Kush­n­ers face heated trial over Jersey mall project

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - BUSINESS -

Days af­ter a sea­side re­cep­tion for his fa­ther-in-law’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, Jared Kush­ner set out to pitch a deal to a small­town mayor: Kush­ner Cos. would trans­form an ag­ing shop­ping mall into a live-work des­ti­na­tion, bring­ing cul­ture and com­merce to a scraggy stretch of the Jersey Shore.

The mayor, a re­tired po­lice of­fi­cer, viewed it as a bril­liant of­fer his town couldn’t refuse. But hun­dreds of Ea­ton­town res­i­dents turned out in op­po­si­tion, pack­ing bor­ough coun­cil meet­ings last year to protest the Mon­mouth Mall ex­pan­sion as a give­away to Kush­ner.

Kush­ner soon won ap­proval to build 700 apart­ments atop his mall park­ing lot as part of a $300 mil­lion ex­pan­sion deal- an agree­ment that now is the sub­ject of a heated law­suit set for trial Mon­day.

Be­fore join­ing the White House as a se­nior ad­viser to Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, Kush­ner was CEO of his fam­ily com­pany and was widely cred­ited with its ex­pan­sion into Man­hat­tan. But he was just as busy build­ing po­lit­i­cal loy­al­ties an se­cur­ing mu­nic­i­pal changes to ben­e­fit the busi­ness in his home state of New Jersey.

Plain­tiffs in the mall suit are claim­ing town of­fi­cials pri­vately ne­go­ti­ated with the Kush­n­ers for half a year with­out telling the com­mu­nity, then rushed a vote on new zon­ing rules that ben­e­fited only Kush­ner’s com­pany af­ter the deal al­ready had been re­jected.

“Peo­ple are mad. They’re mad at the mayor, and they’re mad at the back­room deals,” said plain­tiff and long­time res­i­dent Sara Bres­low.

The town’s at­tor­neys say of­fi­cials al­lowed am­ple time for de­bate be­fore vot­ing. And the at­tor­neys for the Kush­ner Cos. say the mall was in “steady de­cay” and that those op­pos­ing the ex­pan­sion want to block the com­pany from build­ing af­ford­able hous­ing for needy res­i­dents.

Other real es­tate deals Kush­ner has bro­kered in New Jersey are un­der at­tack, too, with res­i­dents also claim­ing lo­cal politi­cians are too ac­com­mo­dat­ing to the pow­er­ful real es­tate fam­ily.

In Jersey City, the Kush­n­ers had hoped for a 30-year lo­cal tax break for two res­i­den­tial tow­ers, but res­i­dents took to the streets in Fe­bru­ary and the fam­ily re­cently with­drew its ap­pli­ca­tion. Far­ther down the shore, in Perth Am­boy, the sta­tus also is shaky. The Kush­n­ers have been press­ing the city to ap­prove a down­sized ver­sion of a 22-build­ing wa­ter­front com­mu­nity the fam­ily promised years ago, but that is un­cer­tain given re­sent­ment over stalled con­struc­tion and a law­suit from condo in­vestors who feel mis­led.

In Ea­ton­town, the Kush­n­ers are giv­ing ev­ery sign that their Mon­mouth Mall de­vel­op­ment is se­cure. Res­i­dents say land sur­vey­ors started dig­ging into neigh­bours’ front lawns de­spite the im­pend­ing trial.

In Au­gust 2015, Kush­ner’s par­ents threw a gar­den party hon­our­ing Trump at the fam­ily’s block-long ocean­side es­tate in Long Branch, where of­fi­cials soon will vote on a pro­posal to give the Kush­ner Cos. and a real es­tate part­ner up to $25 mil­lion in tax­payer-backed fi­nanc­ing for a re­sort de­vel­op­ment. Days later, he and his fam­ily went to nearby Ea­ton­town to push their plan to build 1,200 new apart­ments and a ho­tel at the mall.

Kush­ner had a tough sell. Not only did con­sul­tants say the new apart­ments would add as many as 1,460 peo­ple to the town of 13,000, but the hous­ing would be all rentals, not owner-oc­cu­pied units. Town of­fi­cials had long wor­ried about strik­ing the right bal­ance be­tween renters and home­own­ers.

Most daunt­ing, Kush­ner needed to change mu­nic­i­pal zon­ing rules be­cause no dwellings were al­lowed at the mall.

“Jared Kush­ner took the lead, he in­tro­duced him­self and spoke about his com­pany,” Repub­li­can Mayor Den­nis Connelly said in a de­scrip­tion of the ini­tial pitch, ac­cord­ing to bor­ough coun­cil meet­ing min­utes. “He laid out what is go­ing on at Malls in gen­eral and why he be­lieves now is the time to make a huge change to the in­vest­ment.”

Over the next few months, lawyers for the town and Kush­ner Cos. met pri­vately sev­eral times, and the com­pany sup­plied stud­ies that in­di­cated their pro­posal would boost the econ­omy and have min­i­mal traf­fic im­pact.

“This type of mall reimag­in­ing has helped boost the tax base of towns across the coun­try, and will do the same for Ea­ton­town,” Kush­ner Cos. spokesman James Yolles told The As­so­ci­ated Press when asked for com­ment.

Keep­ing ne­go­ti­a­tions pri­vate back­fired, feed­ing res­i­dents’ sus­pi­cions that Connelly wanted to push Kush­ner’s project through by lim­it­ing de­bate.

AP PHOTO/JULIO CORTEZ

In this Wed­nes­day, July 5, photo, Bar­bara Dene­gar, from left, Eve­lyn Guerra, Sara Bres­low and Judy Bret­zger pose for a pic­ture near the en­trance to the Mon­mouth Mall in Ea­ton­town, N.J. The four women are the plain­tiffs in a court case against the town, which they claim gave Kush­ner Cos. spe­cial treat­ment and sped through ap­provals for its pro­posal to build an apart­ment com­plex on the mall park­ing lot.

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