On a chilly day during winter break in late 2005, workers at the Division of City Planning convened over a map of the city. Markers in hand, the planners set about slicing and dicing the city into areas that were ripe for redevelopment. There was still room in old industrial areas. Journal Square could go denser. Lots of space along the Hackensack.
The group's objective was to figure out just how much development Jersey City could handle over the next 25 years. The planners were aware of previous estimates. One predicted a capacity of 18,000 more residential units. Another, 28,000. When the planners had finished their task, their own estimate was considerably higher: 65,000 units.
"It sounds like a tremendous number," admits Bob Cotter, the Division's director and the leader of the planning session. "It's perhaps the highest possible scenario. It may be real easy to knock that number down to 50,000."
Even that reduced forecast would represent a pace of growth that's more than twice anything the city has seen over the past quarter century. At this very moment, no less than 8,000 new residential units are under construction in Jersey City.
"This has got to be the biggest residential construction boom Jersey City has ever seen," says Leon Yost, a member of the city's Planning Board and a local history buff.
Recent development has been most visible Downtown. But with the gradual gentrification of The Heights, a West Side redevelopment plan in the works, the planned rehabilitation of Journal Square, and increasing development in the Bergen-Lafayette area, the construction boom is undoubtedly a citywide phenomenon. And it shows no signs of slowing. Naomi Hsu, one of the city's planners, says the construction boom could continue until 2020, if not beyond. "There would still be additional development - as the residential sector is still pretty strong - for the next 10 to 15 years, based on the demand," she says.
Like it or not, a new Jersey City is coming.
But the story won't end when the cranes roll out and the yellow tape is torn down. Beyond the gleaming new towers and the refurbished brownstones, the construction boom will transform the city on a much more profound level.
The most obvious result will be a flood of new residents. Recent projections from the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority peg Jersey City's population by 2030 as high as 308,000 - a 28 percent increase from 2000 and just shy of the city's all-time high in 1930. Even the most conservative estimates predict a 13 percent jump. Jersey City hasn't seen such drastic growth in 100 years. (See Sidebar 3, below.)
This wave of newcomers will change the city in ways we might not even be able to foresee. But for those ways that we can, it's worth taking a look ahead to see what new challenges might be approaching.
THE SCHOOLS. It's elementary math. More residents equals more children. More children equals a need for more classrooms.
A classroom crunch isn't just possible - it's here. "The present classroom space we have now is almost fully occupied," says Francis X. Dooley, deputy superintendent for the city's public schools. About 30,000 students currently attend the public schools, and Dooley expects to have to find room for "several thousand" more in the next few years.
To head off the flood, administrators approved in late 2005 a plan to boost overall student capacity - which had already been surpassed at the time - by nearly 50 percent over five years. The Long Range Facilities Plan calls for $1.4 billion worth of new schools and large-scale renovations.
Of course, the bigger question is: Will young parents want to send their children to our public schools? There's reason to worry they won't. Last year, 27 out of 33 of the public schools failed to meet the federal No Child Left Behind standards, and academic performance here lags behind the rest of the state. Troubling statistics like those could send many young families fleeing for the suburbs, a trend with which Jersey City is all too familiar.
To cauterize the wound, Council President Mariano Vega Jr., a former chairman of the city's Board of Education, says some "hard decisions" may be on the horizon. He talks about shutting down underperforming schools, opening more specialized magnet schools, and beefing up programs in technology and global citizenship.
But Dooley argues that the schools have improved drastically and that their bad reputation is due in part to a lack of "positive publicity." The local press, Dooley says, pays little attention to the schools' achievements - such as being named by a national educational foundation as one of the five most-improved urban school districts in the country last year.
Dooley provides his own statistics showing reason for optimism: in Jersey City, he notes, "we send 70 percent of our students to college - either a two-year school or a four-year school - upon graduation," the dropout rate is less than 10 percent, and attendance is "way up in the 90s." Plus, Dooley says, local school officials could soon regain control from the state, which has overseen the district since 1989.
