Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

Main Street, Fort Lee

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When I worked in Englewood Cliffs by way of Manhattan, I would pass by a huge swath of empty property every time I was on the Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge. I thought to myself, “that would be a fantastic place to build a bunch of apartment buildings,” as it’s right at the foot of the bridge, served by a dozen NJTransit bus lines that constantly venture across to Manhattan, not to mention dozens more “dollar bus” jitneys that head out to Paterson and beyond, is surrounded by office parks that extend straight up Lemoine Avenue, and is smack dab in the heart of the retail district of Fort Lee.

(Virgin territory in the heart of the metroplex)

This is all, of course, painfully obvious to anybody who’s been anywhere in the area, which means that the only reason nothing has been completed there yet has to be political. I worked in Jersey for almost two years, which was long enough to see both of the tallest buildings in that picture get half-built and flounder and sit for a while. Neither are yet completed. Still, I am certainly interested in where new housing can be put in, so I checked further.

As it turns out, there is a plan and it is grand, indeed: The eastern side of Park Avenue (in the center of the picture) is supposed to be The Center (who names these places?), which will eventually sport two big (formerly blue glass) towers.

The western half of the empty space is supposed to be Hudson Lights (ha ha, okay, I get it: It’s a play on words with Hudson Heights), a mixed-use urban mall that’s supposed to extend the retail options along Main Street and Lemoine Avenue. This has yet to see the face of day in any form, and indeed has been on the blocks for years.

So what’s the problem? Well, this is Jersey, so the problem must originate with governor Chris Christie. Sure enough, that’s what MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki thought when he posited that the whole George Washington Bridge scandal wasn’t just a “fuck you” from Christie to Fort Lee mayor Mark Sokolich for not endorsing him, but an extended means by which to deep-six the entire project by making it economically unpalatable due to traffic concerns. It’s certainly tempting to pin Christie with that, considering all his fingers in the Port Authority pot, and indeed the state probe into his malfeasance will focus on that line of inquiry. While it would be exceedingly petty of him, and Christie has been known for being petty, the Christie I know is less self-destructively petty and more opportunistically snakelike.

There was a smaller GWB-based scuffle with Chris Christie before BridgeGate, yet it pitted him against the Port Authority. During my daily commutes, if the weather was too bad to bicycle over the bridge, I would take the bus one way and then save money by hitchhiking my way home. The idea was that, because of the Port Authority’s carpool system, anybody with an EZPass and three occupants (including the driver) could get a carpool rate that was less than half of the usual toll. So, motorists would take advantage of this by picking up anybody who happened to be waiting for the buses right before the toll plaza. The motorist would get a discount, and the passengers would get a free ride over. The practice is called “slugging,” and for those involved it was a win/win.

One entity didn’t like this: The Port Authority, who estimated that they were losing $6 million in revenue because of the discounted tolls. They set out their own police to stop private cars from pulling into the bus stops and put out public service announcements not to pick up strangers. Christie put a stop to that, adroitly surmising that the Port Authority’s budget was not New Jersey’s budget, and that at least half of those commuters were New Jersey voters. For that particular incident, Christie was more or less in alignment with Sokolich.

The funny thing about this scenario is that it was before the campaign season and before his fated handshake with Obama during Hurricane Sandy. Obviously people change, and I’m not counting out the premise that Christie might just be good at shooting himself in the foot, but it imparted on me that his self-serving motives were, in a way, refreshingly pragmatic. The question then remains: Who stands to gain if these things don’t get built? If not Christie, then who is putting the clamp down and delaying these projects?

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