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07.08.2009
Power Play
Advocates for Jersey City arts district battle Toll Brothers tower plan
The Powerhouse, in the midst of a $3.2 million stabilization effort, could be overshadowed by new development plans.
Perry Klaussen/Hoboken411.com

Long after big industry left Jersey City’s downtown waterfront, the streets of abandoned warehouses and factories evoked the fascination and terror of a de Chirico canvas. Lorillard Tobacco, A. & P., and the Manischewitz company all kept buildings here, providing fine examples of industrial architecture in an eight-block zone. Predictably enough, artists moved in to retool the buildings, turning them into homes and studios amid a growing preservation movement that valued the industrial past.

But that urban idyll has been threatened by the specter of three residential towers—between 300 and 400 feet tall—looming on the site of the former Manischewitz factory. The plan, approved by the city council last year, would allow developer Toll Brothers to build in the heart of the Powerhouse Arts District, created in 2004 to help protect the artistic and industrial heritage of the state’s second-largest city.

Last month, the Powerhouse Arts District Neighborhood Association stepped up its legal battle against the project, which began with a suit filed against the city and the developers in 2008. The complaint charged that approval for the project would eliminate affordable housing for artists, double previous density limits, quadruple height limits, and lead to the demolition of historic warehouses and one of the city’s five remaining cobblestone streets.

In April, Judge Barbara Curran ruled in favor of the city and Toll Brothers, and last month the neighborhood association filed an appeal of Curran’s decision. Were the project to go ahead as planned, neighborhood advocates said in a statement that it could well “set a terrible precedent that will embolden developers to ignore existing law and engage in excessive profiteering in the future.”

Anchored by the National Register–listed H & M Powerhouse, the district has seen new plans come and go. In 2006, similar zoning changes were approved for New Gold Equities, the owner of two buildings in the area that had been demolished. In 2007, Rem Koolhaas proposed a 52-story, mixed-use building for the site. Some see the Toll Brothers plan as one step too far for the area’s fragile historic fabric.

City councilman Steven Fulop, whose ward includes the arts district neighborhood, voted against Toll Brothers’ proposed changes. “The original plan [for the district] let Jersey City really create itself as a destination city in the region,” he said. “It would’ve given the city a chance to do something special and unique.” The spot zoning, he added, could compromise the area as a haven for artists.

Supporters of the developer’s plan counter that it will foster an arts mecca akin to Lincoln Center, since the company plans to build a 550-seat theater in addition to the condominium towers. “While some criticized the Toll Brothers plan, the reality is that it will provide a top notch 500-seat theater with an additional 16,000 square feet of performing arts spaces and galleries,” Mayor Jerramiah Healy told the Jersey City Independent. Still, Jill Edelman, past-president of the neighborhood association, said that a theater had already been planned for the area, and that the city’s deal with the developer would be a loss for the neighborhood since it allows for one fewer low-cost apartment for every 1,000 square feet of arts-related space.

On June 11, preservationists counted one point in their favor when officials launched a $3.2 million stabilization project for the Powerhouse itself, the first phase in restoring the near-ruined structure as a mixed-use arts and entertainment hub. The stabilization is scheduled to be complete this fall.

A version of this article appeared in AN 12_07.08.2009.

Angela Starita