City overhauls planning guidelines to attract visitors, growth
By Joshua Burd

More than half of Bergen County’s 70 municipalities have traditional downtowns, but of all of them, only Hackensack’s has no two-way traffic in its main business corridor.
Stephen Lo Iacono, city manager, Hackensack, said zoning changes aim to revive downtown businesses. – AARON HOUSTON

Correcting that is just one part of the vision that business and civic leaders have to reawaken Hackensack’s depressed downtown. Those ideas — such as major zoning changes and relaxed parking rules — are the culmination of years of brainstorming and months overhauling the city’s planning guidelines to make the 160-acre district surrounding Main Street an attractive corridor to residents and visitors.

Earlier this month, the city council approved a redevelopment plan for a site on State Street, clearing the way for a project with up to 230 apartment units. It’s the first significant residential project in the downtown in a long time, said Francis Reiner, the DMR Architects consultant who helped develop the overall rehabilitation plan.

“It really shows the first concrete evidence that the efforts the city has gone through over the past year and a half are coming to fruition,” he said. “You now have a developer who is putting a stake in the ground and is going to build residential projects in the downtown.”

But the Hackensack rehabilitation plan is deeper than wholesale redevelopment, its advocates say. Its origins lie with the small businesses that make up the downtown, and a key goal is to help them revitalize their properties, Reiner said.

To meet their objectives, planners for the Bergen County seat have tried to follow the path of other municipalities that have transformed themselves in recent decades, such as New Brunswick, Jersey City and Morristown.

“It wasn’t all that long ago — 15, 20 years ago — that those downtowns were failing and needed some help, and they implemented many of these types of programs,” said city manager Stephen Lo Iacono. “And they’ve all succeeded in a relatively short period of time.”

One of the key concepts borrowed by Hackensack is the creation of a “pre-application concept review committee,” allowing developers to meet with city professionals earlier in the process, said Nancy A. Kist, a redevelopment attorney who has been advising Hackensack. She said the city wanted to “get past the type of relationship … where developers put a lot of time and money in, and only get a ‘no.’ ”

A similar approach has been fruitful in New Brunswick for at least two decades, said Glenn Patterson, its director of planning, community and economic development. Known there as a technical advisory committee, it allows the Hub City’s experts to work on issues that “don’t get handled real well in front of a board of laymen.”

“To the general guy on the street, it doesn’t sound like that big of a deal,” Patterson said. “But you certainly hear the war stories going on in some other communities, where an application takes three, four, five, six hearings to get through a planning board or zoning board, just because they’re going through every little detail.”

Hackensack has taken other critical steps, starting with the forms used in the application process. It has reduced parking ratios, implemented architectural and neighborhood design standards for development, and is converting one-way streets to two-way streets. In the realm of zoning, the city created a two-tier system that allows owners of all lots to build up to five stories, while owners of larger parcels that meet a square footage threshold can build up to 14 stories. Under another zoning change, an owner can convert any existing first-floor space to a restaurant without adding parking spaces.

The plan is key to helping the district connect to the city’s anchors, like Hackensack University Medical Center, its higher education institutions and government offices. Lo Iacono hopes the Atlantic Street corridor, which includes the hospital, will see new development “as kind of a corollary effect to what’s going to go on at Main Street.”

Mark Sparta, Hackensack UMC’s vice president and senior operations officer, said a revitalized downtown with new residential and retail development can complement its own plans, such as the expansion of its academic offerings and its movement toward secondary medical services, like oncology.

“I think you’re really going to see an opportunity here to maximize the synergies,” Sparta said. “Traditionally hospitals and the communities that they reside in have had symbiotic relationships.”

Reaching the point of being “shovel-ready” in Hackensack has been a lengthy saga for the downtown business community. Around 10 years ago, after the city’s zoning had been outdated for decades, merchants formed the Hackensack Upper Main Alliance and later set out to overhaul the downtown.

