The Resurgence of Jersey City A City on the Rise

The Resurgence of Jersey City

Jersey City knows something about bouncing back. With property values rising steadily, a steady influx of retail stores, trendy restaurants and the arrival of some of the corporate world's heaviest heavyweights, Jersey City has become a magnet for families, young professionals and others looking for a safe place to live that's exciting, yet stable. Such was not always, the case, however; Jersey City has survived harsh colonial conditions, stock market crashes, and the onus of not being Manhattan. But as time passes, the area continues to thrive.

The Dawn of America

From its earliest days, Jersey City has been no stranger to struggle. Originally settled by the Delaware Indians, the area that is now Jersey City was colonized in 1630 by Michael Pauw, a member of the Amsterdam Chamber—the group created by the United Netherlands Company that claimed New Netherlands (a.k.a. New York) as its own. Pauw originally named the colony Pavonia, after himself.

The first official settlement, Communipaw, covered an area from what is now Johnston Avenue to Caven Point. One of the area's first houses was built there in 1633 for colony superintendent Jan Evertsen Bout. Between 1638 and 1647, the fledgling community endured its first experience with the rise-and-fall theme that would characterize so much of its future—the colony suffered a massacre at the hands of the Native American population, who had been mistreated by the colony's governor.

By the mid-1600s, the city was home to New Jersey's first church and school, housed in a large log cabin. Later in that century, the colony changed hands from England to the Netherlands and back to England again. For the next century and a half, the area grew in size, bringing neighboring colonies into its fold. In 1838, Jersey City became its own municipality, breaking off from Bergen County, and welcoming its first mayor, Dudley Gregory.

In the 1800s, the city's rail lines made it a hub of import and export. One railway tale put Jersey City in the annals of asterisked history. During Abraham Lincoln's presidency, Lincoln's grown son Robert fell on the tracks at a Jersey City rail station. A bystander pulled him back onto the platform, saving him from certain injury. The helping hand belonged (ironically enough) to Edwin Booth—brother of future Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth. Also in the late 1800s, Robert Fulton opened a steamship factory in the region, supplying the ferries that made Manhattan less of an island and gave suburbs easier access to the big city.

Up and Down and Back Again

For much of the 20th century, Jersey City's local government was under the control of one or two powerful individuals. As the industrial transportation industry changed, moving from train conveyance to trucks, jobs began to disappear. Crime rates rose, and resident confidence dropped. The city underwent a short-lived upturn in the 1980's before the stock market crash in 1987. The riverfront became something of a commercial and retail wasteland. The vacancy rate in 1992 hit the 36 percent mark.

"In the 1980s, the area saw a whole wave of gentrification and condo conversion," says Robert Antonicello, president of ACI Group, a New Jersey property management and commercial real estate firm. "Then came the stock market crash in 1987. By 1989, the boom was dead. But over the last few years, as a result of the influx of commercial office space, the co-op and condo market has gotten a second wind."

Corporations as diverse as Goldman Sachs, USA Networks, American Express, and other top-shelf players have moved offices to Jersey City, taking advantage of lower rents, an abundance of space and financial incentives including tax rates substantially lower than those found in Manhattan.

Hand in hand with the commercial and retail boom has been a residential upswing—one that's improved the financial stability of most of the buildings. "Before, the condos in the area had a high percentage of investor-owned units," Antonicello says. "Most of them have gone from 30 to 40 percent owner occupied to 100 percent. That's generally been the trend."

Antonicello believes this upturn is here to stay. "When the initial boom hit, they constructed 9 million square feet of Class A office space, but there wasn't enough critical mass to sustain it," he says. "There's now more than 19 million square feet and now there's enough critical mass. Even after the September 11th attack, there was enough substance here to keep it going."

