Boomtown: The Rise of Jersey City

Jersey City's resurgence delights some, but worries others. We take a tour with Steven Fulop, a mayor committed to keeping his city gritty.

The Jersey City skyline will undergo significant changes in the coming years.
The Jersey City skyline will undergo significant changes in the coming years.
Photo by Jennifer S. Altman

Until a few months ago, 99 Hudson Street was the site of a parking lot, a full block on the Jersey City waterfront, overshadowed by neighboring towers. The parked cars are gone now, replaced by construction crews and heavy equipment. A tall fence encloses a deepening hole in the ground, a familiar sight not just here along the Hudson River, but throughout this city, where construction has accelerated at a boomtown pace over the last five years.

Steel beams will soon sprout from the hole on Hudson Street—the skeletal frame of what will be a 79-story residential tower. If the building proceeds as planned by China Overseas America Inc., a New York-based affiliate of a Beijing-based developer, it will first climb higher than 10 Exchange Place, two blocks north, which when erected in the 1980s was the tallest building in a Jersey skyline then emerging from the old waterfront rail yards. As 99 Hudson Street continues to rise, it will climb higher than 101 Hudson, one block north, the tallest building of the 1990s. It will climb higher still, surpassing the 42-story, 780-foot-tall Goldman Sachs tower, four blocks south and the tallest building in the state since its completion in 2004. When 99 Hudson is finished, it will be 900 feet tall, with 781 Manhattan-view condos.

The Jersey City skyline is younger than many of the junior bankers who work and live in its high-rises. It is an improbably large thing, visible from a great distance, arisen in a small place. The skyline has grown so tall and dense in recent years that, when seen from most angles around Jersey City, it seems to merge with the more iconic one across the Hudson.

“This was all empty,” Mayor Steven Fulop says repeatedly as he guides New Jersey Monthly on a driving tour through the city he has led since 2013. The mayor’s black SUV passes one construction site after another as his driver navigates the waterfront streets.

The once-empty spaces are filled now, or filling, or soon to be filled. Fulop ticks off one new project after another. The mayor, 39, acknowledges that the wave of development began long before he took office, but adds, “The growth in the last five years has been greater than anything anybody has ever seen.” Jersey City is the fastest- growing municipality in the state, its population rising from 247,597 at the time of the 2010 census to 262,146 in 2014. It may soon overtake Newark as the largest. “If I’m being conservative,” says Fulop, “I think we pass them next year and will be significantly ahead of them by the next census in 2020.”

All these new buildings are shoehorned into the densest corner of New Jersey, the Hudson County peninsula, which after serving so long as the grimy backyard to New York City has in recent decades evolved into what’s often called a sixth borough. Most of the new buildings are beehives of apartments, with rents that look low from a Manhattan vantage point, but high from the neighborhoods on the other side of the Turnpike extension that marks the western edge of downtown Jersey City.

“In the buildings that are going in,” says Fulop, “you actually see a third, a third and a third—a third people moving within Jersey City, a third coming from elsewhere in New Jersey and a third moving from New York City.”

The driving tour will take us through the parts of the city where its changes are most evident: to the restaurants, shops and nightspots around the Grove Street PATH station downtown; west to Journal Square, the historic hub, where towers that rival those on the waterfront are now rising; north to the Heights, where many former downtown residents, including Fulop himself, have been migrating in search of lower prices; and south to Bergen-Lafayette, where developers have been nibbling at the edges of a neighborhood they had  long ignored.

It will take us through a city that, like many old municipalities transformed by swift growth, is suffused with both hope and worry. Hope that the city’s diversity can remain an asset; worry that longtime residents will be pushed out by wealthier newcomers. Hope that the streets can be kept safe and that the schools can continue improving; worry whether services will be distributed equitably across the city’s varied neighborhoods.

The tour leaves the waterfront for the leafy, low-rise neighborhoods just west of it, passing brownstones and brick rowhouses now worth sums beyond the wildest dreams of those who owned them decades ago. “They were giving them away. You just had to pay the taxes, that’s what the deal was,” says Fulop, pointing out the mix of tidy old homes and new condo buildings around the oasis of renovated Hamilton Park, which was once enclosed by chain-link fence—and host to the kind of recreational activity that draws police attention.

“It was a lot of working-class and maybe not so working-class people,” says Maggie Veca, who moved downtown in the 1980s. She grew up in the Heights when it was largely Irish, German and Italian. “I stayed,” says Veca, a fourth-generation native whose five siblings all moved out of the city. “I didn’t feel threatened, and it was where I worked.”

Veca waited tables at the Hamilton Park Ale House, a corner bar and restaurant.  “It was the only game in town,” she says. She bought it in 1997 and sold it in 2006. Then Veca pioneered another downtown neighborhood, opening Skinner’s Loft—Skinner is her mother’s maiden name—near the Grove Street PATH station at a time when good downtown restaurants were scarce. They are plentiful now, and Veca’s stretch of Newark Avenue was recently turned into a pedestrian mall.

“As far as 79 stories, I don’t know what to think,” she says of 99 Hudson. “I think to myself, Can you sustain community when you start putting in such big buildings? You really do need neighborhoods. You do need some sort of community.”

Painted across a high wall around the corner from her restaurant is the signature mural of the city’s recent public art program. The Jersey City Wave, by Shepard Fairey—famed for his Obama “Hope” poster—depicts an ocean swell cresting in the foreground, with the Statue of Liberty on the horizon. The mural has a Rorschach-like quality for city residents. Some celebrate the renewal the wave has brought. Some lament the tradition it has washed away. Some ride the crest, unsure which way they want the wave to break.

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