City officials with a similar goal joined forces with the group and its consultants about two years ago, culminating in the June 2012 rehabilitation plan that covered 389 properties across 160 acres. Jerry Lombardo, chairman of the Upper Main Alliance, said while the current conditions are not ideal for kicking off Hackensack’s renaissance, stakeholders are eagerly looking to the future.

“Unfortunately, we’re in a very difficult economy right now for development,” Lombardo said. “But I also think now is a great time to set the table … so that as the economy starts to perk up, people are going to look for places to do projects. And we’re going to be ready.”


January 22, 2013 News


By Myles Ma

HACKENSACK - The city gave final approval Monday to a plan that would allow high-density residential and commercial development on a State Street block characterized by gravel lots and vacant buildings.

The Council voted unanimously to approve a redevelopment plan for several lots between Warren and Bergen streets.

The plan, introduced in December, designates the lots as “in need of redevelopment” changes zoning laws to encourage mixed-use development allow for up to 230 residential units. Aside from a Chase Bank branch, the block is mostly covered in gravel lots and vacant buildings due for demolition.

“The adoption of this plan tonight brings us one critical step closer to seeing shovels in the ground,” Mayor Mike Melfi said in a release.

The State Street redevelopment plan is part of a larger effort to overhaul downtown Hackensack. Adopted in June, the Main Street Rehabilitation Plan calls for changes that encourages mixed-use development through measures like an easier building approval process and two-way traffic on Main Street.

Developers gave the plan high marks at a presentation in September. At that presentation, officials hinted that a big project announcement was forthcoming, but gave few details.


January 9, 2013 News


By Hannan Adely

HACKENSACK - The City Council gave unanimous final approval Tuesday night to a redevelopment plan for a portion of State Street designed to attract high-density residences and businesses.

The plan allows for mixed-use development with up to 230 residential units on several lots between Warren and Bergen streets. The approval is a key step in a larger plan to transform the city’s downtown into a more modern shopping, work and living area, officials said.

“Hopefully, this is the first step and the project that will kick off the overall Main Street development progress, Mayor Mike Melfi said. “We’re hoping for a quick shovel in the ground and to see others join quickly to move this redevelopment forward.”

The plan calls for apartment or condominium buildings of up to six stories with specific amenities, including a fitness center, a common room on each floor, and rooftop perks “with at minimum a fireplace or fire pit.” The plan also allows for ground-floor storefront businesses.

The State Street redevelopment area now is home to a bank and gravel lots. Two vacant single-family homes that had been divided into several apartments and had empty ground-level commercial storefronts were demolished recently by the Building Department for safety reasons, officials said.

The State Street redevelopment plan is part of the Downtown Rehabilitation Plan that the city approved in June. That plan eased zoning, parking and other restrictions in a 39 block-area known as the city’s Main Street corridor to encourage mixed-use development.

It’s designed to encourage a contemporary brand of downtown development where people can live, work, shop and find entertainment, all a short distance from mass transit and in a pedestrian-friendly setting.

Councilwoman Karen Sasso, a trustee on the Main Street Business Alliance board, said the State Street plan would be the “spark that will help other development and help realize dramatic change.”

City Manager Stephen Lo Iacono said he has been talking regularly with developers interested in investing in the city’s downtown. With the State Street approval in place, he said, developers and property owners can start submitting plans to the city’s land-use boards. The new residences, he said, would support local businesses and make the area more valuable.

The plan can be found online at


January 9, 2013 News

By Myles Ma

HACKENSACK — The City Council took a first step on Dec. 18 to transform a State Street block characterized by gravel lots and unoccupied buildings.

The Council introduced an ordinance that designates several lots between Warren and Bergen streets as an “area in need of redevelopment.”

The State Street redevelopment plan changes zoning laws to encourage high-density mixed-use developments and allows for up to 230 residential units.

