A Community Vision and Planned Development for Palisade Avenue

Palisade Avenue at South Street, heading south – Photo Steve Gold © Harmony Media, NJ

On May 21, residents from the Heights might have their second opportunity to weigh in on a proposed residential development at 500 Palisade Avenue. Depending on how negotiations with a developer shake out over the next couple of weeks, residents will either support or oppose a revised plan for the project, after being critical of the original proposal for the site earlier this year.

The residents and developer, Charlie Groeschke of CLG Properties, are currently engaged in a dance familiar to any Jersey City neighborhood experiencing revitalization. The developer wants more density so the project is profitable to build; residents fear the size of the project will be imposing and out of character with the existing neighborhood.

What makes this particular developer-community dance somewhat different from others in recent years is that residents in the Heights are trying to proactively develop their own vision for how revitalization should unfold in the coming years. For the past 12 months, residents, community groups and business owners have been meeting in an attempt to reach consensus around what a revitalized, redeveloped Heights neighborhood might look like in five, 10 or 20 years.

James Vincent Bicycles on Palisade Avenue

James Vincent Bicycles on Palisade Avenue – Photo Steve Gold © Harmony Media, NJ

While community groups say such discussions have been going on since the mid-1980s in one form or another, spearheaded in part by the Riverview Neighborhood Association (RNA) and the Washington Park Association of Hudson County (WPA), these discussions became more focused after the city created the Riverview Arts District (RAD) in 2013.

Riverview Fisk Park is located next to 500 Palisade Avenue

Riverview Fisk Park is located next to 500 Palisade Avenue – Photo Steve Gold © Harmony Media, NJ

Like most pieces of legislation, the RAD, on its surface, isn’t terribly sexy. Essentially, the creation of the RAD was a change in zoning law that made it legal to have live-work studio space for artists in the district — which encompasses a large swath along the Heights’ eastern border — and also made it possible for there to be ground level businesses on Palisade Avenue. Residents and community groups hope to use these zoning changes as a tool to create a vibrant commercial district, attract a more diverse mix of businesses to the area; create live-work units for artists, create more opportunities for local artists to showcase their work and stave off overdevelopment and high rises.

Residents began sketching out how they wanted the RAD to evolve a year ago.

461 Palisade Ave. Jersey City (right building), the interior of the abandoned building recently collapsed

461 Palsiade Ave. Jersey City (right building), the interior of the abandoned building recently collapsed – Photo Steve Gold © Harmony Media, NJ

“Last April, community groups and other community members who were involved in getting the RAD codified organized what we called a visioning session,” said resident Beverly Brown Ruggia, a board member of Farms in the Heights. “We invited as many stakeholders as we could, which included resident artists, business owners, developers and members of city government. At that visioning session we had about 100 people. What we asked people to do was talk about other arts communities that they knew to be successful. We then asked them to talk about what they would like see in this community.”

“Following that initial visioning session, residents continued to meet to try to figure out how to accomplish these goals,” Ruggia said. But their work was refocused when the city began looking at ways to redevelop Palisade Avenue and residents feared if they didn’t present their own vision to the city quickly the neighborhood could be transformed without their input.

“People gravitated towards the most immediate concern,” Ruggia stated.

“Changes to the Palisade Avenue component of the of the arts district are happening more quickly than I think we envisioned it happening, and that’s because of development opportunities,” said Lee Levine, a longtime Heights resident who was part of the original visioning session. Levine is also the architect for 500 Palisade and is working on a separate Heights project with another developer.

Palisade Avenue at Ferry Street, heading north

Palisade Avenue at Ferry Street, heading north – Photo Steve Gold © Harmony Media, NJ

The portion of Palisade Avenue that is currently the focus of attention spans just six blocks, from Ferry Street (pictured above) to South Street (pictured in featured photo).

“Now that there is some development taking place, there is a perception that there needs to be a new set of rules and regulations and a consensus within the community groups before those actors get too involved,” Levine said. “A lot of us are concerned about that change initiating or having causalities that we don’t intend.”

In addition to the 500 Palisade Avenue development, there is another project in the works at 391 Palisade Avenue.

At two recent public meetings to discuss Palisade Avenue, most people in attendance expressed clear opposition to high-rise development. While 500 Palisade does not meet the legal definition of a high rise development, Levine admits that the corner lot project “has a lot of frontage,” which could make it quite visible on the streetscape.