"We're always guilty of not selling ourselves, and that's what we have to do," Dooley says. "It's very hard to overcome the stigma from years and years ago."
Beating that stigma - whether through tangible improvement, simple image buffing, or both - will be crucial to convincing young families to stick around.
TRANSPORTATION. Lesson number one for commuters on the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail: sitting is a luxury. Scoring a seat during rush hour is getting more and more difficult. Ridership on the Light Rail system grew by 56 percent in 2006, and "ridership in Jersey City is way up," according to NJ Transit spokesperson Dan Stessel. In response, the company has in the last year added departure times and started running double-long cars during peak times.
The Light Rail offers a case study of how every transportation system in the city - bus service, the ferries, the PATH - will be impacted in the coming years. NJ Transit bus ridership is already at record levels, Stessel says. NY Waterway spokesperson Patrick Smith says the ferry company is expecting steady growth at its Jersey City terminals. Even the PATH system's Jersey City stations have almost fully rebounded from a post-9/11 ridership slump while the rest of the system is still recovering, according to figures from the Port Authority.
And it's not just mass transit that will feel the pressure. The Turnpike already dumps thousands of commuters' cars into Jersey City neighborhoods every day, and parking is a growing concern for many residents.
Fortunately, there's no shortage of ideas on how to handle these problems. Plans are on the table for creating a new Turnpike off-ramp that would funnel traffic straight into the Downtown business district, instead of through residential neighborhoods. A new PATH station - it would be the city's fifth - has been proposed near West Side Avenue. Plus, the Light Rail is expected to extend its winding course through the city.
Several city officials have suggested running a new Light Rail line from Secaucus along the Sixth Street Embankment, an elevated stone structure that once carried trains to the city's waterfront. But the embankment is mired in a years-old court battle between the city, the landowner and preservationists. The Bergen Arches, a railroad cut near Route 139, is another underused area of the city caught between those who want to utilize it for the Light Rail and those who hope to claim it as open space for the public.
Additional branches of the Light Rail have been suggested to Newark International Airport, and along Montgomery Street through Downtown.
PARKS. Council President Vega has a colorful way of illustrating Jersey City's need for open space. He notes that when rats are packed too tightly together in a cage, they eat each other. "What does that say about urban behavior?" Vega asks. "There's a correlation between the amount of open space you have...and the mental health equation that you have in a society."
Vega was among those who called for a Recreation Master Plan for the city in 2005. A preliminary draft of that plan was released late last year for public feedback. (A final version of the plan will be ready later this year.) Although dissent over the plan's finer points was swift and fierce, its overall findings met with little public disagreement. Jersey City, the plan said, doesn't have enough parks for the people already living here, let alone the tens of thousands more expected to move in. The report put it bluntly: "Jersey City must aggressively continue to seek to acquire more park land in all wards, on an annual basis, to meet the recreational needs of its citizens."
Implementing all of the report's recommendations would come with a hefty price tag - nearly $75 million over 10 years - and it could take a major political push to get residents to look beyond their own provincial interests and avoid disputes over whose parks get upgraded first.
The plan identified several choice spots to cram a few more acres of parks into the city, including the nearly 15-acre Berry Lane Park in the Bergen-Lafayette area, and six acres near the Bayonne border called The Fields.
But hold on. All this talk of more parks is overblown, Mayor Jerramiah Healy suggests. "I think we have enough open space," he says. "I think anyone who's coming to Jersey City and wants to partake in lounging and walking nature's paths, I think they've probably come to the wrong place." The city already has great pocket-sized parks that just need to be rehabbed, he notes. And besides, the Master Plan didn't even count Liberty State Park or Lincoln Park because they aren't city parks. (Since talking with Jersey City Magazine, Mayor Healy has publicly supported new open spaces, saying in his State of the City address in February that "we need new parks in our city.")
