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The Growth Machine West of the Hudson

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The Growth Machine West of the Hudson

While New York City struggles to produce limited new housing, Jersey City is booming. December 15, 2020
New York
Economy, finance, and budgets

In October, Jersey City’s city council voted unanimously to adopt amendments on the Canal Crossing Redevelopment Plan, a master plan for the remediated site of a former paint factory. The plan for the 111-acre site, located in the city’s Bergen-Lafeyette neighborhood, calls for a mixed-use development of up to 7,590 new homes spread across a proposed street grid, which would stitch the new neighborhood into the broader city. In addition to several new parks, a proposed greenway will connect residents to a nearby Hudson-Bergen light rail station. The council’s vote came exactly two weeks after New York City leaders infamously scuttled the long-contemplated Industry City plan for Brooklyn.

A masterclass in physical planning, Canal Crossing would be a flagship redevelopment in New York City today. In Jersey City, it’s just another project. Along the Hudson River, there’s Hudson Exchange West, a plan for 5,500 new homes, plus parks, retail, and office space. Along the Hackensack River, construction will soon start on the first phase of the Bayfront redevelopment, which will eventually yield 8,000 new homes, of which 35 percent will be income-restricted. Not to be outdone, Liberty Harbor—a massive site within eyeshot of the Statue of Liberty—still has zoned capacity for an impressive 20,000 homes.

Indeed, the contrast between the two cities is increasingly sharp: as housing activists drag New York City leadership around to a plan to allow a modest amount of new housing in SoHo, thousands of new units continue to go up in Jersey City’s newly dubbed “SoHo West.” If the growth machine has sputtered east of the Hudson River, it’s alive and well in the Sixth Borough. While the story of New York City over the past few years has been one of increasingly harebrained opposition to new housing and office construction amid a debilitating housing shortage and worsening economic prospects, Jersey City has leveraged new development to secure significant public improvements for its residents.

The raw permitting data speak for themselves. Subject to many of the same environmental constraints—both cities are bounded by rivers and pockmarked by sites in need of remediation—Jersey City built over seven times as much housing per capita as Manhattan in 2019. Even compared with New York’s more growth-tolerant boroughs—Brooklyn and the Bronx—Jersey City built over six times as much housing per capita. And it built a startling 17 times as much housing per capita as Staten Island and 10 times as much housing per capita as Queens, the two most underbuilt boroughs and—by any reasonable standard—places where new development could easily be accommodated.

What gives? It isn’t just megaprojects: the Jersey City miracle is underwritten, at least in part, by clear rules that welcome incremental growth. Where New York spent the past 50 years tinkering with—and often tightening—a zoning code fundamentally designed to stunt growth, planning in Jersey City has welcomed it. Thanks to liberal rules on density and parking rules, high-rises can spring up in transit-rich growth hubs like Journal Square without much fuss. And without single-family zoning, duplexes are free to replace driveways along quiet side streets in neighborhoods like Downtown.

Yet it isn’t just the substance of growth regulation that differs; it’s also the process. In New York City—in the best-case scenario—securing a special permit or rezoning will involve a six-month ordeal, with multiple public hearings and exacting demands on developers. While large redevelopment projects might involve lots of back-and-forth, the process of securing a permit for a humdrum infill project in Jersey City usually takes just weeks.

Why the divergence? Jersey City is helped along by a sophisticated state court system that prohibits sloppy planning processes and arbitrary down-zonings. Yet on a deeper level, one gets the sense that Jersey City simply doesn’t take growth for granted: its leadership makes few apologies for attracting new investment and using it to secure new schools, parks, libraries, and infrastructure upgrades—not to mention thousands of apartments—for residents. With fiscal collapse knocking on their city’s door and crumbling infrastructure at their feet, New York City’s leaders would do well to learn from their humble New Jersey neighbor.

Photo: ferrantraite/iStock

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