New Development Planned for Journal Square Would Include the City’s Tallest Tower, Fundamentally Change the Neighborhood

The plastic model replica resting on a table in the offices of Kushner Real Estate, or KRE, in Jersey City shows three towers that appear to be taller than any other buildings in the city. With the tallest tentatively set at 85 stories, KRE Vice President Jeff Persky says that once completed, they will be.

There are other tall buildings in the city, of course, among them, 30 Hudson, the Merrill Lynch Building, Newport Tower, Trump Plaza and 70 Greene Street. But those are all Downtown, and none are more than 65 stories.

If all goes as planned, these will be the new towers at the heart of Journal Square. They may end up looking taller than they are, situated as they would be in a neighborhood filled with three-story townhouses and the occasional 11-story apartment building. Persky says that by the 9th or 10th floor there will already be an unimpeded view of the New York City skyline. And on the top floor, he says, “just imagine the view.”

Called Journal Squared (or J2), the ambitious project would bring 2,000 units to three glass-tower buildings in the style of what’s found at “Wall Street West” – but to the fallen-on-hard-times city center rather than the waterfront. One of the towers may also be used for business, Persky adds.

“Grove Street was nothing like it is today,” he says, recalling the area five, six years ago. “Like Journal Square today, Grove Street used to be a lot of check cashing spots and dollar stores. If we were successful there” with the construction of KRE’s Grove Pointe building directly outside the Grove Street PATH Station, “why shouldn’t this be the next step? It’s three minutes down the PATH [at Journal Square].”

In fact, by just about any metric used to measure a neighborhood’s turnaround, the redevelopment of Jersey City’s Downtown has been a success. Sure, it’s easy to take issues with the particulars – the lack of affordable housing, for one, and aesthetic decisions that don’t always keep with the character of a neighborhood for another – nightlife is aflutter, crime is lower than in other sections of the city, and new businesses from vintage stores to restaurants and galleries are coming in. Taken together, these are signals that the young neighborhood is healthy.

But before 2007’s Grove Street PATH plaza was put in place, the area that is now the forum for the HDSID farmers’ market, Creative Grove Artists’ Market and summertime Groove on Grove concert series was an underutilized parking lot where the homeless would often gather, said one long-time resident, who recalled it as a place to be avoided rather than gather.

Persky argues the “catalyst” for this transformation was Grove Pointe, which included by requirement the construction of the Grove Street plaza along with its maintenance in perpetuity – in exchange for receiving the tax abatement that KRE says made the project possible.

Completed in 2007, the 29-story building brought in 525 units – 67 condos and 458 rentals – and filled them with upper-middle-income young professionals. The development pegged serious money to a Downtown area that was already on the rise but whose financial potential was limited by the density restrictions and historic considerations of building size.

What KRE capitalized on with Grove Pointe was an area of the city that had become increasingly desirable, but that was still unable to find the millions needed for a plaza and its upkeep the way a developer can, at least when zoning changes and PILOT payments are at stake.

But as other developers have grabbed land in the area, such as Majestic II and Liberty Harbor North, it became time to look elsewhere, says Persky.

It also made sense to find a place that had all of the draw of the Grove Street — a short trip to New York City for commuters, enough space for new development, but enough that’s already been established so as to not be a sterile place.

And just a mile and a half down the road, Journal Square, the once and potentially future “heart” of Jersey City, had remained removed from Downtown’s tremendous growth. While it has seen a resurgence through ethnic communities, with the cultural offerings of places like Little India that have their own version of Grove Street’s “restaurant row,” as well as Little Manila, in the strictly financial terms of making millions in development it has remained off the map.

“Journal Square has been dormant in terms of new development for about 10 years,” says Jersey City Redevelopment Agency executive director Bob Antonicello. And while Multi-Employee Property Trust/Harwood’s project was approved by the JCRA’s Board in March of 2006, there’s no been no progress since they demolished the old building there in late 2008.

“Since that time, they have been mired in trying a multitude of issues. Some within their control and some, like the economy, outside their control,” says Antonicello.

Similarly, though the zoning at Robinhood Plaza’s property adjacent to the Summit House was changed to permit 42 stories, up significantly from what was permitted in the redevelopment plan, there is no developer let alone the long process of drawing up architectural and engineering plans.

