Today's New York Times has a front-page story (below the fold) that offers what seems to be the strongest evidence yet that Hoboken mayor Dawn Zimmer was the victim of ugly, nakedly aggressive, and blatantly illegal extortion from the Chris Christie administration. It seems that state officials displayed a very keen interest in a development project being planned for Hoboken--the same project that Zimmer says Christie wanted approved as a condition of getting more money for Sandy relief.
Last May 8, a severe rainstorm left the streets of this city flooded once again, causing the mayor, Dawn Zimmer, to recall the inundation from Hurricane Sandy.You may remember that Zimmer released the text of that letter last week. She wrote that at the time, Christie had advanced Hoboken a low-interest loan for improving the city's pumps, but wouldn't go any further. Now we know that this project was such a high priority that it took precedence over protecting Hoboken from future floods. That's bad enough by itself. But executives from Rockefeller Group just happened to be at the meeting? To put it mildly, that adds to the already rank odor surrounding this affair.
So she dashed off a letter to Gov. Chris Christie, imploring him to help with Hoboken’s “ongoing flooding emergency,” and attached photos of cars in water up to their hoods. She was due to meet the next day with officials of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, when she hoped to talk about protecting Hoboken from the next catastrophic deluge to come.
But according to newly obtained emails sent among the participants, the first topic of discussion on the agenda was “review of concepts for flood control measures at Rockefeller property,” a reference to a billion-dollar office complex proposed at the north end of town. The developer, the Rockefeller Group, which had long been trying to gain approval from local officials, sent two executives, two lobbyists and an engineer to the meeting.
But it gets even juicier. It turns out that one of the lobbyists at that May 9 meeting was Lori Grifa, a lobbyist with Wolff & Samson, the Rockefeller Group's legal advisers. Grifa is also a former member of Christie's cabinet, and Wolff & Samson has long been very close with New Jersey Republican leaders. When city officials learned that Grifa was coming, they were so alarmed that one of Zimmer's aides emailed Grifa's firm demanding to know what she was doing at what was supposed to be a meeting between city and state officials. If that wasn't enough stew in the pot, want to know who the "Samson" in Wolff & Samson is? None other than David Samson, the chairman of the Port Authority.
The timing of this looks even more suspicious when you consider that a day after that meeting, Zimmer was told Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadogno was coming to town the following Monday. As we now know, this was the day of the infamous meeting in a ShopRite parking lot where, according to Zimmer, Guadogno laid down the law--if Hoboken was to receive more Sandy relief money, the project had to go forward. But even if that meeting didn't happen, there is no good-faith explanation for why a megaproject should have taken priority over flood relief.
For those who don't know, Zimmer has been somewhat less friendly to development than past Hoboken mayors have been. Almost as soon as she took office in 2009, talk about the proposed $1.1 billion mixed-use project in north Hoboken slowed down considerably. She felt that any talk of a large-scale project was premature without a comprehensive planning study for the north end. According to Zimmer, this didn't sit well with the Christie administration. By her reckoning, the pressure started ramping up in April, when Samson and Grifa asked for a meeting with Hoboken's planning lawyer. According to an email from the planning lawyer, he was getting a "full-court press" on the Rockefeller project.
In the end, it turned out to be a wasted effort. A planning study had determined that the Rockefeller Group-owned blocks were the only ones in north Hoboken that qualified for development. But on the day before Zimmer went to Trenton, the study's planner told the Hoboken planning board that only one block met New Jersey redevelopment guidelines after the Rockefeller Group demolished several buildings that were in danger of collapse on its land. The planning board voted to designate the entire north end as a "rehabilitation" area--effectively deep-sixing the project in its original form.
So now we know that the Christie administration's priorities were severely warped--to the point that it should disqualify him from running for president. But if I were one of the participants at that May 9 meeting in Trenton, I'd have a lawyer on speed dial.
12:54 PM PT: At least one commenter's wondered why the Old Grey Lady didn't provide any copies of the emails. I wondered that as well--makes me wonder if Fishman already has his hands on them. Thoughts from those better versed in this?