Neighborhood Spotlight: The Powerhouse Arts District

 The Powerhouse Arts District is part misnomer, part mystery and – for now – part missed opportunity.

The neighborhood, usually just called the PAD, is a historic district chock-full of sprawling warehouses that has long been seen as Jersey City’s answer to Brooklyn’s DUMBO. Yet eight years after the bohemian art scene was forced out of the neighborhood, development has largely stalled and the PAD continues to feel like it is just a few crucial steps away from fulfilling the promise of its name and becoming the Jersey City neighborhood for the arts.

The architectural origins of the PAD, which is located just blocks from the Hudson River, are inextricably linked to the old industrial waterfront. In Jersey City, as in Hoboken and other New Jersey riverfront burgs, the waterfront was a place for work, with huge factories dominating the rugged landscape. Among the more notable buildings were the headquarters of the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company (better known simply as A&P), a Lorillard tobacco factory, a Manischewitz factory and several large warehouse buildings.

The etymological origins of the PAD, however, are tied to what happened next. As the 20th century progressed, industry slowly left the waterfront area, leaving huge derelict buildings in what became an apocalyptic, bombed-out no man’s land. The area ended up attracting a number of artists, drawn as usual to huge lofty spaces and dirt-cheap opportunities.

The pulsing center of the PAD’s late 20th century arts scene (and the entire city’s arts scene) was the former Lorillard tobacco factory, at 111 1st Street. The cigarette-maker moved into the circa-1866 building in the early 1870s and stayed there until about 1920; later the R.J. Reynolds tobacco company (makers of Camel and other brands) took up shop in the factory. But by the 1990s, the only cigarettes in 111 1st Street were those burning in the ashtrays of the artists who had set up shop (and, often, homes) there.

The building, by then owned by real estate investor Lloyd Goldman, had become the arts capital of Jersey City, if not the entire state, housing about 120 artists, artisans and other tenants at its peak. The building became the focal point of the recently launched annual Artists Studio Tour, and was a place you could visit on any given day to connect to the city’s creative community (perhaps before or after swinging by the now-defunct Uncle Joe’s down the block to connect to the music scene).

However, the community of artists that grew at 111 had the misfortune of being too early, too organic – and not profitable enough. The arts scene that blossomed quickly became part of the marketing pitch of Jersey City; no longer was it just proximity to Manhattan, but also the “creative class” aspect of the city, that was driving rampant real estate investment.

111 1st Street fell victim to an environment it had unwittingly helped create, as the building’s owner began what tenants usually described as a full-on war against them. Rents were raised, repairs were not made, fires were set, and after a lengthy and contentious political battle, the last artists left in 2005 and the building was torn down.

The next fall, so-called “starchitecht” Rem Koolhaas accepted a commission from Goldman and his partners to build a 52-story tower at the site. The plans for the project, which was estimated to cost about $400 million at the time, called for 370 apartments or condos, 252 hotel rooms, 120 artist live/work spaces, a 719-car parking garage that would span six floors, and two levels of retail/ gallery space.

But five years since the unveiling of Koolhaas’ design at the Jersey City Museum, 111 1st Street remains as fallow as it did in early 2006, littered with overgrown weeds and garbage.

111 First Street as Allegory

The story of 111 1st Street has achieved near-mythical status in Jersey City. It is about far more than a building – in many ways, it is about the entire district. Despite several successful smaller projects and the fact that several dozen working artists do keep studios in the neighborhood, most of the big-time and big-name development in the area has been stalled, as both the economy and the ongoing struggle over neighborhood definition slow the process down.

Another landmark case study involves Toll Brothers, the self-described “nation’s leading builder of luxury homes,” and its plan to build three 30-story towers. The plan, which was first submitted in 2008, was just last fall finally given final site approvals by the city’s Planning Board, after being the subject of ongoing legal battles. Toll says it hopes to break ground on the first of three construction phases this coming spring, which will consist of a 417-unit tower, but the developers are still awaiting a building permit from Jersey City.

The area’s neighborhood group, the Powerhouse Arts District Neighborhood Association (PADNA), sued the city over the variances to the neighborhood’s master plan that it granted Toll. PADNA was foremost opposed to the extra height and density the city allowed in the project.

Toll’s development, like Koolhaas’, includes some art-friendly components (the construction of a new, 550-seat theater and a public plaza, for example). But the tension remains between the new developer-friendly vision of PAD and the pioneers’ grand plans for the arts district.

