A Different West Side Story: Big Changes Coming for Neighborhood Looking to Make a ComebackBy Summer Dawn Hortillosa • Aug 10th, 2012 • Category: Featured, News
With its empty storefronts, littered streets and nightfall transformation from small shopping district to desert town, it’s easy to see that West Side Avenue is a shell of its former self. Recently, however, several people and organizations have set out to steer the neighborhood — which is home to Lincoln Park, Hudson Mall, the West Side Theater and two of Jersey City’s higher education facilities — in a different direction.
In early June, the Jersey City Economic Development Corporation (JCEDC) sent out surveys and put up signs advertising WestSideSurvey.com, asking people across Jersey City, especially those who live, work, or shop in or near the area, to tell them what they wanted for the often-overlooked commercial district. The survey was paid for with Urban Enterprise Zone funding and is part of a $100,000 study that could determine if a Special Improvement District should be created for West Side.
Dawn Niles of the West Side Community Alliance says the community has a lot to gain if it were an SID. “A beautiful streetscape, safety and the hope to revitalize this once-busy corridor with art-inspired districts,” she says. “(Becoming an SID could) make it walkable and bring and support shops the community truly needs.”
Urban-Enterprise Zone Director Roberta Farber said while they were aiming for 400 responses in eight weeks, they were able to get 1,116 in only four.
“The virtue of having such a high level of response is that it provides greater certainty of the consensus of the opinion of this community,” she said, noting that the margin of error therefore drops significantly. “For example, if 25 percent of the respondents told us that they want a seafood restaurant — just a hypothetical example — then we can be sure that local desire for a seafood restaurant ranges from 22 to 28 percent of the populace. That higher level of accuracy could make the difference in successfully recruiting the seafood restaurant.”
She noted that the survey made a distinction between regular members of the community, which totaled 891 responses, and students at St. Peter’s or New Jersey City University, which gave 225 responses. “The two groups took virtually the same survey, but we are now able to isolate the students as a group and determine what it would take to get them to venture off campus, and shop or dine more on West Side Avenue,” she said.
Farber said in late July that the results of the survey were still being tabulated. Whatever the group finds could greatly affect the community.
“The city’s goal is to work with the WSCA to formulate a plan for revitalization of the district, and to act on that plan,” she said. “The survey responses form only one facet of the data that has been collected; there has also been an analysis of the buildings and businesses of the district, a review of regulations that impact the operations of the district, and interviews taken of several merchants and stakeholders.”
Farber said the next step will be to obtain syndicated market data showing the supply and demand for consumer goods and services in the area to see what retail categories are sustainable in the district. The city’s consultant will then devise a set of strategic recommendations that she says “will be used to inform governing policy for the district, contribute to the plan for the district’s revitalization, and facilitate the recruitment of merchants and restaurant operators to the district.”
The street has recently been in a state of flux. Events by WSCA, festivals like Philippine-American Friendship Day and small businesses with strong local followings have been bright spots of hope for West Side. Also, the area will be home to the planned Bayfront development, which will be a “work where you live” community on 100 acres of land that will be remediated of its chromium contamination. According to the Jersey Journal, construction begins 2016, with initial occupancy beginning the next year, and the project will be complete by 2043. The project will have up to 8,100 residential units, a million square feet of office space and some 23 acres of open space, reports say.
Changes are also being made at Hudson Mall, which has recently been hosting major events at its seven-screen theater, like the Hoboken International Film Festival and other premiere events. Staples, one of the big-box retailers in the outside portion of the mall complex, has now moved to a newly renovated 18,476-square-foot space attached to the main mall after a year spent shuffling some of its indoor occupants. Staples’ 30,600-square-foot old spot will be taken over by Big Lots in early 2013.
The main strip of West Side Avenue, on the other hand, has seen some dark times. For example, some new businesses — most notably cafes like Soyes and Shades of Java — have found opening in the district difficult.
“My idea for a coffee shop was that it’s built around community and is a central location where everyone can meet,” Shades of Java owner Thea Williamson told JCI, adding that she planned to host art exhibits, yoga, a drum circle and more events. “But I’m not sure that my idea would work there…It has so much potential, that whole West Side Avenue. It’s just a matter of convincing the community that it has potential so they can treat it as such.”
Niles said WSCA hopes to find more business owners like Williamson and agrees that the community will play a large part in the success of any plan for the neighborhood. “It will take a long time to build the community’s trust but we must continue to fight for a better community. I believe no one will give you what you have not asked of yourself. Therefore, we can not give up — this is our home,” she says.
Jimmy Tung, the owner of gourmet hot dog and burger joint Jimmy Bravo between Duncan and Fairview avenues, has been more successful with his venture thanks to online services that help him take orders from and deliver to people all around the city. He does, however, agree that the neighborhood needs to be improved.
“There are a lot of stores that are shut down — there are at least eight on my block alone,” says the 30-year-old, pointing across the street to a shut-down supermarket. “That Fine Fare has been shut down since I was a boy growing up and it would be a great roller rink or arcade,” he says, noting the previous popularity of Good Times, an arcade in Hudson Mall that closed in the mid-2000s.
“From Communipaw to Ege, it’s pretty busy, there are people always walking. But from Communipaw to Montgomery, it’s like a cemetery. It’s a little tougher to make good business,” he says. “This is one of the deader spots, but we’re trying to make it.”
Photos by Summer Dawn Hortillosa
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Summer Dawn Hortillosa is a Staff Writer for the Jersey City Independent. She is also a freelance arts and entertainment writer whose work has appeared in the Jersey Journal, the International and other publications; creative writer and theatrical director.
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