Radical change on tap for Jersey City’s Journal Square neighborhood (maybe)
Radical change may be on the horizon for Jersey City’s Journal Square neighborhood.
“Journal Square [has a] vast potential to become a thriving neighborhood,” said John Becker, an architecture graduate student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, who, along with his Housing Studio colleagues, prepared over 30 designs for public housing within Journal Square, with the charge to rethink public housing and its role in the greater community.
Since the mid-1990s, momentum has been building for a seismic change within the Journal Square neighborhood: the area was designated as a Special Improvement District (“SID”); a non-profit business association was formed; massive and publicly vetted vision and redevelopment plans have been prepared; and architecture students have studied the neighborhood and proposed innovative public housing solutions.
But why, with entire swaths of the city in need of revitalization, is Journal Square such a paramount focus, and why now?
URBAN POLICY SHIFTS
Over the recent years, as traffic conditions have worsened, gas prices have jumped, sustainability became mainstream, and the concept of “walkable communities” has become chic, city planners globally have been touting the importance of transit oriented developments (TODs), wherein the focus is on the pedestrian and multi-modal public transportation choices, not the passenger automobile.
Predicated on sustainability, the intention is to create a dynamic environment, with high-density housing and mixed land uses surrounding multi-modal transit, all being interconnected with the pedestrian in mind. If executed properly, those living within a TOD reap the benefits of being able to live, work, and play all within an active, pedestrian friendly environment.
According to the Regional Plan Association, communities within the New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut region are seeking to maximize transit availability, and this is not just a regional trend. Communities around the country are planning for increased transit opportunities, as well.
Naturally, TOD planning works in concert with smart growth policy.
The New Jersey State Development and Redevelopment Plan (“SDRP”), defined by the New Jersey Office of Smart Growth as a vision document, seeks to create compact, diverse communities that are walkable, have public transportation options, and carry sufficient goods and services, while simultaneously preserving open space and rural areas—the anti-thesis of post WW-II suburban sprawl.
Growth, in essence, is not just focused in urban areas, but also in areas throughout the state where there is sufficient existing infrastructure to carry new construction, effectively lowering the costs of development.
The mission is to push the people into urban areas, where a cornucopia of services are available, and pull them out of their pollution and traffic generating automobiles.
Clearly, the SDRP intends to focus most of New Jersey’s growth in urban areas, where infrastructure and mass transit are readily available, and as such, a cache of funding and support programs exist for this purpose, ranging from site remediation and brownfields programs to transit village incentives.
Since Journal Square serves as a major mass transportation hub and possesses explosive potential, the neighborhood has been designated by NJ Transit as a transit village, deeming it not only suitable for ongoing mixed-use development and redevelopment to serve commuters and residents, but also open to receiving state financial assistance.
Couple statewide policy initiatives with the Jersey City government’s ongoing mission to improve Journal Square and create a powerhouse living, working, and destination environment, and you have the necessary ingredients to develop a vision for a true TOD and smart growth oriented environment built for 21st century demands.
However, with grand plans come grand monetary outlays.
If this vision is to be accomplished, it will require, according to Jersey Citiy Major Jeremiah Healey, billions of dollars.
RECENT PLANNING EFFORTS WITHIN JSQ
Announced by Major Healey in October 2008, a multi-billion dollar redevelopment of the Journal Square area, if fully built, will radically alter how the neighborhood looks and functions.
A historic neighborhood, Journal Square is densely populated, with a mélange of residential, commercial, entertainment, office, educational, government, and transportation uses, most famously known by PATH riders as the neighborhood in which the Journal Square Transportation Center is situated. Based on the land uses alone, it is truly a prime example of an urban center, although, since the 1960s, its functionality has struggled, and accordingly, as evidenced by significant attention bestowed upon Journal Square, revitalization is long overdue.
Over time, the city has taken various steps to improve the district, with the formation of a the SID in the mid-1990s to promote and protect business interests in Journal Square.
“The New Journal Square,” a campaign aimed at raising awareness of the ongoing redevelopment efforts, services, activities, and events in the neighborhood, is the marketing arm of The Journal Square Restoration Corporation, the non-for-profit organization formed in concert with the SID.
