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Crime Rates Drop in the Midst of Jersey City Development

Wed March 22, 2006 - Northeast Edition
Janet Frankston Lorin - ASSOCIATED PRESS

JERSEY CITY, NJ (AP) Every morning and afternoon, Rachel Schunkewitz prepares four varieties of hummus in her new cafe in downtown Jersey City.

One of the more popular items on the menu is the “Rachel” salad, made with smoked trout, endive and sliced almonds.

Her gourmet menu illustrates how a part of Jersey City has changed in the 30 years since her parents left New Jersey’s second largest city for a safer place to raise their children.

“This place used to be an undesirable place to live. It was a place were people went to buy drugs,” Schunkewitz said in the cafe, decorated with exposed brick and flower petals in the restroom. “I see a big difference. It’s an up and coming area.”

Abandoned rail yards, decaying industrial buildings and drug-infested streets are being replaced by high-rise office towers, trendy restaurants, boutiques and even million-dollar condos with the name Trump attached to them.

Over the past decade, building permits for new housing have soared while crime rates have dropped. Areas of the city across the Hudson River from New York have emerged as hotspots for expensive housing. The draw continues to be more affordable prices than Manhattan and easy access to transportation.

But as these areas prosper with new retail space and transplants, some long-time Jersey City residents ask why developers aren’t investing in their part of town, west of the waterfront and the New Jersey Turnpike.

The development will eventually spread to other neighborhoods as builders seek less expensive land, said Ben Jogodnik, senior vice president of Toll Brothers. The national builder, known mostly for suburban subdivisions, is shifting attention to the urban market and building a 12-story condo project in Jersey City, where he expects some units to sell for $1 million.

For now, most of the new construction remains near the areas with the views and the historical downtown district. Residential building permits climbed to 2,156 in 2004, up from only 305 a decade ago.

Bob Cotter, the city’s planning director, said builders selected the most fertile area of Jersey City first. Much of the waterfront land was vacant railroad yards.

“It was easier to develop because there was not a lot of relocation involved,” he said.

Large, national builders continue to join smaller developers in the market. The 20-year-old Newport project on the river — with its own PATH stop and 600 acres for office space, housing and a shopping mall — is expected to grow for another decade.

Growth also is visible on Grove Street near city hall, where Schunkewitz and a partner opened their seven-table cafe. Down the street is a boutique called Tia’s Place and the Bar Majestic, part of a project around the Majestic theater, which has been redeveloped after sitting abandoned for three decades.

That’s where four women who work in one of the high-rise towers gathered for drinks one evening. Nicole Campbell said she didn’t expect to see a boutique in the area.

“I want to go in there and spend some money,” she said. “I’m also surprised at all the new construction.”

But one PATH stop away at Journal Square, once a vital hub of commerce, the retail scene is different: 99-cent and check-cashing stores and fast-food restaurants.

At a barber shop a few blocks from the square, Odett Andreou pines for a new grocery store or hotel.

“The changes are coming here by donkey,” said Andreou, who runs the salon with her husband, Louis. “It seems like here it’s moving slow. Down there, it’s coming by express.”

She and her neighbors, some of whom have lived for decades on Cottage Street, said that Jersey City is developing into two distinct cities. Longtime residents are being replaced “by a whole generation of people, the ones who can afford the rent,” she said.

John McIlwain, a senior fellow of housing at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C., agreed.

“Wealth is spreading to every homeowner in the city because the housing values are rising, some of them dramatically,” he said. “There’s a cost to that, higher taxes to the older homeowners and higher rents.”

Besides housing prices, Nick Damato a life-long Jersey City resident and Cottage Street neighbor, said he worries about crime. He said he was mugged in his own house 18 months ago.

Crime has decreased over the past decade: Robberies have dropped by 35.7 percent and murders by 37.8 percent. Mayor Jerramiah Healy said that’s helped the city’s image improve.

“There were neighborhoods where people didn’t want to walk through, never mind invest in or buy,” he said. “I think that has changed.”

Now, parts of Jersey City have drawn Target, yoga studios and a Basic, a coffee shop so charming it’s been mentioned in National Geographic Traveler magazine.

Franklin Militello, a neighbor of the Andreous, said two different worlds exist in the city.

“Now it’s like being in Manhattan,” he said. “There are a lot of nice restaurants. The people are a little different.”

One of the newcomers is James Sigman, who moved from Staten Island into a second-floor walk up near downtown in 2003.

“It was close enough to city where it’s convenient but still have your own private space,” said Sigman.

He pays monthly rent of $1,000 for a one-bedroom apartment with a fireplace, tons of closet space and enough room to accommodate 7-ft. tall bookshelves.

Housing value also attracted Alla Zilberman, a physician who commutes to Manhattan. She paid $540,000 for a 1,385-sq.-ft. duplex that is part of the Majestic redevelopment.

She’s seen changes since moving into her condo, with a view of the Statue of Liberty, in May 2004. She watched a parking lot on Washington Boulevard become a Chili’s restaurant.

“It will be interesting to see how it plays out over five years,” said Zilberman. “I’ve already noticed congestion on the PATH train.”

The same developers who are building high-rise towers near the waterfront said the growth will spread as land values creep up and the lower-priced areas become more desirable. Jogodnik, of Toll Brothers, said development has revolved around transportation hubs and the waterfront.

“I would expect it to travel from there to other areas,” he said. “I think there’s plenty of good urban development and redevelopment that can occur in Jersey City for years to come.”

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