The Riverview Arts District: Imagining the Future

Participants Add Their “Wish List” Items to Envision What the Future Riverview Arts District Will Become

On Saturday, April 12 from 9 am to 5 pm, at PS #8 on Franklin Avenue, a group of more than 100 dedicated and passionate community members attended the Riverview Arts District (RAD) Summit, a visioning session to help imagine the future of the RAD as an arts destination and home for working artists and their families.

Many people don’t realize that the Riverview Arts District (RAD) was first proposed in the early 1980s by then-Councilman Tom Hart. Nearly three decades later, on February 27, 2013, Jersey City approved a zoning amendment to create an Artist Overlay Zone, which allows artists to have a work/live artist studio defined as “a single, enclosed, private space of 900 sq. ft or more, where at least one-half of the total space is devoted to work space for the creation, display and sale of art, and the remainder is used for living purposes…”

“When they talk about an arts district existing in the 80s, it wasn’t codified in zoning,” said Becky Hoffman, former president of the Riverview Neighborhood Association. “We wanted people to start thinking about the possibilities of an arts district. In March of 2012, we did our first event to raise  community awareness at the Trolley Car Bar. It was packed. And in May of 2012 the RAD participated in JC Fridays hosting six arts events in one night. Mayor Fulop talks about making this a world-class city, and we want it to look like a world-class city.”

Robyn Stratton-Berkessel leading the River View Arts District Summit

Robyn Stratton-Berkessel leading the River View Arts District Summit – Photo Mickey Mathis © Harmony Media, NJ

This zoned area offers affordable housing and studio space for artists looking to escape high Manhattan rent. The RAD, which includes Palisade Avenue from where it intersects with Paterson Plank Road (northernmost border) to where it intersects with New York Avenue (southernmost border), is a family-friendly neighborhood in the Jersey City Heights with established and emerging businesses, public transportation to Manhattan, vibrant parks, and an involved community of residents.

“I love the excitement. I love the energy in this room. I hope you’re planning to be here 40 years from now like I am,” said David Donnelly, Special Assistant to the Mayor. “If you expect this to happen in July, you didn’t get the point of today. Today is (about) long-term planning. Today we plant the seed.”

“One thing this day is focused on is the arts,” said Mory Thomas, founding trustee of the Washington Parks Association.

The event was co-organized by the Washington Park Association (WPA), the Riverview Neighborhood Association (RNA), Farms in the Heights, and the Heights Community Coalition. Sponsors of the summit included  The City of Jersey City, Palisade Lumber, Century 21 Plaza Realty, Lee Levine, Susan Neuman, Nick Caballero Ideas for Living, Hudson City Development, Trolley Car Bar, and Mod Cup. Breakfast and lunch were provided by Orange & Olive Caterers.

The visioning workshop, which was divided into four collaborative exercises, was lead by Robyn Stratton-Berkessel of Positive Matrix, a consulting firm that helps facilitate organizational and community-wide change. In 2010, one of the WPA’s trustees hired Robyn to help facilitate Farms in the Heights.

“Because of its success, we wanted to bring her back to help us with the Riverview Arts District,” said Thomas.

In mid January, event organizers met with the mayor’s office and afterward sent formal proposals. Near the end of February, they began sharing the proposals with potential sponsors, and, in mid March, the WPA had created a Facebook event that was shared by all participating organizations. In addition, e-mails were sent to a large group of artists throughout Jersey City and to the municipal council encouraging council members to attend the event and share with artists in their wards. Anyone interested in attending the event was asked to complete a Google RSVP form.

By March 27, the event had more than 50 positive RSVPs, and, by April 5, the organizers closed the event because they had reached their 104-person capacity. Of the 104 that had responded, 102 attended.

“By lunchtime we will have a shared vision that’s grounded in reality,” said Stratton-Berkessel.

At the end of the day, attendees had identified major areas of focus:

1. Community Center: cultural focus around education, art, and community.

2. Street Scape: commerce – locate and address all abandon and boarded up buildings in the district, look into community planting and other green initiatives, street cleaning and signage and walkability from one end of the district to the other.

3. Quality of Life: affordable housing for artists.

4. Transportation: 24-hour transporation access and availability to Manhattan, Hoboken with in Jersey City limits, and also access via bike lanes.

5. Preserving and Cultivating Diversity: generational, ethnic, and economic.

6. Artist Focus and Concerns: artist index (what kind of artists, where do they show art, etc.)

Artist Irene Borngraeber Creates a Visual Depiction of the RAD Based on Comments Made by Participants

Artist Irene Borngraeber Creates a Visual Depiction of the RAD Based on Comments Made by Participants – Photo Mickey Mathis © Harmony Media, NJ

Each attendee selected a focus with which he or she could most identify and made a commitment to incite change. Wish-list items from attendees included more trees, a replacement for the gazebo destroyed during Superstorm Sandy, cleaner streets, unification of the parks, and more child-friendly activities and initiatives.

“They zeroed in on and the most doable short term goals within each theme, then established action items,” said Thomas. “The next steps are in the hands of all the stakeholders who were in the room on Saturday. The hosting committee will need to meet to discuss when we can all schedule a follow-up summit. We discussed the possibility of inviting an expert on the seven topics for a panel discussion followed by breakout workshop sessions. Many of the groups committed to meeting regularly too.”

For anyone who couldn’t attend the summit, the organizing groups will be posting the results online in a few weeks. They will also be sharing the results with the city.

© Harmony Media, NJ. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced without written permission.

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

Photos by Mickey Mathis © Harmony Media, NJ

Laryssa Wirstiuk

is a writer who teaches creative writing at Rutgers University. Born and raised in the suburbs of northern New Jersey, Laryssa moved to Jersey City because she was curious about the city where her mother was raised. Check her blog Craft Your Drafts.