Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich says residents can expect further progress on Redevelopment Area 5 in 2013, better communications during emergencies like Superstorm Sandy, expanded ferry shuttle service after the Port Authority agreed to donate more buses and a Special Improvement District for the borough’s rapidly declining Main Street.
The mayor made those remarks, among many others, during his annual State of the Borough Address at the Fort Lee Mayor and Council’s reorganization meeting Thursday.
Among the highlights of 2012, Sokolich said, were the reelection of Councilmen Joseph Cervieri Jr. and Harvey Sohmer, the way Fort Lee’s emergency services performed throughout the year, the Fort Lee Police Department starting a new era while bidding a fond farewell to its longtime chief, the work the Fort Lee Planning Board did during the arduous Redevelopment Area 5 public hearing and approval process, arts and culture in the borough, the annual holiday tree lighting at the Fort Lee Community Center, park refurbishment, the opening of new business and of Fort Lee’s first-ever dog park and pulling off hosting the 2012 Ironman U.S. Championship.
Sokolich said volunteers, from youth sports coaches to board members, are “the heart and fabric” of the community and “truly what makes Fort Lee go.”
“Without [volunteers], Fort Lee would just be brick and mortar,” he said.
But Sokolich said it was the progress the borough made with development of the long-vacant, roughly 16-acre parcel of land now known as Redevelopment Area 5 that provided perhaps the biggest highlight of the past year, starting with town hall meetings and selection of the redevelopers for the East and West parcels—SPJ Residential and Tucker Development Corp., respectively.
“Thousands of hours were devoted to negotiation of settlement agreements, redevelopment agreements, and yes, it’s not a figment of your imagination; there are machines on the East Parcel,” Sokolich said. “Redevelopment 5, after let’s say a 47-year tattered past, has started. You are, during the course of 2013, going to see two iconic and beautiful buildings, or at least one on the verge of completion and a second one to follow.”
As for the mixed-use, residential and retail plan for the West parcel, Sokolich said, “They’re in the process of finalizing some last additions, and we’re hopeful that 2013 will also see the start of [that project].”
He also said it was “important to government” that the borough “get something back” in light of such large-scale development, not just in the form of “several million dollars” in tax revenue going into Fort Lee’s coffers, but also what he called “perks.”
Among those perks, Sokolich mentioned a roughly two-acre park that will be deeded back to the borough between the two “iconic” buildings on the East parcel for the use of all borough residents, a three-screen movie theater and 2,000-square-foot museum built by the developer. On the West parcel, he said residents could expect pump station upgrades, another park and a “state-of-the-art” interactive traffic light system with variable timing depending on traffic conditions, all of which will be paid for by the developer.
“It’s not just about tax dollars; it’s about getting that development done,” Sokolich said. “It’s about starting what I refer to as Fort Lee’s Renaissance, and I believe that we are well on our way to putting back Fort Lee as the envy of Bergen County, where I believe that we belong.”
The mayor spent a considerable amount of time discussing Hurricane Sandy and the borough’s response, which he said included emergency personnel “working 24/7” and volunteers stepping up in various ways to help their neighbors in need.
He said that while everybody is going to have complaints, and that nobody wants to be without power for eight days or more, including his own family, “Hurricane Sandy brought out the best of what Fort Lee has to offer.”
“Were we perfect? No, absolutely not,” Sokolich said. “There were definitely certain areas that we will do differently next time, but I will tell you, for the most part, there are many, many things that will never, ever change.”
Noting that communications posed the greatest challenge for borough officials during the storm, given the widespread power outages leaving many, if not most residents without land lines, cell phones, TV or Internet, Sokolich said that in the event of another disaster, Fort Lee will be better equipped to get information out to the public.
Under the leadership of Sokolich’s predecessor, former Fort Lee Mayor Jack Alter, the borough purchased an AM radio frequency officials intend to use during future emergencies. He said all residents will need is a transistor radio with batteries.
“And if you don’t have a transistor radio with batteries, government has made an arrangement to have 250 of these radios donated to Fort Lee—not the ones that require batteries; the ones that you can actually charge yourself by twisting a handle several times and this AM station will then work for several hours,” he said. “What we’re going to do is start to focus our attention on this AM frequency. We’re going to conduct an investigation to make sure that we can put it online and we can reach every single resident here in the Borough of Fort Lee.”
Also in 2013, according to Sokolich, Fort Lee will see programs like a Special Improvement District [SID] for its “troubled and tired” Main Street.
He said a group of people, including business and property owners, Main Street residents and lifelong residents of the borough, has formed to “essentially serve as a board of directorship” for the SID.
“And once this ordinance is adopted creating the [SID], this body will have very wide power to invest considerable dollars back into Main Street, whether it’s for aesthetic improvements, marketing initiatives [or] expansion initiatives,” Sokolich said. “I do believe that you’re going to start to see some material changes in Main Street [during] the latter part of 2013.”
Another big change for the coming year will be additional ferry shuttle service. Currently the shuttle only serves the eastern portion of Fort Lee off Palisade Avenue, but Sokolich said officials have “heard back from the public that they would like a route down Anderson Avenue.”
“Through negotiations, the Port Authority has agreed to donate two buses to the Borough of Fort Lee, valued in the vicinity of $175,000, so that that free shuttle service will now pick up folks from Med North, Med South, down North Avenue to Med West, Plateau Gardens and then ultimately down to the ferry,” Sokolich said.
The mayor concluded his remarks with a familiar theme, saying “fiscal scrutiny will continue to dominate our priorities” in 2013.”
“We’ll make sure that we do everything possible to keep the tax rate as low as conceivably possible,” Sokolich said. “We’ll make sure we’ll keep bond debt as low as we possibly can, and we’ll make sure that every effort we make will be to make sure that Fort Lee maintains a very fiscally sound condition … without, of course, diminishing any quality of life issues.”