The property at 500 Palsiade Avenue soon to be redeveloped

The property at 500 Palsiade Avenue soon to be redeveloped – Photo Steve Gold © Harmony Media, NJ

When it was originally proposed, 500 Palisade was going to be a 27-unit residential development with six stories. The sixth level was going to be set back, however, so that visually from the street only the first five floors would be seen. The original plans called for at least three live-work spaces for artists and a ground level retail space.

“At 2.3 times the [legal] permitted density, this is a project that is significantly more dense than anything else here,” Levine acknowledged.

RNA President Kern Weissman said many residents, who have had opportunities to meet with the developer, feel the project is too dense and too tall for the neighborhood, even though it isn’t considered to be a high-rise development, legally speaking.

“In order to get RNA’s support we recommended to the developer that the density be lowered from 27 [units] to 21 and reduce it to five stories,” Weissman said. “One of the concerns isn’t just about this particular building itself, because there are people who are excited about the ground floor retail, but they’re also nervous about the precedent for density and height that this might set. One of the issues in Jersey City, unfortunately, is that when one building gets [a variance] for a certain density and a certain height, that tends to steamroll whatever laws are in place and sets a precedent for the rest of the neighborhood.”

After a number of conversations with community groups, CLG Properties plans to revise the original proposal, which will be presented to the community on May 21. Levine said the revised plans call for 24 units, instead of 27, while the number of live-work artist units will remain the same. Under the revised plan, both the fifth and the sixth stories would be set back in the building’s design, said Levine. A small gallery space is also being added under the revised plan.

Assemblyman Raj Mukherji's district office on Palisade Avenue

Assemblyman Raj Mukherji’s district office on Palisade Avenue – Photo Steve Gold © Harmony Media, NJ

Weissman, the RNA membership and other residents had not yet seen CLG Properties’s revised plans at press time.

Discussions between the CLG Properties and community groups are ongoing. How this process plays out could have bearing on how successful the community is in achieving its other goals on Palisade Avenue and elsewhere in the RAD. At the two recent public meetings residents also said they wanted to rid Palisade Avenue of abandoned buildings and bring in new businesses that reflect the growing needs of the community.

Abandoned property at 671 Palisade Avenue

Abandoned property at 671 Palisade Avenue – Photo Steve Gold © Harmony Media, NJ

According to a survey done by the Steering Committee there are 15 to 20 abandoned properties on Palisade between South and Ferry. Two of these properties — 671 Palisade Avenue (pictured above) and 404 Palisade Avenue (pictured below)— are currently being subjected to New Jersey’s Abandoned Properties Rehabilitation Act (APRA). This law expedites and makes it easier for municipalities to take over and sell blighted properties. RNA and the WPA are also increasing pressure on the city to enforce its own laws and codes regarding blighted lots.

Abandoned property at 404 Palisade Avenue

Abandoned property at 404 Palisade Avenue – Photo Steve Gold © Harmony Media, NJ

There are already businesses having success on Palisade Avenue including James Vincent Bicycles, Mod Cup coffee shop, Palisades Pups dog grooming shop, the Trolley Car Bar, and the newest addition of the gastropub Fox and Crow. As for attracting additional gallery spaces, restaurants, coffee shops, and other new businesses to Palisade Avenue Levine said “there may need to be further changes made to current zoning laws that will allow for larger, combined lots, so that a business has enough square footage to operate a commercial space.”

“There is a desire for more ground floor retail space, gallery space, places for [visual] artists to hang their works, in addition to the other things mentioned at the April [2014] meeting, like better transportation, affordable housing and so forth,” said Weissman. “Those seem like common goals. But how you get there is the rub.”

Palisades Pups a dog grooming shop on Palisade Avenue

Palisades Pups a dog grooming shop on Palisade Avenue – Photo Steve Gold © Harmony Media, NJ

Residents, business owners and community groups have formed the Palisade Avenue Steering Committee. Committee members hope to have what they’re calling a “consensus document” ready by the end of June. This document, will be shared with the city and will encompass the community’s vision for the avenue.

An updated plan for 500 Palisade Avenue is expected to be presented to the public on Thursday, May 21 at the Zoning Board of Adjustment meeting at 6:30 pm. The meeting will be held at City Hall, 280 Grove Street in Council Chambers.

Residents who are interested in joining the Palisade Avenue Steering Committee can contact the Riverview Neighborhood Association at riverviewneighborhood.org.

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Photos by Steve Gold © Harmony Media, NJ

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Assata Wright

E. Assata Wright is a freelance journalist who lives in Jersey City and covers New Jersey politics. Her writing has appeared in the Hudson Reporter, The Village Voice, and The Wall Street Journal.