Mayoral Candidates Discuss Their Plans for the Arts in Jersey City

Editor’s note: Today we kick off a series of stories that examine where the 2009 mayoral candidates stand on several issues. We hope the series will give you, the voters, the opportunity to read about specific policy proposals and ideas that the candidates have in particular areas — specifics that tend to get lost in the day-to-day practice of campaign reporting. We kick off with the “forgotten issue” of the arts, and will bring you more in this series in the coming weeks.

The arts are often a forgotten issue in municipal elections, but this year in Jersey City, the concerns of the art world shouldn’t go unnoticed. In recent conversations with JCI, three of the five mayoral candidates outlined what they envision when it comes to the city’s arts and cultural scene. (Candidates L. Harvey Smith* and Phil Webb did not respond to our requests for comment.)

*UPDATE, April 13: Due to miscommunication within the L. Harvey Smith campaign, he was unable to get back to us on his arts and culture plans by our deadline. After this story was published on Friday, we heard from the campaign and Smith soon thereafter answered our questions. You can read about Smith’s ideas in a separate post.

The Powerhouse Arts District, 111 First St. and … Journal Square?

For a neighborhood with the name “arts” in its designated title, there are far fewer artists and arts organizations in the Powerhouse Arts District (PAD) than there were just five years ago, when 111 1st St. was the beating heart of the Jersey City arts body. Today, 111 1st is long gone, and the PAD redevelopment plan itself has not even held up, as evidenced by the City Council’s approval of spot zoning for increased height and density to the Toll Brothers development in the district. (That fight is currently still tied up in the courts.)

Meanwhile, the actual Powerhouse, a 100-year-old structure that just might be unique enough to anchor a “new” creative district, remains empty as the fight over who will pay to remove its transformers continues.

So what do the mayoral candidates have in mind for the PAD? Where will the neighborhood go under the next administration — and will the arts still be welcomed when it gets there?

While saying “the realities of law and the market” prevented the PAD from being “a government-mandated SoHo,” Healy says he still envisions the PAD as the city’s cultural center and as “a destination for the visual and performing arts,” pointing to the very thing that many artists see as a neighborhood-killer — high-rise development — as an opportunity.

“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,” Healy says. “One condo in this plan will also be devoted to the Jersey City Museum’s Artists in Residency program.”

The two other candidates JCI spoke with came out firmly against the council’s spot zoning for Toll Brothers.

“I liked the original concept [before spot zoning],” Manzo says. “I would like to go back to square one and involve the community in putting forth a concept that enjoys broad support.”

Levin agrees that the original PAD plan would guide his approach to the area’s development, but points out that even that plan was a compromise between public, government, developer and community interests, a compromise that he says is being destroyed by spot zoning.

“As designed, the plan clearly provided a long-term vision and would greater benefit the city as a whole rather than wholesale rezoning and destruction of the district for high-rise condos,” he says. “My administration would find ways to pick up the pieces of the current administration’s PAD disaster, re-designate the remaining district as a historic district and use the resources of city government in efforts to have Toll Brothers return to the PAD zoning.”

To Levin, arts industries are just another piece of the economic development puzzle. “Jersey City needs diverse economic development,” he says, “not just more condo development that increases the need for costly services to new residents, but living-wage jobs that can be provided by small business and specialty manufacturers.”

As for 111 1st St. itself, Healy says the arts center’s demise was a “loss felt by art lovers” throughout the region, and he says the blame for what happened there — harassment, arson, eviction, demolition — ultimately lies with the administrations that preceded his and the way they handled WALDO (Work And Live District Overlay), the predecessor to the PAD. “They did not protect the artists,” he says. “I inherited a tremendous problem with 111 1st St.”

Regardless of what administration is to blame, if any, Levin says that the city has to keep the lessons of the past in mind as it moves forward.

“We must not repeat our mistakes,” he says. “Since many artists [from 111 1st St.] have fortunately chosen to remain in Jersey City and are now being joined by a ‘next’ generation of arts and industry, we can revisit bad decisions and get it right.”

Going forward, Healy says that he “will push for additional affordable housing opportunities for artists in the PAD and elsewhere,” noting that artists have started populating other neighborhoods in the city on their own. Levin says he’d push to make sure the set-aside affordable artist live/work spaces in the PAD are rental units rather than condos, and help keep entire buildings in the PAD equipped with arts-friendly attributes, like ceiling joists, double doors, slop sinks and the like.

But not every candidate is focused only on the PAD as Jersey City’s potential creative hub.