As Jersey City’s Planning Director Bob Cotter has said, the plans for the neighborhood changed over time as external forces and pressures have come to bear.

At first, he said, the city strove to keep the PAD a true arts enclave.

“We zoned it for 100 percent live/work spaces to allow the artists there to remain,” Cotter said. But, he said, the requirement undercut the developers’ profits and scared away economic growth.

“Every time someone looked at doing a project there, even if they were friends of the arts, they couldn’t bank it,” he recalled.

The city “kept watering [the requirements] down” until they reached a point that stipulated the new residential buildings had to provide the current ten percent space for artists, what he called a “realistic” compromise.

“[The] Powerhouse Arts District didn’t work out the way the dreamers dreamed it in the 1990s; we just couldn’t get anyone to bank anything,” Cotter said, before referring to current development plans like Toll’s: “This is as good as we could get.”

The Namesake

The structure that the PAD takes its name from sits just on the other side of Washington Street from the core of the neighborhood. Its future has had as many starts and stops, it seems, as much of the rest of the area, though Jersey City officials recently struck a deal that may help propel redevelopment of the grand 100-plus-year-old industrial structure. The Powerhouse opened in 1908 as the literal power source for the Hudson & Manhattan rail lines that went under the river from Jersey City to New York (the precursor to today’s PATH train). It ceased to provide that function in 1929, and served mostly as a storage space for the railroads in the decades that followed. By the second half of the 20th century, the building was all but abandoned, and dilapidation set in.

In the late 1990s, the Port Authority was talking about tearing it down (with the full-throated support of then-mayor Bret Schundler). But thanks to preservation activists like John Gomez, that never happened and instead, the Powerhouse was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2001.

The city and the Port Authority, along with several development companies, negotiated for the next decade about how to move forward on the site. While city officials envisioned (and still do) a mixed-use destination for art, culture and retail outlets, the fact that the Powerhouse was majority owned by the bi-state transit agency and minority owned by the city was complicating any development plans.

But that all changed last fall, when Jersey City and the Port Authority approved a land-swap deal that gives the city full ownership of the Powerhouse after five years of negotiations. The city can now move forward with Baltimore-based Cordish Companies, the designated developer of the site. Cordish redeveloped a similarly abandoned power plant in Baltimore in the ’90s, turning it into “Power Plant Live!,” an indoor/outdoor dining/entertainment complex that sits a block from that city’s Inner Harbor.

While city officials caution that the Powerhouse’s next phase as a destination and anchor point for the PAD is still years away, they are all pleased that the iconic building will remain intact and not meet the fate of other architectural gems in the area.

“It’s a monument to industrial architecture,” Cotter told the Star-Ledger in September. “It’s important to keep this here.”

While You’re There

Despite the overall slow pace of development in the neighborhood, there are some thriving small businesses worth checking out in the PAD.

THE WAREHOUSE: This cafe, on the ground level of the former Leo Cooke Warehouse at 140 Bay Street, has served up coffee, food and an artsy vibe for more than two years. 140 Bay Street

PARLAY STUDIOS: Parlay isn’t exactly a business you can frequent every day, but when not being used for photography and film shoots, the company’s massive ground-floor warehouse doubles as a host of community art events like the Studio Tour closing party, Steven Gritzan’s Record Riot and a fundraising concert featuring legendary hip-hop group Dead Prez. 161 2nd Street (This building was demolished to make way for new construction. Parlay has moved to 6 Senate Place.)

BIGDRUM ART & FRAMING: The husband-and-wife team behind this framing shop used to run a store in Newport Centre mall, but decamped for the PAD in 2008. 127 1st Street (This business is now closed.)

PILATES HAUS: This under-the-radar Pilates studio receives rave reviews from its customers, and offers a children’s program, Kinder Haus, as well. 155 2nd Street

O’HARA’S DOWNTOWN: Formerly PJ Ryan’s, this bar and restaurant sits at the edge of the PAD at 1st Street and Marin Boulevard. 172 1st Street

This story originally appeared in the 2011 Winter issue of NEW Magazine (Now JCI Magazine). © Harmony Media, NJ. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced without written permission.

Photo by Brooke Hansson. Additional reporting by Matt Hunger.

Jon Whiten

co-founded the Jersey City Independent. He is currently the Deputy Director of New Jersey Policy Perspective.