In an emotional meeting Wednesday night, the city council voted to acquire “by purchase or condemnation” 50 Journal Square, an eight-story office building that when it opened in 1926 was hailed as the square’s first “skyscraper.”
Only Ward F member Frank Gilmore was present to oppose the city’s proposal that had been put forth to make a new “public park” next to the Loew’s Theater. He tried to get his colleagues to agree to carrying the ordinance to the council’s meeting on July 12 to allow further review but got no support.
Ward C Councilman Richard Boggiano, who had a scheduling conflict and who opposes the plan, was not present.
Council president Joyce Watterman abstained “out of respect for Rich (Boggiano)” who had asked for more time to review the plan. Some merchants near the building who oppose a park in the location had sought support for their position from Boggiano.
During a public hearing on the ordinance, Jill Quentzel said her family has owned the property for the past four decades and it is separated from the neighboring Loew’s Theater by a 10-foot-wide walkway stretching from the west side of Kennedy Boulevard back to Magnolia Avenue which the city hopes to transform into a park.
Quentzel said her family’s roots go back a century in Jersey City and have “worked hard” to contribute to the city’s business climate. “Eminent domain is not a fair response,” she said. Suggesting that the building’s ground floor with 1,800 square feet may offer some form of alternate accommodation, Quentzel said: “We are ready to talk to the city to give you what you want …. Don’t take the building from us. Table this ordinance.”
But John Metro, city business administrator, called the structure a “dilapidated building,” secured by steel straps, with much of its office spaces “empty for two decades.”
Metro said the city’s preference is, “we’re trying to line up with the reconstruction at the Loew’s (into a state-of-the-art performing arts center),” with the adjacent alleyway viewed as “an entranceway to Journal Square and maybe a side entrance to the Loew’s.”
But, above all, he said, “we’re talking about creating a public space for residents. It’s not a business decision for us.”
Metro acknowledged there’s been “discussions about a hotel” for the space now occupied by the office building but “there are no plans for that at this time. We look at (the park plan) as a public benefit.”
Maybe so, other public speakers said, but they argued the city shouldn’t be turning its back on its historical legacy. Christopher Perez, president of the Jersey City Landmarks Conservancy, said the conservancy “opposes any plans that include the demolition of 50 Journal Square,” the tallest building in the square when it was completed in 1926. Then-Gov. A. Harry Moore attended its dedication.
Perez said his research indicated that the building had once been home to the Labor National Bank. He said the Universal Building – as it was then known – had had three studios operated by radio station WAAT, one of the first in the U.S. to run regularly scheduled programs. The building had also served as the headquarters for many local and state political campaigns.
Perez said 50 Journal Square “is a prime candidate for adaptive reuse as community and cultural space, affordable housing, retail, or other uses.” Tearing it down, he said, “would discard a key piece of Journal Square history and result in tons of waste going to the landfill.”
Erica Walker, who described herself as “a child and grandchild of Jersey City homeowners” (and who is Councilman Gilmore’s chief of staff) urged the city to “do more to help local property owners profit off the land they paid taxes on for 40 years, to keep property in the hands of the people who struggled to keep it all these years.”
Local architect Will Burns called the distressed office high-rise “probably my favorite building in Journal Square” and said he was “appalled” at the thought that it may be torn down. “This is part of the fabric of the city,” he said.
Boggiano aide Pam Andes wondered whether the city administration had asked the city’s Historic Preservation Commission whether the building should be landmarked and asked that the ordinance be carried over to next month to allow the owners to consider a purchase offer it had received from a real estate group. Residents Jeanne Daly, LaVerne Webb Washington, and Anna Davies objected to the city’s park pitch, and local real estate broker Patrick Hambrecht wondered if the former bar and music venue that had rented the building’s ground floor could be reopened.
A small sample opinion poll of shopkeepers near 50 Journal Square drew a mixed reaction to the city’s plan. Jorge Torres, manager of Cohen’s Fashion Optical, figured the park could be a welcome addition “since right now, there’s no place for people to sit. And (50 Journal Square) has been empty for at least the past five years.” But Victor Victoratos, who runs Boulevard Drinks, said a park “makes no sense. You’ve got less than 50 feet (in the alleyway). It’s not going to make that much of a differerence.” A better idea, he said, would be to build an apartment dwelling with ground floor stores.
Metro, meanwhile, offered no timetable for the park’s development. The empty office building, which would likely face demolition at some point, is currently assessed at $2,165,500, according to records at the city tax office.
In contrast, the City Council did vote to confer “local landmark” status on a house at 343 ½ Eighth St. whose former occupant appeared in the 1990 documentary “Paris is Burning.” The house will be landmarked as the “Venus Pellagatti Xtravaganza House.”
The film, according to the council resolution, “focused on the lives of significant members of the Ballroom community in New York City and Newark (and) Venus Pellagatti Xtravaganza is a significant figure in the history of Jersey City and the United States ….” And, it notes, 343 ½ Eighth St. “is the site of a historic shift in public awareness for the Trans, particularly Trans people of Color, Ballroom and LGBTQ communities.”
The landmark status, previously endorsed by the city’s Historic Preservation Commission and Planning Board, was recommended by the city’s Division of Housing Preservation.
The downtown residence becomes the 14th property in the city so designated. Prior locations landmarked are: Dickinson High School in 1980; Ellis Island in 1994; the Apple Tree House in 2000; Holland Street, the former Whitlock Cordage site and the Women’s Club, all in 2003; the Pennsylvania Railroad Harsimus Branch Embankment in 2006; the Hudson and Manhattan Railroad Powerhouse and four buildings at the Terminal Distribution Warehouses of Hudson County (1865-1945) – Butler Bros. Warehouse, Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co. Warehouse Auxiliary Building and Bakery, Great A&P Tea Co. Warehouse Headquarters and Merchants’ Refrigerating Co. Warehouse.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Erica Walker is a realtor. She is not.