“I am confident that in the coming months we are going to be announcing new projects that will transform our downtown and really begin the process of returning Hackensack to the center of activity in Bergen County,” Mayor Mike Melfi said in a statement.

The State Street redevelopment plan is part of the Main Street Rehabilitation Plan. Adopted by the council in June, the plan is to overhaul downtown Hackensack by easing the building process, changing traffic patterns and pushing more mixed-use development.

The City unveiled the plan to developers in September. It received high praise from William Procida, president of Procida Funding and Advisors.

“It’s everything you want to hear,” he said. “Municipal cooperation, good design and everybody’s on board.”

The Council is scheduled to vote to give final approval to the State Street redevelopment plan at its Jan. 8 meeting.


December 26, 2012 News



HACKENSACK — The rehabilitation of Hackensack’s downtown district will span a larger area after the city moved to include additional lots on State Street in the rehabilitation plans at the Nov. 20 council meeting.

The approval came after last month’s planning board meeting where a public hearing was held in connection with a preliminary investigation to determine whether certain lots on State Street, as well as one located on Warren Street, constitute an area in need of rehabilitation under the newly approved Hackensack Downtown Rehabilitation Plan.

“The [new lots will now be included] within the Main Street rehabilitation program,” Hackensack City Manager Stephen Lo Iacono said. “It’s a site on State Street which the planning board has designated, and the council has approved a designation for, as an area in need of redevelopment.”

The lots in question are located at addresses: 76, 86, 92 and 94 State St. as well as 31 Warren St, according to Lo Iacono.

Though the planning board carried out the initial investigation as to whether it should be included in the city’s redevelopment, and the council approved the designation, the following step is, once again, in the planning board’s court.

“The council sent to the planning board a draft of the redevelopment plan for that area and the planning board will be acting on that at their next meeting [in December],” Lo Iacono said.

City Planner Francis Reiner of the firm DMR Architects further explains the process.

“There are statutory requirements in order to meet the designation of an area in need of rehabilitation, which the [approximate] 160 acres of the downtown met that criteria,” he said. “We went through that process. Once that area is designated, we changed the zoning in the area of the downtown to allow for pedestrian friendly, mixed used development to occur anywhere in the downtown — commercial, residential, retail, office…essentially a property can be redeveloped at any point now, within the rehabilitation plan, so long it meets the criteria that was adopted in that plan.”

According to the Downtown Rehabilitation Plan the criteria for the rehabilitation of a particular site is met when “a majority of the storm water and sanitary sewer infrastructure in the delineated area is at least 50 years old and is in need of repair or substantial maintenance.”

Main Street is the substantial part of the Hackensack’s downtown district. The 63-page plan was proposed, and subsequently passed in June, with hopes of revitalizing the area thus bringing in more revenue into the city.

According to a press release from the City of Hackensack, the rehabilitation plan will include “new housing, retail and restaurant options that maximize [the city’s] strategic advantages in the region.” Furthermore, one of the main expectations for this plan is “to create a new economic engine for Hackensack, bringing new value to current business and property owners and [attracting] new businesses and residential options…[the plan positions Hackensack] to see new investment in projects that will create jobs, increase [its] tax base and strengthen existing business.”

An important component of the approved plan also makes a point of establishing “a balance between pedestrian and vehicular transportation, as well as an element protecting existing historical sites,” according to the city.

The rehabilitation will ease certain restrictions — such as zoning and parking — in an area equivalent to 39 blocks. This area is known as the city’s Main Street Corridor.

However, Reiner said the main process behind the plan is quite simple, since “the city is going to look to make public infrastructure improvements — storm, water, sewers, etc. — [and] change the zoning, allowing developers to take advantage of appropriate zoning in urban areas. The city believes that, that is going to spur private development to revitalize the downtown.”

Reiner said that the plan is already coming into fruition.