Manzo includes Journal Square in his plans for the future of the arts in Jersey City, beginning with a “full restoration of the Loew’s Jersey Theatre.” He also wants to buy the Stanley Theater from the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and have those two theaters serve as a center for performing arts. Manzo has discussed creating a performing arts high school in the Journal Square area and he tells JCI he wants to get a new performing arts facility that can showcase dance — perhaps similar to the Brooklyn Academy of Music — constructed as part of the Journal Square Redevelopment Plan.

“My Journal Square plan will make Jersey City the arts capital of the state,” Manzo says. He envisions a wide range of arts-related businesses — from TV and radio networks to independent production companies to smaller nonprofits — calling the area home.

Arts-Friendly Zoning

The notorious problems with the city’s zoning and permit offices — such as selective enforcement and seemingly endless bureaucracy — don’t begin and end with homeowners. Many art-related businesses and galleries have been unable to open their doors because they have not resolved these issues with the city.

“I am aware that our current zoning is outdated,” Healy says. “It must be addressed to factor in our galleries, nonprofit spaces, theaters and community centers.”

He also brings up the proposed entertainment ordinance, which was quickly tabled by the City Council this week after bar and restaurant owners objected to its details, but will in some form guide the licensing of arts and entertainment in the city eventually.

“Nonprofit arts venues — non-commercial venues — will be removed completely from this ordinance,” Healy says. This will enable these venues to operate without shelling out the yearly costs for licenses. He says a separate ordinance will be created just for nonprofit venues, and they will only be required to register events through the Division of Cultural Affairs.

“Our goal is to have nonprofit art venues thrive without cost prohibitions,” he says.

Manzo says he’d look into establishing an Urban Enterprise Zone specifically for arts in districts slated to be cultural centers, and that he’d work to resolve any zoning issues inside a potential arts district before they arise. “When the city commits to establishing a district, the same incentives utilized to attract and assist other development should be employed,” he says.

Levin says that arts-friendly zoning is just one part of his plan to refocus the city’s economic development goals.

“For all entrepreneurs, not just arts-related, my administration would refocus and place the creation of small business and the reuse of industrial space at the forefront of our city economic development objectives,” he says. “We need to develop businesses that provide the jobs needed for our existing residents and businesses that will make Jersey City a destination.”

The Jersey City Museum

As we reported in February, the Jersey City Museum, perhaps the city’s dominant arts institution, has had to cut operating hours and scale back community programming due to a lack of funding. What role does city government have in making sure a world-class museum stays in the city?

“Even though we are so close to Manhattan, a thriving art museum is important for Jersey City,” Mayor Healy says, touting his administration’s support of the museum. He says the city funds the museum annually to the tune of $625,000. “We will do what we can do to make our museum thrive and grow, including a potential relocation … or an expansion into the PAD.”

Dan Levin, saying the museum “suffers from a poor location,” also mentions the possibility of moving it to the PAD.

“The museum could and should be one of our cultural pillars, but may need to have a more visible physical presence and use the current location as a satellite,” he says. “The Powerhouse would have been the perfect site for the museum, and that may still be possible, with the right new leadership.”

Levin also thinks the museum should engage the community more.

“While the museum has made efforts, the organization needs to bring the public into the museum on a regular basis, perhaps by improving entertainment programming, and making better use of the facilities,” he says. “While it has engaged Hudson County artists, it could do a better job in this area. A staff member should be charged with coordinating museum activities with other Hudson County arts organizations.”

Saying that “museums are alternatives to city streets for youth,” Manzo pledges to “commit city resources to enhance the museum.” He also says that over an eight-year span, he’d like to relocate City Hall to Journal Square and convert the Grove Street building into a museum as well.

Moving Forward: City-Sponsored Arts Initiatives

Levin lays out two main points to further nurture the arts in Jersey City. First, he says the city should enter into a public/private partnership to build a centrally located arts center, which “would become the anchor to an arts/entertainment district and be operated by arts organizations.” Second, he talks about using careful rezoning of neighborhood shopping districts to create more affordable storefront space and rezoning non-residential industrial and commercial areas in ways that will foster nightlife.

For his part, Healy mostly points to initiatives he has already rolled out as proof that he is moving the arts forward in Jersey City. He says an outdoor art market will make its debut at the Grove Street PATH Plaza this summer, and says the city may become more involved in public art projects.

Manzo says he wants to turn to the empowerment model when it comes to arts development.

“Typically, government is poor at sponsoring such initiatives,” he says. “I would rather provide the resources to nonprofit organizations that could sponsor and promote such initiatives.”

Irene Borngraeber

an artist, art historian, and writer. She has worked in museums in the U.S. and abroad, covered the New York art scene for ArtVoices magazine and is currently the Executive Director for the Liberty Humane Society in Jersey City.