The Jersey City waterfront, dubbed the Gold Coast when large corporations like Goldman Sachs started to open offices there, began sprouting towers in the 1980s on acres of former rail yards for the Jersey Central and Pennsylvania railroads. But in the past five years, the city has spawned a new wave of residential construction blocks from the Hudson River—with over 70 projects in the downtown core—reflecting a bid to turn this back-office annex of Wall Street into a bona-fide urban place. “We’re not just seeing a renaissance,” Mayor Jerramiah T. Healy boasted in 2007, announcing plans for a 52-story tower designed by Rem Koolhaas at 111 First Street, on the site of a former tobacco factory. “We’re building a new city.”
The real-estate bust has crimped the mayor’s ambitions—the Koolhaas site is dormant as Manhattan-based builders Athena Group and BLDG Management focus on an adjacent rental tower—but it has done little to halt Jersey City’s rising status as a laboratory of urban living. According to a recent city analysis, the current population of about 260,000 is expected to grow by more than 80 percent by 2050, and Jersey City stands to gain 80,330 residential units over the same period.
Hudson County has prepared for—and encouraged—this astounding growth by building the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail, which opened in 2000 and runs 20 miles from North Bergen to Bayonne. In the process, the line has turned old rail yards, piers, and industrial sites into a showcase of smart growth whose transit-oriented principles have won broad-based support.
“In order to make this north-south alignment of development work, it required a transit infrastructure,” said Martin Robins, former director of Rutgers’ Alan M. Vorhees Transportation Center and a key planner of the rail line. “Light rail captured the fancy of a lot of business interests and environmentalists. It’s a rare combination to bring those two groups together.”
The most obvious business interests have come in the form of developers clustered along the line. Indeed, a Rutgers University study of development around just seven of the system’s 23 stations found 10,000 new units valued at $5.3 billion. One of the largest such projects is the 55-story, 444-unit Trump Plaza, directly abutting the Powerhouse Arts District with its warehouses and factories meant to serve as live/work buildings for artists. (A second Trump tower, to rise from a shared base, is currently on hold.)
The drastic shift in scale seen in some of the new projects—notably three towers proposed by Toll Brothers on and around the site of the old Manischewitz factory—has been prompted by controversial exceptions to the lowrise zoning of the district, which is anchored by the 101-year-old Powerhouse, itself due for a $90 million redevelopment as an arts and entertainment destination by Baltimore-based Cordish Companies. Other towers along the line—like the Cetra/Ruddy-designed 77 Hudson Street, where condos have been selling for $850 per square foot—have also boosted ridership. According to NJ Transit, weekday usage in late 2008 averaged 44,750 passenger trips, up 11.7 percent from the previous year.
By far the most intriguing project unlocked by the line, however, is Liberty Harbor North, now a seven-block, lowrise development southwest of downtown’s Corbusian living. Originally designed by New Urbanist firm Duany Plater-Zyberk (DPZ), and revised by Mario Gandelsonas and Diana Agrest, the 80-acre development presents an arresting sight. DPZ invited ten architects to design condominiums and apartment buildings with radically different elevations: Red-brick townhouses, 80s-style classicism, art deco curves, and glass-box modernism all jostle together.
“People always say that New Urbanists are traditionalists,” said principal Andres Duany of the stylistic mix. “We’re agnostic relative to style. We let the market decide.” More important, he added, is the density enabled by two light-rail stops in the development—taller buildings, 30 stories or more, haven’t been built yet—and the multilayered sense of urbanity. “We used the same block as the Manhattan block, which is 250 feet by 600 feet,” Duany said. “They have the capacity of 20 or 30 buildings on a block, including some very tall ones.”
For developer Peter Mocco, the patchwork styles reflect the adjoining Van Vorst Park district’s mix of brownstones and infill construction. “We tried to represent visually all of the different styles,” Mocco said, “not necessarily trying to capture another time in Jersey City’s history, but being sensitive to its history. We are not attempting to create a Williamsburg,” Mocco added, referring to the replicant Colonial town in Virginia.
While there is little risk of this former industrial center ever having the staginess of that recreated colony, the new developments present a quirky hybrid of the suburb and the city. “Those look like New York City–style brownstones, but they wrap structured parking,” said Darius Sollohub, who directs the infrastructure planning program at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. “It’s a way to have urban living in a highly automobile-dependent environment.” In that sense, Liberty Harbor may be the most hopeful model yet for this half-finished city—a once highly urban center given new life from planned urbanism.