Area will feature new library branch, other amenities

Jersey City’s Holland Gardens public housing site is to be reshaped into a mixed-use, mixed-income development that will accommodate a new public library branch and businesses.

On Nov. 4 the Jersey City Housing Authority board of commissioners endorsed adding a home ownership component, a public library branch, and commercial rental space to a new high-rise mixed-income development for the area.

The JCHA plans to tear down the 76-year-old, 3.3-acre Holland Gardens complex at 15th Street and Jersey Avenue. A new project on the same footprint would preserve the existing 192 public housing apartments and supplement them with a combination of “affordable” condominium units and market-rate rental apartments.

The single structure design concept

This proposal — still several years in the making — comes 13 months after the JCHA adopted a “right of return” policy for tenants who will be temporarily relocated during the demolition and new construction.

According to the JCHA, the physical condition and aging mechanical systems have rendered the site’s five low-rise buildings “increasingly difficult and costly to maintain, rendering it nearly obsolete,” leading to a “decreased quality of life” for its residents.

Based on an evaluation of the site in summer 2019, Kitchen & Associates, the JCHA’s consulting architects, concluded it would cost $21 million to undertake capital repairs needed just to keep the property afloat.

Instead, the Collingswood, NJ firm recommended the site be razed and replaced with new infrastructure that would blend public housing units and market-rate apartments. The JCHA agreed with this assessment.

Just west of Holland Gardens stand two luxury high-rise developments, Soho Lofts and Cast Iron Lofts. Around the corner is the old St. Lucy’s Church and homeless shelter, will soon be transformed into a new, 20-story residence and a nearby new five-story homeless shelter.

As Kitchen puts it in a 2019 “visioning plan” for the future of Holland Gardens, being dwarfed by these nearby developments “… further exacerbates the sense of isolation and disconnect with its new neighbors … and … presents the challenge for how to redevelop the Holland Gardens site in a manner that will fit into this new community while also meeting the needs of existing residents.”

The answer, for Kitchen and the JCHA, is new construction, which, they say, would ensure the preservation of all existing 192 apartments while upgrading non-compliant, under-sized units, providing additional on-site parking and strengthening tenant amenities and services.

As an end to that means, the JCHA proposes to readapt the site by increasing its density. The existing development consists of five low-rise buildings with a total of 192 units.

Kitchen has proposed two construction scenarios, each sharing a common denominator: a three-story podium accommodating off-street parking — one space for every two units — plus a mix of non-residential uses and housing along its perimeter.

The first scenario calls for a single L-shaped building rising up to 22 stories above the podium with residential units from the fourth to 22nd floors. Also provided under this scenario would be:

  • Private indoor and outdoor amenity space on the fourth floor and on the roof
  • Apartments on the second and third levels plus three-story townhomes along the Erie Street frontage
  • Amenity space for daycare, healthcare, senior center, computer center, etc., along Jersey Avenue
  • Main residential lobby entrance via 16th

The second scenario proposes the extension of 15th Street through the site to Erie Street, thereby creating a new pedestrian corridor and access to the main lobby. Key features would include:

  • Twin residential towers rising above the podium, up to 20 stories, between Jersey Avenue and Erie Street
  • A six-story structure containing 30 or more for-sale residential condominium lofts along the south side of the 15th Street connector. “At least half of these units would be affordable and available to low-income, moderate-income and work-force housing eligible residents with the remainder being market-rate for-sale units,” according to the JCHA resolution endorsing the concept
  • Space reserved in the mid-rise building for “… a branch of the Jersey City Public Library, which would include community space and a resident services office and commercial rental space suitable for a supermarket, and/or bank or other similar commercial enterprise,” the JCHA resolution says.

Holland Gardens is one example of JCHA’s efforts to diversify its housing stock and advance opportunities for affordable home ownership, said JCHA Executive Director Vivian Brady-Phillips. Another “very successful” example, she says, is Dwight Street Homes in Greenville.

The multiple structure design concept including 15th street

There, the authority has sold 46 of the 52 two-family townhome units to low- and moderate-income families, she said, since the initiative began in the 1990s,.

“Now more than ever, housing affordability is a critical issue across the nation,” Brady-Phillips said. “It’s my hope that other public housing authorities will follow our lead by working closely with their municipalities and community partners to provide the resources necessary for residents to thrive.”

As of the most recent posting on the JCHA website, applicants to buy a home in the Dwight Street project are eligible if their annual income amounts to between 60% and 80% of the area median income as follows: for three in a household, $43,440 to $57,920; for four, $48,240 to $64,320; and for five, $52,140 to $69,520.

JCHA has gone the route of “mixed-finance public housing” — mixing public, private and non-profit funds to reshape and modernize several of its existing public housing sites at Montgomery, Lafayette and Duncan Gardens for residents with different income levels, she said.

Generally speaking, under guidelines set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, individuals or families qualify to live in public housing apartments like Holland Gardens if they earn between 50% and 80% of the county’s annual median income, $76,900. They pay 30% of their adjusted monthly income in rent.

People living on limited income can also explore access to federal Section 8 rent vouchers, issued through the JCHA, which tenants can transfer to different locations where private landlords will accept them.

Another type of Section 8 rent subsidy with a different funding stream is targeted to specific public housing sites.

On Oct. 21, the Jersey City Municipal Council adopted an inclusionary zoning ordinance that would require residential developers to allocate 20% of the total number of apartments for affordable housing in return for the city granting height and density variances.

Given that demand for these types of rental assistance is high and because of shrinking federal housing resources, vacancy rates at the city’s public housing sites are generally close to zero.

“We serve 15,000 people spread over 7,100 units,” Brady-Phillips said, including 4,600 residents holding Section 8 vouchers accepted by 1,700 landlords with multiple properties. As of last month, there were 12,792 on a public housing wait list and 8,980 on a wait list for Section 8, she said.

Where will Holland Gardens tenants go while the site is razed and a new complex is built? No blueprint has yet been announced, but Brady-Phillips said the JCHA is meeting with tenants on a quarterly basis to provide planning updates on their rights under the federal Uniform Relocation Act to alternative lodging during the construction.

“Relocation … is not anticipated to begin until summer of 2022 at the earliest,” according to the JCHA website.  Tenants are to be “… notified in writing at least 120 days in advance of the move-out date.”

The project timetable – including the process for soliciting and designating a redevelopment partner – was pushed back a year due to COVID-19, according to Brady-Phillips. By spring 2021, JCHA plans to circulate a request for qualifications in order to create a pool of prospective developers by next summer. The authority will then issue a request for proposals next fall and select a developer by the end of 2021.

How long the new project will take to complete remains to be seen.

Ron Leir has been a journalist since 1972. That includes a 37-year stint as a reporter, copy reader and assistant editor with The Jersey Journal, followed by a decade as a reporter with The Observer in...

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