According to its website, The New Journal Square operates within a city-designated Urban Enterprise Zone (“UEZ”), which allows for certain tax exemptions for both businesses and customers, and oversees an annual work plan, averaging ”close to 2 million dollars annually, funds district-wide advocacy for the improvement of the district as well as additional maintenance and security to supplement both private and public services to the district.”
In the late 1990s, the organization, in conjunction with Jersey City government, conceived and implemented an approximately five million dollar Capital Improvement Plan. Beginning in the fall of 1999, according to the organization’s website, “the major reconstruction project included a new pedestrian plaza, a spectacular central fountain new lighting fixtures, street signs, brick paved sidewalks, and landscaping throughout the district.”
With awareness, attention, and planning in the works for years preceding the official introduction of the original Journal Square Redevelopment Plan, the groundwork had been set for a comprehensive—and quite expensive—vision for the future of the neighborhood.
Whether you like it or not, walk around Journal Square right now and soak up the environment, because, if the vision becomes reality, most of the existing elements will be replaced with a fundamentally different atmosphere.
According to the Journal Square 2060 Redevelopment Plan, the focus for the approximately 211 acres in the project area—focusing on the Journal Square core, consisting of the block bounded by Summit Avenue, Sip Avenue, Kennedy Boulevard, and Pavonia Avenue—is on the pedestrian, with sprawling open plazas, multi-modal transportation choices (including trolley cars and required bike parking rooms within building) and a brand-new transit hub complete with a Hudson-Bergen Light Rail extension, and parking lot “interceptors” on the edge of the neighborhood (to limit the amount of passenger vehicles entering the area). Perhaps the most visionary within the existing concrete jungle is the nearly 10 acres of new park spaces that will link to a planned greenway from the Journal Square neighborhood to the waterfront. The planners also propose two mixed-use towers, thousands of residential units, and millions of square feet of office and commercial space.
The vision capitalizes on the existing high quality transit hub, with reduced parking requirements and minimal surface parking, as well as an “increase [in] building coverage, floor-areas-ratios, and a residential density, which can be supported near transit facilities,” according to the plan.
In October 2008, during the unveiling on the original iteration of the plan, Mayor Healey dubbed it “bold and visionary,” and with the pedestrian and transit clearly possessing the most power in the plan, Anton Nelessen, the world-renowned architect and urban planner/designer whose office co-wrote the plan, noted during the October 2008 presentation that “[the redevelopment area] is one of those place where people can literally live without cars.”
Since the introduction of the plan in late 2008, concerns simmered and finally percolated during a February 25, 2009 public hearing on the original plan.
Jersey City Independent’s Jon Whiten reported in a February 27, 2009 piece that “most speakers commended the idea of the plan, while taking issue with the plan’s specifics of how it was carried out.” Mr. Whiten also noted that the recurring themes included “fear of eminent domain, too much density, a perceived lack of citizen input and a strain on infrastructure and city services,” as well as fears of funding mechanisms.”
Others, however, including former planning board commissioner Jeff Kaplowitz stated that the city “can no longer expand horizontally,” and that the most appropriate area for taller buildings is above a transit hub.
The Journal Square 2060 Redevelopment Plan is the latest in a series of iterations, with revisions ordered due to public outcry over the original plan, which was tabled after the controversial February 2009 public hearing. Concerned about the plan destroying the character of the neighborhood, the planners went back to the drawing board, consulted neighborhood groups, and the result is a plan more sensitive to the desires of the community.
“Journal Square and its surrounding neighborhoods are not a blank slate,” the plan states. “Building types range from detached two-family homes with generous front yards, to 4 to 6 story apartment buildings, office buildings, and commercial uses. This variety of uses and building types are all interwoven at a fine scale. Some streets are quiet and narrow, while others have intensive retail uses. This diversity need not inhibit the city from drafting new development guidelines.” It continues: “This redevelopment plan balances the need for new development at higher densities with the existing context of diverse and varied neighborhoods.”
As noted above, the most recent iteration of the plan is more sensitive to the wishes of the current residents and now, perhaps as a result of stakeholder push back, states that redevelopment “shall be achieved without the means of condemnation.”
