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Jersey City Continues Building Upon Revitalization Process

Fri June 09, 2006 - Northeast Edition
Steve Chambers



JERSEY CITY, NJ (AP) There’s a gold rush happening on New Jersey’s Gold Coast.

Within an eight-block radius of City Hall in Jersey City, a half-dozen heavy-duty cranes stand like giraffes looking over an unprecedented wave of residential development.

Consider that 4,600 housing units are under construction in the city and another 4,400 are approved. Ten thousand more — virtually all in luxury skyscrapers — are planned during the next decade, an infusion of wealth and highly educated professionals into a city many had given up for dead a generation ago.

And these are no fly-by-night developers. Donald Trump is building two towers, one 50 stories and the other 55. Big suburban players like Toll Bros. and K. Hovnanian Homes are building their own large-scale residential buildings.

“It’s like Hong Kong,” Mayor Jerramiah Healy said.

With growth like this, no other city in New Jersey is likely to change its character as much as Jersey City over the next 10 years. City fathers say it will become a sixth borough of New York, with all its fabulous wealth and exciting night life.

But it will come at a cost.

The city already has huge demographic divides. The downtown below the Palisades and along the Hudson River has been transformed from a Latino barrio to an increasingly wealthy, white and Asian enclave over the past two decades.

The money is creeping up the hill, but the downtown still has the feel of a separate city. Brownstones the city all but gave away during the early 1980s sell for approximately $1 million. Parks like Hamilton and Van Vorst are filled with young children, and residents are no longer moving away to the suburbs after their children reach school age.

These downtown newcomers have, in recent years, begun to mobilize more against the rapid growth, packing Planning Board meetings to force concessions from developers and grumbling about the coming traffic and the shortage of open space.

“Honestly, it is exciting, but it’s also a little frightening,” said Valerio Luccio, who chairs the Downtown Coalition of Neighborhood Associations. “It’s also tiring. I feel like I am going from meeting to meeting to hold down the fort. I feel like the little boy with his finger in the dike.”

Reversing the Long Decline

Developers insist they are only scratching the surface of incredible demand. They point to Manhattan’s high prices and commuter weariness in the suburbs.

“Jersey City is the best-kept secret,” said Peter Mocco, who plans 7,000 residential units at Liberty Harbor North. “The more people who find out about it, the better it is for everyone. It’s so exciting. I don’t believe with all the development under construction or planned that we will meet the need.”

Carl Goldberg, whose Roseland Property three years ago finished a 40-story residential building close to the waterfront called Marbella, said it has one vacant apartment. This despite rental prices that start at $1,750 for studios and rise to $3,815 for three bedrooms.

“The urban lifestyle once predicted for the Gold Coast is finally coming into its own,” he said. “It’s a maturation of the lifestyle. All the quality-of-life elements are there: mass transportation, retail opportunities, a restaurant scene.”

Like most cities in New Jersey, Jersey City had been on a long slow slide in population since the early 1900s, when Irish and Polish immigrants packed its crowded tenements.

With the rise of the suburbs after World War II, it accelerated, bleeding 80,000 residents until it reached a low of 220,000 in 1980. In 2000, it reached 240,000, nearly passing Newark to become the state’s largest city.

Adding a City

Given the flood of new construction — it will add as many housing units as entire cities like Montclair by the next census — the race for bragging rights may well be over.

Beginning in the 1980s, desperate city officials got things going by creating several downtown historic districts, selling units the city had seized for nonpayment of taxes for $8,000 and offering tax breaks that made them free. Then, a few deep-pocketed investors gambled on the waterfront, starting the Newport complex in 1986.

The key to the resurrection of the downtown was the PATH system — with its direct rail links to Midtown Manhattan and Wall Street — and some of the best views of the New York skyline anywhere. As New York City began its own climb, it dragged Jersey City with it.

PATH makes three stops downtown, which already boasts more office space than Denver or Cleveland, and has five historic districts filled with century-old brownstones and a growing number of luxury residential skyscrapers.

Daily ridership from those stops has steadily risen in recent years to surpass the previous highs realized before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

Development got another boost beginning in 2000 with the coming of the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail, which acts like a modern-day trolley and has virtually blanketed the downtown with rail lines.

Some of the most explosive growth in recent years has followed that rail line west. Paulus Hook, a historic district on the southeast side of the downtown is now virtually built out, and growth is pressing west to Mocco’s site, where the first of 26 new city blocks are going up on what had been a vacant dumping ground for construction debris.

The project is beginning with 667 townhouses and apartments built in lower-rise brick structures meant to mimic the adjacent Van Vorst historic district. But as the development continues south, plans call for 30-story buildings along the Morris Canal facing Liberty State Park.

What the Residents Say

Mornings, a steady stream of commuters and residents pushing strollers or walking dogs pass through Van Vorst Park, an oasis of green and quiet near the construction sites.

Margaret Whalley, a massage therapist, and her husband moved to the city three years ago from Manhattan, partly because they thought it was a great place to raise two children. They had lived in the same neighborhood eight years ago and noticed big changes in their absence.

“The new restaurants are nice, but I hope it doesn’t lose its edge with all the growth,” Whalley said. “The diversity is great, and it’s not as crowded as Manhattan. But I guess change is coming. It’s inevitable.”

Leila Haddad agreed. The owner of a cafe called Sweet Priscilla, Haddad said she wonders if the 100-year-old sewer system, narrow road grid and sparse park space can handle the flood of new development. Like many others, she is worried recent tax hikes might drive out old-timers — even herself.

Still, she marvels at the changes. Her brownstone has tripled in value since she bought it eight years ago for $325,000.

“Traffic is already becoming a nightmare,” she said. “But mostly I see positive changes. There is broad revitalization. People are raising children here, and they seem to be hanging in there after they’re old enough to go to school.”

There has been a bit more squawking in nearby sections like Hamilton Park, where residents are lobbying City Hall to create a park on a former railroad embankment that runs down Sixth Street.

Urban Fever

Mayor Healy said he would prefer to see a new light-rail line linking the waterfront through an existing tunnel called the Bergen Arches to the underutilized New Jersey Turnpike Exit 15X in the Meadowlands. Commuter lots or garages there could ferry thousands of people downtown without clogging roads, he said.

“Residents are going to have to start living like they do in Manhattan,” he said. “You have several PATH stops and light rail, so you don’t need a car.”

Asked whether he believed the rush of new development was going too far, Healy said, “I’m not going to say there is too much success, too much prosperity. This city was hurting for a long time. I’m happy for whatever interest, investment and development done in Jersey City.”

Stephen Marks, director of planning for Hudson County, said intense development is beginning to tax roads, parks and schools. There is room to grow, he added, but only if proper investments are made by developers and the state.

“It’s an exciting time, and we are looking to double the amount of park space,” he said. “But we can’t do it alone.”

The urban development fever has infected some of the state’s most entrenched suburban builders — ones who helped make sprawl a dirty word by putting up countless subdivisions on farm fields.

Toll Bros. is building a 230-unit high-rise on the northern end of the downtown, and K. Hovnanian Homes has already built one project in Paulus Hook. Hovnanian, the state’s largest developer, also is negotiating to purchase a downtown lot and convert two approved office towers into a residential project.

“It’s a reflection of how effective the state’s land-use policies have been,” said Doug Fenichel, a Hovnanian spokesman. “We’ve become an urban builder.”