Which is why Antonicello calls KRE’s proposed development “a real game changer” for the neighborhood.

But unlike Grove Pointe’s plaza, which was meant to help promote a public square for what the area was already known for, Persky describes J2’s construction as creating a new, “self-contained” neighborhood, though much of it will be open to the public. There will also be a private fitness center, spa and swimming pool.

The plan does call for some open-space – or “people space,” as Persky calls it, before describing a starkly different Journal Square. There will be a dog run, outdoor seating envisioned as a place for barbecuing or just sitting outside reading and relaxing in the sun. Some of this space will be on top of the “super lobby” that will conjoin all three skyscrapers, with new restaurants and retail all around the development. After this development, night life will follow, says Persky.

“It will have everything you want in the complex,” he adds. “This is going to be a place. It will be a residential center unparalleled in the city.”

But if residents are concerned of what this will do the neighborhood, aesthetically, financially and culturally – and they are – the argument that the buildings don’t fit in won’t hold for long. That’s because KRE isn’t alone, and when they open the dam a torrent of high-rises is expected.

After all, MEPT is reportedly close to finding a partner to work with for their two towers – 1.24 million square feet spread out over 1,500 units, with 150,000 square-feet of retail space – and Robinhood Plaza receiving a zoning change at their property next to the Summit House that will permit them to build a 42-story building. There are also other areas that are currently parking lots within the “core” of the Journal Square Redevelopment plan that are already zoned without height limitation. It’s just a matter of time and economic wherewithal before someone snatches them up. Then there is talk of an unnamed developer approaching property owners on Magnolia Avenue looking to buy up land.

What was long dormant might soon awaken to years and years of construction, and what will emerge will look even less like Journal Square now than what Grove Street looked like 10 years ago.

But so far it’s just been a lot of talk and huge promise of change, and some residents around Journal Square have reacted to the talk with both guarded interest and trepidation. But they’re definitely talking.

“I received 500 e-mails yesterday,” Hilltop Neighborhood Association president Rich Boggiano said two days after news of the Robinhood Plaza first broke. “And I received 600 today.”

“Personally,” he said, “I’d like to see if this ever happens.”

Boggiano pointed out that there were two 12-story buildings on Newark Avenue that sat vacant for 5 years, and of course there’s the nonexistent MEPT building that remains just talk.

Still, he says development is welcome – “as long as it doesn’t interfere with our quaint neighborhood. We have one of best in the city, it’s an old-time neighborhood and we don’t want to see it destroyed.”

But some residents are already convinced that high-rises will ruin the neighborhood, such as Joanne Gifford, a 30-year resident of the Hilltop Neighborhood, she does “not believe our neighborhood got a fair shake of what is good for the community.”

A skyscraper, she says, “is completely inappropriate for the vibe of this community. What keeps this neighborhood lovely is the quaint older homes and lovely gardens that will be compromised by” this kind of building, she said in an email. “I’m all for moving forward and positive development in this neighborhood, but a building this large is monstrous and a complete eyesore.”

Progress on the development, which will be spread out over three phases that coincide with each of the three towers, will be site-planned within three months, while construction will begin at the end of 2013, pending planning board approval. But first KRE will be looking for a tax abatement, which Persky says they hope to get “depending on the political climate.”

But the most vocal opponent of tax abatements, Ward E Councilman Steve Fulop, says he’s likely on board. The issue, he maintains, is not with the use of abatements, generally speaking, but when they’re used in an area of the city where they are not needed – like Downtown.

“Tax abatements have a place and the goal is to give an incentive to jump start some projects in an area that needs it,” he says. “I don’t vote for long term tax abatements on the waterfront, as I don’t think the tax payers need to subsidize waterfront developments with long term abatements.”

Journal Square, on the other hand, “fits the criteria of long term abatements.”

Questions remain, of course – will the economy support the massive plans? With development slow at Liberty Harbor North, is there a market for these rental units? Then Boggiano and others in the area point to the deteriorating sewage system. Can the infrastructure withstand this kind of development?

While these questions remain unanswered, for now, it is safe to assume that developers, always on the lookout for the next thing, will find a way.

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Renderings courtesy KRE

Matt Hunger

is a former staff writer for the Jersey City Independent.