An Arts District is Overlayed in Ward D

Council approved the Heights’ Arts District Overlay Zone, – Photo Steve Gold © Harmony Media, NJ

One of Jersey City’s biggest arts districts – in fact if not on the books – was made official at Wednesday night’s Council meeting when the Council approved the Heights’ Arts District Overlay Zone, 9-0. The approval codifies a resolution passed in 1984 and permits what was already there: a vibrant arts scene, work/life studio space, galleries and arts events.

“The passage of this amendment will help the artists already well-established in the Heights and attract additional artists,” said Becky Hoffman (pictured below), the president of the Riverview Neighborhood Association and a key proponent of the arts overlay zone. “The arts is an economic driver for our neighborhood, and this distinguishes the area as a creative Mecca,” she continued, noting “some artists go back 30 years.”

Kit Sailer, another long-term resident of the area, held aloft a copy of a New York Times article written back in 1984 which talks about the influx of artists to the area. “A work studio is the first piece of property I’ve ever owned,” said Sailer, a painter who bought the building almost 30 years ago. Still, Hoffman acknowledged that “change is not without risk. Artists can make noise and use materials that can be toxic of flammable.” There are, however, enough rules and regulations on the books to protect against the use of hazardous materials by artists or anyone else, she said.

Becky Hoffman, RNA President

Becky Hoffman, RNA President – Photo Steve Gold © Harmony Media, NJ

Not so for Mary Mills, a long-time resident who says that there are not enough provisions to protect against toxic materials used by some artists. “Material zoning is an important protection,” she says. “This way you’re not going to have a blacksmith working in the backyard. But I’ve seen that from my house.” Yet Kate Donnelly, an environmental lawyer and a commissioner on the zoning board, said the protections afforded by the current building code already protects against this. “Most of the toxic materials we’re talking about are things people have in their household anyway.” In fact, the RNA organizes hazardous material cleanup in conjunction with the Jersey City Incinerator Authority.

For Mory Thomas, a founding trustee of the Washington Park Association who has lived in the neighborhood since 1999, the vote is a “validation for artists living in the neighborhood for over 30 years.” The decision comes the same night the Council approved an amendment to part of Palisade Avenue that will more easily allow restaurants. Before this, restaurants were either grandfathered in or needed a special zoning variance. In fact, Thomas, a chef who works for the Food Network, says he’s considering opening a restaurant in the area, a way in which he can further connect with the community. “This really brings all of us together as a community,” he says. Or as Hoffman put it, “The artists need to eat.”

Much of the legwork for these ordinances came from public work, acknowledged Ward D Councilman Bill Gaughan, the city representative of the area. Gaughan thanked the WPA and RNA for “making my job a lot easier.” Council President Peter Brennan said this was just the start of arts scenes blowing up in Jersey City. “It’s not just downtown anymore,” said Brennan, who said Ward A is seeing its own arts revival. “It’s spreading like wildfire throughout the city.” The approval puts to bed a year-and-a-half effort by the community, says Hoffman. “But this is just the beginning,” she continued. While no more laws need changing, the community needs to “continue to promote the neighborhood.”

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For more information and to get involved visit River Arts District group page on Facebook.

Photos by Steve Gold © Harmony Media, NJ

Matt Hunger

is a former staff writer for the Jersey City Independent.