demetrakis didn’t return two messages left in his Edgewater office. Kushner President Jon Kushner didn’t return messages left at his office and with his outside public relations firm.
After groundbreaking for The Modern in October 2012, SJP released a statement that quoted New Jersey Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno saying “the Christie Administration applauds this project for its promise of long-term economic opportunity and economic advancement of our state.”
In that statement, Sokolich said he had made the redevelopment a “top priority,” adding that the project holds “incredible potential” for Fort Lee, bringing needed tax revenue and jobs.
Senator Loretta Weinberg, a Democrat who will lead the legislature’s second investigative panel, said the Fort Lee development as currently discussed makes it the biggest project in that area since the 1970s.
Fort Lee’s annual revenue was $70.6 million in 2012, according to Bloomberg data. The new project, if completed as planned, could bring as much as $10 million annually, according to Sokolich’s office, a 14 percent increase.
The bridge lane closures provoked alarm from Sokolich, who sent an e-mail Sept. 12 to Bill Baroni, then the deputy executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the bridge. Baroni, who resigned last month, was Christie’s top executive appointee at the agency.
“What do I do when our billion-dollar redevelopment is put on line at the end of next year,” Sokolich said in the e-mail. “Its profound and adverse impact on our community is of paramount importance to me.”
Christie last week fired a deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly, 41, saying she lied to him about whether anyone on his team was involved in the closures. E-mails and text messages obtained by news organizations, including Bloomberg, included one from Kelly on Aug. 13 to David Wildstein, then a Christie appointee at the Port Authority.
“Time for some traffic problems,” she wrote. He replied, “Got it.” Wildstein resigned last month.
A former federal prosecutor in the corruption trials of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, Reid Schar, has been hired as special counsel for the Assembly portion of the probe, Wisniewski said yesterday.
The governor has said that he was “blindsided” by the revelations.
In addition to inquiries about the bridge, Christie also faces a federal audit over his use of $25 million of Hurricane Sandy relief money for a TV commercial that featured him promoting tourism on the Jersey Shore. Democratic lawmakers have said the “Stronger Than the Storm” ads gave Christie free publicity as he campaigned for a second term. He won by 22 percentage points.
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