And Jersey City Mayor Glenn Cunningham is committed now more than ever to furthering the development of the area. Cunningham notes that any progress or future growth that Jersey City makes is tied to the fortunes of New York City. The city, after all, shares its ports and transportation venues, including tunnels, bridges and waterways with the Big Apple. The second largest city on the so-called "Gold Coast" of New Jersey, Jersey City has about $2 billion dollars worth of new development in the works, Cunningham says. Some of the new housing that is presently on the drawing board is new market rate construction, while other units will be rehabbed, rental and subsidized housing, Cunningham explains.

Why They Come, Why They Stay

Some people call Jersey City and Hoboken the "sixth borough," and it's easy to understand why. Lower Manhattan is easily accessible via PATH train lines, ferries and the Holland Tunnel, all of which take commuters into New York City with little fuss. Much as the real estate agent's mantra is "location, location, location," in Jersey City the word "proximity" bears similar significance.

"Jersey City is an attractive location because of its proximity to existing office space, proximity to rail and subway lines, proximity to retail, new restaurants and shops," says Lloyd Rosenberg, president of DMR Architects, based in Maywood. His firm is serving as the architect on Jersey City's Metropolis Towers project, a 25-story co-op with 210 units. "All of those things make Jersey City a neighborhood. It's a wonderful spot."

The 575,000-square-foot Metropolis Towers building on Christopher Columbus Drive will feature one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments upon its completion in the first half of 2004. The building will sit atop a four-story parking garage and feature a ground floor with retail stores. Residents also will enjoy a pool, landscaped terrace, lounges, meeting rooms and balconies.

Other New Developments

Metropolis Towers is just one of the many residential buildings that have sprung up along the Hudson River's waterfront in recent years. "The skyline of Jersey City is changing," says Ralph Rosenberg, DMR vice president and director of design. "We're keeping up with the pace of the city's growth."

As the riverfront fills up, however, the development in Jersey City—both commercial and residential—is spreading inland away from the river. Much of the new housing stock coming on the market is taking the form of condo apartments, according to the Jersey City Economic Development Corporation.

One such project is the 113-unit Montgomery Greene building, so named because of its position at the corner of Montgomery and Greene Streets, just a couple of blocks from the Hudson. Construction began in late 2003 on the project, which was initially intended to house rental apartments, but switched to condos in response to the strong buying market and low interest rates. The Montgomery Greene building will include retail space on the ground floors and an adjacent parking garage, and is slated to include 108 apartments in a 19-story tower, and five full-floor, Manhattan-style lofts in an adjacent six-story building.

Also on the development roster is nearby on the corner of Montgomery and Grove Streets, further in from the river than the Montgomery Greene project. The 46-unit Majestic Theater Condominium building is a seven-story repurposing of the historic Majestic Theater, which was built in 1907.

There are plenty of other projects going on in Jersey City, says Antonicello, both along and away from the immediate waterfront. One of the most significant aspects of Jersey City real estate is the area's wide variety of price ranges and housing options. Most one-bedroom condos top out between $1 million or $1.3 million. "There are these luxury apartments, but you can also find condos for $35,000 to $40,000 in nice neighborhoods," says Antonicello. "The housing is affordable and there's quality space."

With the robust housing market has come an increase in quality of life in general. Crime is down, the streets are cleaner and the parks are havens for families and children.

Through all its ebbs and flows, Jersey City has maintained its personality. Young professionals are moving in, but "there are also families," Antonicello says. "And the community is a very large melting pot - we have residents from all over the world: South America, the Caribbean, Middle East. It's still a multi-ethnic place."

A Bright Future

What does the future hold for Jersey City? Like all of New York and the rest of the country, the city is feeling the effects of a stumbling economy and iffy job market. In the short term—according to The New York Times—many commercial leases in Jersey City have been signed by small companies relocating out of Lower Manhattan. But local residents and businessmen are more worried about the well being and security—both physical and financial—of their neighbors across the river. "When New York hurts, we hurt," Antonicello says. "Jersey City without New York is basically Scranton. We're intricately connected."

In the long term, the prognosis for Jersey City is extremely positive. "The area will continue to get even better. It's going to mature as a market," Antonicello says. "It's a city whose time has come."

Liz Lent is a freelance writer living outside New York City.