Disputes between open-space advocates and the promoters of development will likely reach a fevered pitch as the city fills out its last scraps of undeveloped land.
THE WEALTH GAP. $799,000. $1.4 million. $2 million. Looking at the cost of new homes hitting the market these days, it seems clear that many of Jersey City's newest residents will be very well-off financially. The cost of buying a home here rose by 32 percent between 2004 and 2005 alone, according to Money Magazine. These kinds of statistics have some worried that Jersey City is on its way to becoming a haven solely for the wealthy elite.
"I think that a lot of what is going on is not beneficial to the average Joe Blow here," Ward F Councilwoman Viola Richardson says. "They can't afford any of this."
But isn't a wealthier populace a good thing? Not always, suggests George Hawkins, executive director of New Jersey Future, a smart-growth advocacy group. Hawkins says a mix of income levels is healthy for a city.
"In order for a city to sustain itself, it needs a tax base that contains all sorts of income levels," Hawkins says. "The great trick is to make sure that revitalization does not mean replacing longtime residents and pushing them elsewhere. That is a trend that is typical in urban revitalization stories, and it'll be one of the priorities for Jersey City to make sure that affordable housing is maintained."
Pretty much everyone who weighs in on this issue sees the need to walk a line between keeping housing affordable and keeping developers interested. Where exactly that line is will continue to be a matter of impassioned debate. Proposals have been floated for mandatory minimums of affordable housing units, fines for developers who fail to meet those minimums, and inclusionary zoning.
A much-anticipated Affordable Housing Master Plan is slated for release by the city's Department of Housing, Economic Development and Commerce this year. (Its release was originally scheduled for last December.) Its recommendations will likely shape the debate - and the city itself - for the foreseeable future.
POLITICS. It's Monday afternoon and Steven Fulop is the only one in City Hall. Today is a national holiday, but the young councilman from Downtown's Ward E is at his desk in the council's second-floor offices. Clearly, Fulop's arrival in 2005 marked a break with business-as-usual.
Many observers saw Fulop's election as a sign that the cresting wave of new residents will hit the city's political establishment - hard. Fulop doesn't quarrel with that analysis. He says his success illustrates the changing views of residents, who will increasingly demand better services from the people they put in office. Fulop's advice for the old guard: adapt or die.
"You've got to recognize, it's changing times over here," he says. "Get on board or get run over. It's one or the other."
But some old political hands aren't ready to concede just yet. Former Mayor Gerald McCann downplays the potential impact of the newcomers. "People who move into the new developments don't vote because they don't stay here," he says. "They climb the corporate ladder, then move somewhere else to raise their families." This, he says, will allow traditional political forces to retain the reigns of power.
Mayor Healy, however, is among those that say otherwise. He says the makeup of attendees at City Council meetings has changed dramatically over the last 20 years. "It's happened already," he says. "It's going to get bigger and bigger as the years go by."
But the debate over whether or not new residents will vote or attend council meetings is just half the story. The newcomers' presence alone could be enough to turn the political landscape on its head. As the city's population swells, district lines will have to be redrawn, likely slicing up constituents on the local, county and state levels in new ways. This happened in the 1990s, when the redistricting of North Jersey contributed to the election of Robert Menendez as New Jersey's first Latino congressman.
Something similar could take place following the 2010 Census, says U.S. Congressman Steve Rothman, whose district encompasses part of The Heights. Rothman says the redistricting process scheduled a few years from now could give Jersey City a greater voice on the national level.
REPUTATION. Image, as they say, is everything. Development will likely continue to have a positive impact on the city's reputation, so one question for Jersey City as it moves ahead will be: How well can we capitalize on our improving image?
"We want to get the word out there that we have a great place to live, we have a great place to do business, a great place to invest in," Mayor Healy says. "And I believe that firmly, and we're trying to get that word out there."
Work on branding Jersey City has already begun. The city recently launched a website, Destination: Jersey City, to promote the city and its attractions. To fund these kinds of efforts, officials say they may decide to channel additional revenue from the city's new hotel tax into promotional campaigns like Destination: Jersey City in the hopes of luring more visitors.
