Working for Smart Growth:
More Livable Places and Open Spaces

 

Hoboken South Waterfront Project

Winner: City of Hoboken and the Port Authority of NY/NJ


To the City of Hoboken and the Port Authority for creating civic spaces, creating visual interest, balancing the natural and built environments, and defining space in Hoboken, NJ.

Residential and commercial development along New Jersey’s “Gold Coast”- the Hudson and southern Bergen County communities directly across the river from Manhattan – has been a major economic success story of the last decade. Cranes tower over new construction from Jersey City to Fort Lee as waterfront properties, fallow for years, sprout fresh crops of exclusive condominiums, outlet stores, supermarkets and hotels. Yet, while this rapid growth has provided much-needed ratables for municipal economies, it has engendered substantial public resistance – from community groups concerned about preserving access to the waterfront, to homeowners worried that skyscraper construction will occlude their skyline view, to environmentalists committed to protecting the already- endangered ecosystem of the Hudson estuary.

Hoboken is, in many respects, the crown jewel of the Gold Coast, and has been for many years. Situated between the tunnels, served by PATH trains, New Jersey Transit commuter rail and ferries, Hoboken possesses an attractive and polyglot retail center along Washington Street replete with restaurants, cafÙs, and nightclubs. But a decade ago, Hoboken was also the municipality with the lowest open-space-to-population ratio anywhere in the state of New Jersey. The waterfront, ringed by cyclone fences and dotted with abandoned buildings, lay largely undeveloped and underutilized, denying residents an appreciation of one of the city’s most valuable resources. As Hoboken boomed, it became apparent that these waterfront properties – silent, forbidding, and increasingly incongruous with the rapid pace and spirit of enterprise on Washington Street and elsewhere in the city – were bound to be developed. But how?

A proposal drafted in the late 1980s and approved by the City Council in 1989 earmarked 3.2 million square feet of southern Hoboken waterfront property for high-density residential and commercial development. While the architects did attempt to draft the plan to conform to the specific character of Hoboken, and the desire among local residents for access to the waterfront, many in the community felt that this 1989 proposal fell short of those goals. Many believed that the closely clustered high-rise hotel and office structures did not respect the harmonious “human-sized” scale of Hoboken buildings, and left scant room for green development in a city already densely occupied.

Above all, Hoboken is a city with a specific and particular culture – a fruitful, productive, and inspiring one where the line between enterprise and recreation is perpetually blurred. In a city committed to enjoyment, activity and the consolidation of community, the absence of park space had been felt acutely throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and neighborhood activists, many under the banner of the Coalition for a Better Waterfront, argued instead for a riverside green belt running the length of the city. After Hoboken residents defeated the 1989 plan and a second plan in public referenda, the City of Hoboken reconstituted a Hoboken Waterfront Development Corporation, a public-private partnership assembled to lead the city and its residents in crafting a plan for south waterfront development – a plan that would ultimately prove distinctive among Gold Coast municipalities in its commitment to strong design principles, public access, and visual attractiveness. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, a former lessee and operator of the south waterfront property, contributed to this effort by establishing in 1995 a joint venture with the city, and by providing crucial funding – more than $80 million – for construction and development.

Today, the south waterfront project stands as a brilliant example of the power of compromise, sensible growth, and dialogue between community groups, municipal governments, and institutional backers. More than 60 percent of the site has been dedicated to public space. The waterfront park and walkway, designed by landscape architects Henry Arnold and Cassandra Wilday, and engineered and built by the Port Authority, blends a refined aesthetic (elegant plane trees, clear sightlines, open views of the Manhattan skyline) with urban functionality (pagodas and gathering places, and a hardy grass lawn designed to withstand heavy use). The venerable Hudson piers, originally slated to bear the weight of 1.6 million square feet of high-rise construction, are now entirely park and open walkway, guaranteeing free and continuous access to the south waterfront for residents and visitors alike.

Meanwhile, vacant lots closer to the body of the city have been developed for commercial and residential use – always with emphasis on maintaining Washington Street as the retail focus of the community. The publishing company John Wiley and Sons has been attracted to the newly constructed Waterfront Corporate Center, adjacent to (but never occluding) the park. Developed by SJP Properties, the Center’s limestone, brick, and granite fa×ade harmonizes traditional Hoboken architectural features with modern design elements, representing a new face for the city, but one consistent with the tropes and values that have established it as one the most vital and attractive addresses in northern New Jersey. The Hoboken South Waterfront Development Project (HSWDP) – a collaboration between the City and the Port Authority – is the engine driving this development. Under the HSWDP plan, the City of Hoboken and the Port Authority together lease individual sites to private developers, such as SJP Properties. “The Waterfront Corporate Center,” said former Port Authority Executive Director Robert E. Boyle, “will bring new jobs and revenue to the city, and help support the Pier A Park and other waterfront areas that the public has already begun to enjoy.”

Any cursory examination of the waterfront developments in Hudson and South Bergen County communities leads to the same conclusion – in functionality, fairness and grace of execution, the Hoboken plan towers above all comparable projects. By preserving the city’s unique character and opening the south waterfront to true, unfettered public access, the City of Hoboken and the Port Authority have resisted the altogether understandable temptation to chase easy ratables, and instead have developed something lasting, sustainable and with simultaneous value to the environment, the municipal economy and the well-being of a humane city that understands the critical importance of pleasure.

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