Competing visions City residents are treated to developers’ expo on future of Jersey City Medical Center

After expressing to city officials their fear in not being involved in the future of the historic Jersey City Medical Center site, community members were finally treated Monday to full, exposition-style presentations on the six competing visions currently being considered by the city and its redevelopment board.

Featuring a group of development teams based as near as New York City to as far away as Oklahoma, Monday night’s event was the culmination of a three-day fair comprised of presentations that included a complete set of informational materials, ranging from floor plans and renderings to developers’ biographies and related project portfolios.

Through a public question-and-answer session, the community was also given the long-desired opportunity to directly address the developers with their concerns on how the 14-acre Jersey City Medical Center [JCMC] site will be reused.

A sense of excitement abounded as residents moved from table to table, carefully examining the proposed architectural elevations and interestedly reading the developers’ statements as to how they envision the site’s future.

“It was impressive,” said West Bergen/Lincoln Park Neighborhood Coalition President Charlene Burke, an activist at the forefront of the community effort in demanding that the JCMC redevelopment process be public. “All the wonderful ideas that came forth and the vast repertoire of contractors and developers is the wonderful result of us pressing for diversity. [The developers] have listened to our requests and incorporated it into their plans.”

Most residents present at the fair echoed Burke’s statements, saying they were grateful for finally being included in the often private redevelopment process. Some, however, said they were still unconvinced that whatever plan is ultimately selected would fully capitalize on the buildings’ potential in positively transforming the neighborhood.

“I don’t have an appreciation of where the community integration is,” said Astor Place resident Carol Harrison-Arnold. “I saw how [one developer] came back and addressed issues brought up by the community and the wish list, but I still don’t see how they’re not going to be a city unto themselves. I still don’t see how the community is going to be drawn in.”

The development teams, which included both the financial backers and their commissioned architectural associates, stressed their understanding of the project’s importance in the neighborhood, saying the site’s sheer enormity naturally lends itself to a design that integrates the surrounding area. The ten buildings of the JCMC, which sit imperiously on the slope of Bergen Hill at the intersection of Baldwin Avenue and Montgomery Street, have the potential to be the crowning jewel of the city, they added.

City officials agreed, saying what ultimately happens at the JCMC will shape the future of the city’s progress.

“This is the most significant off-waterfront project in the history of Jersey City,” said Mayor Glenn D. Cunningham.

LibertyHealth, the non-profit organization that currently operates the medical center, plans to vacate the Bergen Hill site in April 2004 to move into new facilities being constructed Downtown at Grand Street and Jersey Avenue.

Sizing up the alternatives

Despite the inherent variety of the proposals, both the preservation of the buildings’ historic flavor and the site’s strong potential as a locus of commercial, residential and civic space were key elements shared by all developers. All plans for the buildings, some of which did not include the three JCMC buildings currently owned by the county, call for an average of 1,200 residential units, appearing either as rental units, individually owned condominiums or corporate-owned condos.

The main point of divergence was the degree to which each design – ranging in projected costs from $150 million to $500 million – either fleshed out their version of the “community center” concept or focused on those possibilities.

The most conceptually expansive plans that relied heavily on the creating of public or semi-public space and facilities were those constructed by the JCMC Redevelopment Associates and the STET Group.

Speaking on behalf of the JCMC Redevelopment Associates [JCMCRA], architect Sherida Paulsen said their design would create public, landscaped entryways and promenades on both Montgomery Street and Clifton Place, featuring retail shops, seating areas and sweeping New York vistas. Paulsen, an associate at the New York-based firm of Pasanella, Klein, Stolzman and Berg, also said the design included space for a Community Arts Center.

“The key thing, and this is based on our experience with other hospital campuses, is that they tend to be isolated sites,” Paulsen said in a phone interview. “The best adaptive reuse in urban design is in the strategy of connecting the building and site back into the community in the best way. That’s what we took as the genesis of our design ideas.”

In addition, JCMCRA Principal James Dematrakis said he has been speaking with the state Department of Transportation on the feasibility of connecting the JCMC site to transportation hubs in the city through the reintegration of streetcar tracks. The length of Bergen Avenue, which is located just a few blocks west of the site, was equipped with streetcars that converged at Journal Square before the tracks were paved over approximately 50 years ago.

Maurice Kutt, an Oklahoma-based architect with the STET Group, also said his design would introduce a fine arts center, but he went a step further and said his plan will create artists’ studios and laboratories, exhibition space and an amphitheater. Like JCMCRA, Kutt said the county-owned Murdoch Hall would be an ideal space for a hotel. His plan called for 900 hotel units.

Kutt also spoke of possible partnerships with local educational institutions like St. Peter’s College, which is located near the site at Montgomery Street and Kennedy Boulevard, for expansion culinary arts facilities at the JCMC. Hudson County Community College, which has facilities spread throughout Journal Square, recently received city Planning Board approval for the expansion of its current Culinary Arts Building on Sip Avenue.

Focused ideas

The plans of two groups – Pennrose Properties and the Full Spectrum Group – revolved around an issue to which each company is particularly committed.

Pennrose Properties, a Philadelphia-based company that has a history of both creating and managing its own residential properties, is focused more on the rehabilitation of the historic JCMC structures and the creation of affordable housing. Noted in the development community for being committed to the creation of homes individually owned over a long period of time, Pennrose has hired the acclaimed Newark-based architectural firm Grad Associates to design the building interiors and the surrounding open space.