Another front in the battle to broaden Jersey City's appeal is now taking place along New Jersey's highways. The city recently struck a deal with the state to plug Destination: Jersey City on empty state-owned billboards, Councilman Fulop says.
Such efforts seem to be working. Believe it or not, tourists are already coming to Jersey City in droves - and then heading to New York City. Jersey City's hotel industry is gaining a reputation as a lower-cost alternative to staying in Manhattan. (Last summer, The Washington Post ran a feature story on Hudson County hotels.) The trick for us may be to convince those tourists to spend a day or two of their vacation here, instead of across the river.
"The whole city's like a resort," says Bob Cotter, director of the Division of City Planning. "There's things to do, there's restaurants, shops, there's all these museums, all these galleries. I think we've turned the corner. Cities have become once again popular."
The idea of vacationing in Jersey City was laughable just a few years ago. But it's looking more and more possible these days.
So, are we ready to face these changes?
There are good signs that the city has begun paving the way for its new future. Officials are certainly aware of the many looming challenges, and Master Plans for many of the above issues are in some stage of development.
Such forward thinking, however, is not always in good supply. Last December, most members of the City Council attended a presentation about the future of the city's transportation infrastructure. Before the hour-long talk had ended, all but one of the council members had quietly left the room.
It takes foresight to recognize emerging issues, and willpower to make the necessary preparations. Whether Jersey City has the foresight and willpower to meet these new challenges head-on is something that only time will tell. - ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY AL SULLIVAN AND MARK J. BONAMO
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IN THE WORKS
Building a Sustainable Jersey City
You could be forgiven if you hadn't heard about the sustainable-living conference held here in January. It took place early on a work day, and the post-conference press was overshadowed by accusations of improprieties that had nothing to do with the event's content.
Despite these snags, the conference - "Sustainable Jersey City" - was a notable step toward guiding the city's development to ensure its long-term success.
George Hawkins, executive director of the smart-growth advocacy group New Jersey Future, kicked off the event. He told the 75 or so attendees that global warming and widespread species loss are the unfortunate results of the destructive living patterns of humans. He exalted urban centers like Jersey City as one of the best ways to live sustainably, noting the environmental benefits of mass transit, the energy-saving abilities of apartments, and the walkability of cities.
"Any urban area uses [less energy] per capita than any suburban area," Hawkins said. "It's really quite remarkable. Cities are a fundamental answer to climate change and species loss."
But for a city to be truly sustainable, Hawkins said it has to incorporate environmentally friendly design elements such as recycled building materials and energy-efficient fixtures, and access to mass transportation.
Bob Cotter, director of City Planning and another speaker at "Sustainable Jersey City," expressed enthusiasm for these sorts of "green" building techniques. But for such practices to really take hold, Cotter said they'll probably have to be worked into law.
"In my experience, you have to put it in your code," he said. "The idea of using incentives to encourage it doesn't really work. Jersey City has such liberal zoning...there's very little we can add in terms of a bonus."
After the conference, Hawkins of New Jersey Future spoke with Jersey City Magazine about the process of urban redevelopment in which Jersey City finds itself.
In the past, urban centers "really had to roll out the red carpet" to attract developers, Hawkins said. The danger at that stage, he said, was in scaring away potential investors with too many rules and regulations. But Hawkins said he believes the state's development has turned a corner. He suggested that cities can be more selective in the kinds of projects they approve. "Any old growth isn't good enough," he said. - CZ
The Fight for Number One
A quiet battle is being waged between Newark and Jersey City. At stake is which will be the state's largest city and collect the psychic capital that comes with that status. The value of being the population leader of New Jersey is measured not just by bragging rights but also by real benefits, such as increased state and federal funding, and influence in Trenton.
