Jersey City is woefully overbuilt

Where the sidewalk ends.
Where the sidewalk ends.

Terrence McDonald reported a few weeks ago that the plans in the works for three new residential towers in Journal Square have been approved by the city. Perhaps you aren’t queasy about this. You may feel instead that congestion is the price to pay for Jersey City’s emergence as a regional powerhouse. Or maybe you’re okay with the towers but you abhor the abatements that the city is likely to offer the developers. You might damn this an extension of the same fiscal irresponsibility that has howled around Hudson County like a cold wind off the river for the past thirty years.

I can’t speak upon that fiscal irresponsibility or the ultimate price of all the can-kicking governments do around here. I don’t have the ledger in front of me, so I won’t try to guesstimate the dimensions of the hole we’ve dug ourselves. I fear we’re all about to learn the hard way when the revaluation bill comes. I do know what it’s like to live in Jersey City, though, and if you’re reading this, you probably do, too. You might not be able to calculate the financial cost of our abatement policy, but you probably know the personal cost of overcrowding on the PATH platform, or construction-driven road closures, or the traffic congestion on the Square or on Christopher Columbus Drive. You’ve probably driven around on a cold night looking for a parking space in a neighborhood where there suddenly aren’t any, or ridden on bike lanes that have been chewed to pieces and reduced to rumors by cranes and bulldozers, or made a terrified Frogger run across Grand Street while rush hour drivers are treating it like the Autobahn. You may have noticed deterioration in basic services, or the dip in air and water quality, or the spike in noise pollution, or the lousy sewers, or strained police-community relations, or the offensive ugliness and imposing neofascist quality of nearly all the new towers, each of which stands as a mockery of the planning department’s alleged commitment to human-scale architecture. In short, you know as well as I do that this town is now overbuilt, woefully so, and that our policy of sticking a massive residential tower on every vacant lot is putting an unbearable strain on the quality of life of the people who call this town home. Because no matter how many hyperbolic articles get written in the out-of-town press, those of us who actually claim Jersey City addresses know that it has not been easy living here lately. We’ve got to stop doing what we’re doing before the asphalt cracks under the weight and the whole place turns into a giant sinkhole.

Since the special election to replace McCann, there have been five mayors of Jersey City. Even as the temperaments of these five bosses have been pretty different, the prime operational directive — the bedrock upon which every other policy decision is built — of each administration has always been the same. Jersey City attempts to solve its problems by cramming into town as many new residents as possible. That’s it; that’s the only trick in the playbook. Shoehorn them in and try to tax them — unless you’ve enticed them here with a tax break, in which case the aim is to someday tax all the imaginary folks who are going to follow their lead. Those who attempt to dignify this policy will sometimes talk mistily about ratables and the ratable chase, as if there’s a shrewd, sophisticated fiduciary design behind it rather than a failure of imagination. Really it’s about as rudimentary as strategies get, and what was dim but vaguely defensible (and only somewhat insulting to longtime residents) in 1992 is downright preposterous a quarter-century later. Just look around you, neighbor. Jersey City does not need more people. Jersey City needs to start taking better care of the people who already live here.

That pivot should have happened decades ago. Instead, we’re all still waiting for it. Because he is young-ish and had a background in the finance industry, there was reason to believe that our current mayor would be the man to make it happen — when he first stood for office, you may recall, he promised to wind down the tax abatement policy. Instead of recalibrating our priorities, Mayor Fulop has presided over an unprecedented acceleration of the same overbuilding he once ran against. Fulop’s Jersey City is a nonstop construction site where the road-closing, traffic-clogging, jackhammer-pounding, street-rattling demands of developers, most of whom come from out of town, always take precedence over the desires of ordinary residents. Not content with tax abated towers by the waterfront, he now looks to greenlight them all over the city. He’s never met an ugly hi-rise he doesn’t want to add to our already aesthetically challenged skyline. His million-dollar destination marketing campaign is designed to funnel humans into new developments. Jersey City, to him, is like a balloon he wants to inflate larger and larger, pump full of more and more hot air, and all the stretch marks on its surface aren’t enough to convince him that it’s going to pop.

Like his predecessors, Mr. Fulop appears to see wanton overdevelopment and payments in lieu of taxes as the quickest way to close holes in the budget, and this does make a sick sort of short-term sense, just as stuffing rat-holes with old rags might buy you a few rodent-free nights before the foundation crumbles. But the mayor is also committed to a tiresome dick-slinging contest with the city of Newark about which city is destined to be the state’s biggest. (Perhaps it’s not fair to call it a contest; there’s no evidence that Newark is playing along.) I am not sure whether he believes that this will enhance his chances for the governorship, or if he simply has an Instagram-era fetish for numbers and gets off when more people “like” his city than his neighbor’s. In either case, I really wish he’d cut it out. As a chief municipal executive, it shouldn’t matter to you how many people you stuff within city limits. All that should matter is the quality of the life of the people who are here on your watch.

Those who push new tower construction and tax abatements for areas like Journal Square like to argue they are extending the prosperity of the Downtown to other parts of the city and reinvigorating areas that need a boost. I find this unconvincing. For starters, prosperity is a relative thing and is by no means general across the Downtown. The wild hike in property values around here hasn’t been an unmitigated good — it’s chased people out of town and closed the doors of retail outfits that operated on a human scale. I am not sure that it’s in the best interest of Journal Square or Bergen-Lafayette to copy our morally iffy example. I am absolutely sure that the erection of massive residential towers in the middle of a neighborhood that otherwise consists of two- or three-storey buildings will do nothing to precipitate camaraderie among people who live here. These aren’t buildings that contribute to a clubby, cheery, neighborhood feel; they’re the kind of buildings that obliterate any sense of continuity between city blocks. Of course, now we’re taking seriously the claim that these people really want to help the neighborhoods they’re building in, and I don’t think there’s anything to indicate they’re after anything but a buck. I don’t really want to get into the background of the guy who’s funding this new expansion, because he’s already gotten more press than he deserves, but it’s a matter of public record, and it’s easy enough to look up if you’re curious.

I’m not a zero population growth person, and I know you aren’t one, either.  If you’re here, you’re stimulated by change and creativity; that’s why we don’t live in Saskatchewan, as Scott Miller memorably put it. But not all urban design is intelligent, and not all growth represents municipal improvement. There comes a point where development visibly outpaces a city’s capacity to comfortably integrate it into the fabric of our communities — when the fabric gets all ripped up and shredded and dragged through the mud after a long night at the bar. Jersey City passed that point a long time ago. Our leaders need to acknowledge the problem, and our citizens need to demand that those leaders do something about it. We’re way overdue for a course correction.