“[The city has] a developer that is looking at a 200-unit project,” he said. “The city has met with numerous other developers on other available properties in the downtown and so we think that over the next six to eight months, we’ll have announcements on a number of projects.”


December 7, 2012 News

By Myles Ma

HACKENSACK — Local developers got a glimpse of a plan to rehabilitate Main Street Monday, and they gave the project high marks.

“It’s everything you want to hear,” William Procida, president of Procida Funding and Advisors, said. “Municipal cooperation, good design, and everybody’s on board.”

Developers gathered at the Stony Hill Inn heard a plan to clear up the application process, ease parking requirements and improve circulation by allowing two-way traffic on Main Street.

The city will lower the number of parking spaces developers need when they plan sites. For example, a 10,000 square foot retail space that would require 280 spaces under current ordinances would only require 165 under the new zoning.

The difference would save more than $2 million, Doug Doyle, an attorney with DeCotiis, FitzPatrick and Cole, said. The law firm helped Hackensack develop the rehabilitation plan.

Hackensack will help guide developers through the application process. Before appearing before the planning board, developers can sit with a committee made up of City Manager Stephen Lo Iacono and other land-use officials.

The technical review committee will advise developers on what obstacles they might expect in front of the planning board.

“Before you spend a lot of money to get told no, you get those roadblocks out of the way,” Lo Iacono said.

The biggest change for residents might be a change in traffic patterns in the Main Street area.

Traffic studies showed that a two-way Main Street would boost economic development, Francis Reiner
of DMR architects said.

The changes are eagerly anticipated, Christopher McCormick, business development manager for Gilbane Building Company, said.

“The past couple of years we haven’t seen anything like this,” McCormick, whose firm is working with Hackensack University Medical Center, said. “They’ve definitely given the developers a lot of incentives and hopefully it all pans out.”

The rehabilitation of Main Street will take time, Lo Iacono said. But the City will see its first big project soon, he said without revealing any details.

Mayor Mike Melfi said he was looking forward to seeing the concepts of the plan become a reality.
“Once the first project comes in here I think that’s going to be the spark for the City,” he said. “From there, it’s going to continue to grow and grow and grow.”


October 1, 2012 News



HACKENSACK — Developers looking to build in the city would get more guidance under a streamlined process that is scheduled for Planning Board review.

Nancy Kist, an attorney at DeCotiis, Fitzpatrick and Cole who worked on the new procedures, said the changes are intended to save developers both time and money.

The proposed changes include:

  • A committee of city representatives who would review developers’ pitches before they are formally presented to the zoning or planning boards.
  • Forms and checklists to help developers through the application process.
  • A revamped fee structure that city officials said would be more aligned with costs in surrounding communities.

She could not immediately say what the new fees would be, but she said most of them would be lower.

Developers could also save money by identifying problems with their applications before they begin the costly hearing process, she said.

The changes are part of a city plan designed to spark a downtown building boom and return the city to its heyday as Bergen County’s retail and cultural center.

“I am confident these new measures will be well received by our Planning Board and potential investors in our city,” Hackensack Mayor Mike Melfi said.

A city press release outlining the proposal did not say when the Planning Board would review it, but the board’s next scheduled meeting is Sept. 12.

Main Street

The city approved a 63-page Downtown Rehabilitation Plan in June, easing zoning, parking and other restrictions in a 39 city block-area known as the city’s Main Street corridor.

The plan aims to bring requirements for new developers into line with the contemporary taste for downtown areas where people can live, work, shop and find entertainment, mainly by removing restrictions on residential developments with ground floor retail and office space.

City officials envision buildings as high as 14 stories, sidewalk restaurants and carefully maintained storefronts.

Changes in the furute would also include improved parking, repairs to the city’s antiquated sewer system and the re-introduction of two-way traffic on Main Street.