Newark officials don't deny that their city has been on the ropes for years. "We have taken some blows," acknowledges Councilman Ronald C. Rice. Those blows came down hardest after the city's 1967 riots, which left 23 dead and accelerated a population exodus from the city. By 2000, Newark's population stood at just over 273,000 - down 38 percent from its 1930 high of more than 442,000.
But Stefan Pryor, Newark's deputy mayor for economic development, says his city has reason to believe that it can come up off the canvas. He cites the city's 800 percent increase in housing permits since 1995 and new construction in downtown Newark as reasons to not count the city out.
And there's one more thing that Pryor says convinced him to leave his job as president of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation last year. "I came here because of two words: Cory Booker," he says, referring to the city's new, nationally known mayor. "It's a moment for this city where the actions taken will determine the trajectory for this city. Working in City Hall, I feel like I'm part of something that has such tremendous potential."
Regardless of Newark's potential, it's hard to find a Jersey City official who doesn't think it's their own city that will come out on top after the 2010 Census. "While we have no interest in undermining Newark, there is a substantial likelihood that Jersey City is going to be the state's largest city," says Bill Matsikoudis, Jersey City's corporation counsel. "We've had an incomparable amount of growth."
But to make sure Jersey City wins the belt in 2010, Councilman Steven Fulop says the city will have to actively campaign to get citizens to participate in the Census. "If the city doesn't do a good job...making sure that the residents are engaged, I don't see...us being acknowledged," he says.
But even if Jersey City wins Round One, Newark's Councilman Rice suggests his city has the upper hand for Round Two. "Newark has an infrastructure that can support half a million people," Rice notes; Jersey City doesn't. "Maybe in the next Census we will be second, but I really think that in the Census that will follow that, we will regain our first-place status." - MARK J. BONAMO
How the Last Boom Went Bust
In the opening decades of the 20th century, Jersey City was in the midst of a boom that puts today's to shame. Transportation advances brought valuable development to new areas of the already flourishing city, and the population leapt by nearly 30 percent between 1900 and 1910.
But behind the façade of progress, the city was experiencing growing pains. Its roads were deteriorating from overuse, the trolleys were crowded, and nine-tenths of the waterfront was in the grip of powerful railroad companies. Little effort was put toward managing the city's tremendous expansion.
Starting in the 1920s, the city's population growth unexpectedly slowed, leveled out, and reversed itself. Residents migrated to the suburbs en masse. The phenomenon hit nationwide, but Jersey City was struck particularly hard. The city slipped into a recession from which it would spend the better part of a century struggling to recover.
What happened? In 1968, urban economist Sebastian Joseph Raciti, a founding faculty member of Ramapo College, conducted a study of the roots of the slump. While Raciti placed much of the blame on the railroads' waterfront stranglehold and eventual obsolescence, he also strongly noted that years of laissez-faire development contributed to the city's eventual downfall.
"[A] thriving city had been formed in less than fifty years," he wrote, "but beneath that surface hid certain unfavorable forces that were soon to effect adversely its well-being." The number-two "unfavorable force" on Raciti's list was "the lack of a balanced or coordinated development."
Raciti was hardly alone in reaching this conclusion. A 1965 report from the city's Division of City Planning said that "many generations of uncoordinated growth" had created a state of affairs that would "hinder Jersey City's future development." A separate report from the same agency blamed "an unfortunate combination of unwise decisions, unforeseen circumstances, and misguided emphasis relative to Jersey City's growth."
Sadly, a plan for growth had been proposed - and largely ignored - years before the decline ever occurred. In 1912 the city fathers had hired a pair of planning experts to prepare a wide-ranging strategy to manage the city's development. Their report, released in 1913, included recommendations for citywide zoning practices, new parks - in particular one on the Hudson River - and wresting control of the waterfront from the railroads.
The city was not very swift in adopting many of the ideas. It took eight years to enact the zoning suggestions, and more than 60 years to establish Liberty State Park. Development continued without a comprehensive master plan, and the rest is history. - CZ