The New York-based Full Spectrum Group, represented Monday night by Karim Hutson, presented a design that admittedly lacked “glitz” but was more intent on creating “healthy, technology-smart” buildings heated by geothermal systems and serviced with environmentally-friendly appliances.

The Chetrit Group, a recent newcomer to the JCMC project and represented legally by well-known Jersey City-based attorney Rev. Francis Schiller, envisioned a JCMC with more than 1,300 residential units, a viewing terrace and a public amphitheater. The group’s architect, the New York-based Karl Fischer, envisioned a space that didn’t feature a hotel or conference center but focused more on the creation of retail units.

Metrovest Equities, the New York-based development firm headed by George Filopolous, presented a design that took the lead among the others in terms of completeness and tightness of scope. Filopolous, the developer behind the 2001 conversion of Downtown’s Gregory Park apartment complex into Metropolis Towers, has been working with the city ever since he expressed interest in the JCMC approximately two years ago.

In conjunction with Staten Island architect Mark Lipton, Filopolous presented a design comprised mainly of “luxury affordable housing” with rooftop tennis courts and a swimming pool. Like the others, the Metrovest design provided retail space, professional space and meeting rooms, but unlike his competitors, Filopolous included a museum, a school and a children’s play area.

Citizens concerns’

During the question-and-answer session, members of the public came forth to drill presenters on how they would address certain issues should they be designated the JCMC developer. Concerns ranged from administrative and financial minutiae to important quality-of-life details like the removal of existing environmental contaminants.

One attendee asked what city residents can expect from the developers in return for the hefty tax incentives that would come along with the designation. Developers responded with the creation of 500 to 1,000 temporary construction jobs and about 500 permanent jobs and spaces dedicated to area non-profit groups and parks.

Kabili Tayari, city director of economic opportunity and president of the local NAACP chapter, asked the developers how much money they were willing to put up front and how they would ensure that a locally based and ethnically-diverse construction work force is hired.

Filopolous, who has repeatedly expressed his commitment to hiring locally and with equal opportunity, said he himself would put up $100 million, of which $15 million is now available. Kutt said the price tag for his design reaches upward to $450 million, which would be secured in bonds taken out by the STET group and in performance bonds sold to contractors.

A spokesman for the Chetrit Group – which consists of a principal named Yitzchak Tessler, who is also part of a group affiliated with New York-based building management group YT&T Holdings – said that two banks are lined up to finance the $200 to $250 million price tag projected for the plan.

Community activist Wayne Anderson asked the developers how they would work with the city in the refashioning of the area’s outdated redevelopment plan, the document that would serve as the only binding contract between the city and the designated developer. The city’s current redevelopment plan for the site, which city planners have previously said was hastily put together years ago and still riddled with glaring omissions, still calls for the JCMC site to include a hospital. The issue surrounding the JCMC Redevelopment Plan was brought up last month by the activists advocating for community input into the project. Former Ward F Councilwoman Melissa Holloway and former Planning Board Commissioner Jeff Kaplowitz said the updating of the redevelopment plan was critical in ensuring any viable future for the JCMC.

Jersey City Redevelopment Agency [JCRA] Executive Director Suzanne Mack addressed those concerns, saying Monday night that the JCRA believes the designated developer should contribute financially to the formation of the new redevelopment plan, a process which JCRA Board Chairman and Ward C Councilman Steve Lipski previously said often takes years to complete.

After a round of applause from attendees, Mack reiterated that the JCRA is fully committed to creating a broad, thorough and community-sensitive plan.

“The planning process will happen,” Mack added.

Where to go from here

Lipski said at the beginning of the evening that JCRA staff will in the next week evaluate the plans against a list of criteria. This will allow the JCRA staff to make recommendations to the board, whose members will be the ultimate decision-makers as to which developer is awarded the coveted designation.

Lipski said that the board will try to make a decision by this Tuesday, Sept. 16, the date of the next regular meeting of the JCRA board. He also said the public was invited to attend the evening meeting, located on the ninth floor of 30 Montgomery St.

At press time, JCRA project manager Christopher Fiore said the agency was hard at work in evaluating the presentations, looking at both the development teams’ financial capabilities as well as the viability of their designs. He also said that city Planning Director Robert Cotter and city Director of Economic Development Charles Catrillo will be involved in the evaluation process.

“All [the development teams] have strong points,” Fiore said Wednesday. “Chetrit has large holdings and they have experience doing historical and large-scale high-rise buildings.

[JCMCRA] plans for a ‘Rockefeller Center West’ type of vision, which is something the community was particularly interested in. George [Filopolous] has been here the longest and he’s responded successfully to the community. Pennrose really is a strong player for affordable housing. Full Spectrum wanted to do those environmentally sound buildings. It just runs the gamut.”

From the community’s standpoint, organizers have asked the public to log on to to post their opinions as to what should be done with the medical center.

In the midst of all the anticipation as to who will be given the responsibility of rehabilitating the JCMC, the one sentiment around which all community members rallied was the energy created by the exposition. One prominent local realtor said it was the most positive thing he has ever seen in all his years in Jersey City.

“This is very exciting to see all these people engaged,” said activist Burke Monday night. “This really is the talk of the town.”


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