September 5, 2012 News


By S.P. Sullivan

HACKENSACK — After the approval of an ambitious downtown rehabilitation plan, the city is hammering out new rules that would promote mixed-use retail and residential development along Main Street.
The city has drafted a step-by-step checklist for developers that spells out the uses and materials the planning board will approve and adjusted its fee structure to be more competitive with other cities.

Mayor Mike Melfi said in a statement that the new rules “cut the red tape for developers” along the
Main Street corridor. DMR Architects, the authors of the city’s rehabilitation plan, advised officials to spell out what kinds of development would be permissible downtown to better prepare them for the application process.

The plan also creates a “Pre-Application Review Committee” to review proposed projects at the request of developers before the formal application process.

City Manager Stephen Lo Iacono said the plan is part of the city’s “aggressive efforts to court new developers into our community.”

The city council sent the changes to the planning board earlier this week.


September 1, 2012 News



The Hackensack City Council unanimously approved the adoption of a new downtown development plan designed to spur the economic growth of the city’s Main Street corridor at the June 27 council meeting.

The redevelopment effort includes zoning changes to encourage economic and residential growth in the city’s downtown and restore its former commercial strength. The rehabilitation plan designates 163 acres, 39 city blocks and 389 properties consisting of Main Street and the surrounding area, remembered as a commercial and entertainment Mecca in the 1940s and 50s. The proposal incorporates a mix of new housing and businesses along with open space. Enhanced infrastructure, including improved roads and sidewalks, are also part of the plan.

Planner Francis Reiner of DMR Architects noted the benefits of the plan’s new zoning proposals.

“The zoning in this plan is intended to promote mixed-use development, active streets with two-sided retail, outdoor dining and a more pedestrian-friendly urban environment,” he said. “The new zoning also supports existing property owners, existing businesses, the rehabilitation of those businesses and new development opportunities in the downtown area.”

Jerry Lombardo, chairman of the city’s Upper Main Street Alliance, looked ahead to how the area designated for redevelopment, bounded approximately by the Bergen County Courthouse to the south, the Sears department store to the north, State Street to the west and River Street to the east, will be changed for the better when the plan is executed.

“We’re not reinventing the wheel — the wheel is already there, and we have to get it rolling in Hackensack,” Lombardo said. “We have confidence in the plan. It does not contemplate any use of eminent domain or the taking of anyone’s property. Rather, it seeks through the power of the market to rebuild our downtown.”

City Manager Stephen Lo Iacono noted that he believed the success of the plan, to be implemented over the next ten to 12 years by the public-private partnership established between the city and the alliance, would not be jeopardized by the ongoing legal cost of police-related lawsuits.

“There is no question that there is going to be increased tax ratables once this plan is rolling along,” Lo Iacono said. “This plan will help us to underwrite all the costs of running the city in the long term. The legal situation is a serious situation, but a short-term one.”

Albert Dib, executive director of the Upper Main Street Alliance, felt that the approval of the plan could make history in Hackensack.

“I think this is the most important thing to happen in Hackensack in my lifetime,” said Dib, 40. “This plan solidifies Hackensack’s place as Bergen County’s center for commerce and culture. There are no other municipalities in Bergen County that can offer what we’re about to offer.”


July 6, 2012 News



HACKENSACK – Residents, business owners, and developers now have a website to monitor the progress being made on Main Street in Hackensack.

The site was launched this week, said Matthew Jordan, a spokesman for the city.

“The website gives people easy access to the recently passed Rehabilitation Plan and interactive graphics for what projects will look like, where the plan is being implemented, and design standards moving forward,” Jordan said.

The Rehabilitation Plan will allow for the city to reach out to private sector businesses as potential partners, said City Manager Stephen Iacono in a prepared statement.

“Throughout this entire process transparency has been a hallmark. We want everyone to know – from residents to property owners to prospective investors – that Hackensack is open for business.”

Mayor Michael Melfi also released a statement on the site:

“This website is the beginning of a marketing and outreach campaign to bring new investment into Main Street.”


July 5, 2012 News