A UNIQUE VISION FOR JSQ
There’s not just one vision for Journal Square.
As noted briefly in the beginning of this piece, architecture graduate students at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, as part of a Housing Studio, prepared over 30 public housing designs for the Journal Square neighborhood.
According to studio member Mr. Becker, all second year students in the Masters of Architecture program are required to undertake a semester-long studio project that focuses on a hypothetical project for public housing. “In the tradition of Columbia’s experimental nature,” Becker explained, “students are encouraged to rethink public housing and its role in the greater community.”
Yuval Borochov, a member of the studio a Becker’s design partner, said that the “main project of any studio from Columbia is to assess the greater issues of the desired program in the given site, and from there to produce a vision that is either serious or satirical.”
Granted a creative license with limited parameters, each Housing Studio team was sent to the drawing board to design around 2,000 housing units within the current Journal Square Transportation Center block.
“Individual studios decided where to invest their interest,” Becker said. “Some chose to be more practical, while others attempted to reinvent the way we dwell.” Centered on the Journal Square Transportation Center, the main charge, of course, was to design housing that is not just localized, but rather with transit opportunities—regionalized—connecting housing with opportunities beyond Jersey City.
When asked if the designs were intended to be implemented, Becker stated that “[n]one of [the] projects are intended to be constructed in any form, but rather to spark debate on the potential for public housing to reinvent its role and its integration [with] public housing.”
All varied, the student exhibits range from the abstract to the practical, yet still unlikely to be implemented—although as Becker said, that is not the point.
Becker and his studio colleague, Mr. Borochov, designed a program dubbed “Gondola Housing.”
“The intention was to reflect upon the socio-economic deficits in Jersey City’s urban condition,” Borochov said. “The solution we came up with is affordable and applicable specifically to the density and urban structure of Jersey City, starting with Journal Square.”
Especially with the current economic climate and, of course, the slumping housing market, Becker noted that “it seemed a more appropriate time than ever to address the issue of public housing.”
With the Gondola Housing idea, Becker acknowledges that it is a departure from what we typically perceive as public housing, “but that is the point,” he said.
“After the collapse of the housing market, it was obvious it was no longer appropriate to look at housing as a safe investment, as well as the idea that public housings should be able to provide a chance for lower income residents to rise out of poverty,” Becker said. “So if we look at housing as a source of income, rather than an investment, it has a chance to do just that.”
But how does this tie into the city’s official vision for the Journal Square neighborhood?
The intent is to recreate a neighborhood where the pedestrian is king, with easy access to multi-modal transportation choices, and somewhere where people can live, work, and play. Following this, all housing designs should tie in with the pedestrian/transit theme.
The Gondola Housing design is not only a solution, but it could actually function as a component of the transit system, Becker stressed, generating not only scaled efficiency for the transit system, but also a revenue source for residents.
“If the square footage of the housing unit (separate from the private elements) can be leased to a transportation network when unoccupied, that square footage can become the source of income [for the occupants],” Becker said.
He continues: “It also maximizes the efficiency of the space, allowing residents to shift the size of the house based on ‘to the minute’ needs, generating income off all the unused space.”
It is also organic and quite malleable, allowing housing to interact with the transit system at will, as it “adds a new pedestrian friendly transportation network to city that can grow and expand based on residential requirements,” Becker highlighted. And, it is is certainly a novel idea: with the housing units functioning as an element of the transit system, the city’s transportation network “can be built more efficiently, faster, and cheaper,” Becker stressed, therefore eradicating unnecessary construction deadwood, which is especially a salient concern in a rough economic climate. Additionally, beyond the monetary and transit maximization benefits, the Gondola Housing design highlights an innovative paradigm shift on how a home could function.
Thought provoking, yes; easily understood and politically feasible, probably not. However, it is a welcomed and mind expanding image of how housing and transit could co-exist in a symbiotic relationship, a paramount focus of the Journal Square 2060 Redevelopment Plan, which will, if adopted, create a world class, massive TOD in the heart of one of New Jersey’s oldest cities.
Perhaps gondola housing options will be absent from the adopted plan, but rest assured, realistic, cutting-edge innovations are on tap.