Kushners face heated trial over Jersey mall project
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.
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.