Arts center in jeopardy? A tower may grow at 111 First St.
by Ricardo Kaulessar Reporter staff writer
May 10, 2004 | 756 views | 0 0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Part two of a two-part story

Maggie Ens, a teacher at the City and Country School in lower Manhattan, was teaching children how to create recycled paper art. Kevin Mayer and Natalie Quede performed their Clever Tortoise Puppet Show for children and adults alike.

It was the Mayday Art & Music Festival, organized last weekend by the artists of the 111 First St. art space in Downtown Jersey City, and it lured thousands of visitors to the aforementioned artists' studios.

The event was not just an all-day opportunity to share and celebrate their creations and creative space, but also to call attention to a situation affecting the future of the building and the artists' community in Jersey City as a whole.

In recent months, the landlord of the building, Lloyd Goldman, has implemented rent increases. He has done this, according to tenants, without renewing leases or signing renters to new leases. In recent reports, Goldman said that he has been losing money for years by subsidizing artists with inexpensive rents.

Several artists refused to say what their rents are, but one artist said that his is $650 per month. The loft spaces are for work and not living. Some tenants suggested that their increases are as high as double the rent.

Michelle Berliner, a spokesman for Lloyd Goldman, commented last week that the rent "varies according to the size of the space, but what the rents were before the increase was below market rate. Raises would still keep it below market rate."

Berliner called the increases reasonable. She also said that the owner would consider long-term leases if the tenants would pay their rents, and that any construction considered by the owner would have the consideration of artists' spaces in mind. Tenants have thusfar been sticking to their old rents and refusing to pay the new ones.

The building, a former tobacco factory, was originally turned into a haven for artists in the late 1980s, but the waterfront area has become more desirable since then. Some of the artists have said that they would be happy to abide by the rent increases if they are offered year-long leases. But they claim that Goldman and his management company New Gold Equities (based in New York City) have stopped signing current renters to new leases and have not accepted new tenants. The reason they believe these actions are taking place is that Goldman wants to empty the building to go ahead with plans to develop it into market-rate housing.

Berliner denied that there is an effort to oust artists, although she did confirm that a residential tower will be built on some part of the property.

Since December 2003, at least 20 artists have moved out of the building, with more expected to go.

Among those visitors who were informed during the festival of the artists' crisis was Gilda Brown, a resident of the Greenville section of the city who brought her daughter to the festival. This was Brown's first visit to the building and the first time she heard about the problems that the artists are facing.

"This is so beautiful," she said. "Only today did I find out about what was happening. I hope that the artists can stay here."

Where's WALDO and what came next?

The history of the arts community in Jersey City, and of 111 First St., has its ups and downs. One of the "ups" came in 1996.

That year, a concept called WALDO (Work And Live District Overlay), an eight-block area that encompassed Second Street on the North, Morgan Street on the South, Marin Boulevard on the West and Washington Street on the East, was introduced by former Mayor Bret Schundler as a zoning ordinance and passed by the City Council. It would establish an arts district in which many of the abandoned warehouse buildings in this area would be transformed into artists spaces and residences as well as galleries and art-based retail.

But the WALDO concept failed to get off the ground. Between 1998 and 1999, there were plans by the city to create an artist space at 110 First St. People actually put down deposits on the 133-unit building that would be an artist work/live space. But it only became a storage and trucking facility.

In 2001, 111 First St. was teeming with activity as several arts shows and studio tours took place in the building. Exhibition spaces such as Charles Chamot Gallery were flourishing and attracting the attention of art lovers from outside the city. More artists were moving into the spaces, creating an artists' community to rival New York's SoHo and Lower East Side, and the Brooklyn section of Williamsburg.

In April, the WALDO ordinance was reintroduced. While in the original zoning, there was some room for building owners of industrial and office space, the reintroduced zoning would create an area that would be 51 percent residential/work space for artists.

The ordinance was finalized at a April 15 City Council meeting but resulted in lawsuits by the owners of the involved buildings against the city, including by Lloyd Goldman (the owner of 110 and 111 First St.), claiming that the zoning of the area infringed upon the right of the building owners to develop their properties as they saw fit.

A new mayor of Jersey City, Glenn Cunningham, was sworn in July 2001. Already there was controversy when it was suggested that Cunningham had a conflict of interest because he hired Matty Byrnes, an attorney working for Lloyd Goldman, for a city position. But Cunningham changed course and revoked Byrnes' employment.

Then in November 2001, the tenants of 111 First St. were subjected by their landlord to a curfew.

Better not live there!

Tenants were told that they could not be in the building before 6 a.m. or after 10 p.m. on weekdays. The building was to be open only from 9 to 6 on Saturday and to be closed on Sundays.

Many artists chafed at the regulations. William Rodwell, a tenant at 111 First St. since 1989, said that artists work in their space at unusual hours since many have other jobs during the day.

That would foreshadow actions pursued by Goldman in the next couple of years leading up to the present time. But another silver lining in the cloud over 111 First St. appeared.

Powerhouse Arts District

In 2002, the Urban Land Institute (based in Washington D.C.), a non-profit organization that studies land use and development, put together a 10-member panel that would study the failed WALDO plan in order to create a new district. Over a five-day period, there was a tour of the eight-block area designated under WALDO to become Jersey City's arts and entertainment district. There were over 50 interviews with various artists and residents in the city, and long days and nights of discussions. What came about was a 40-page study called, "Powerhouse Arts District - Jersey City, New Jersey: A Strategy for Revitalizing the Warehouse District."

The study assessed the problems of the WALDO plan such as the inability of private developers to market live/work units in building within the district, developers unable to obtain financing, and property owners pricing units at market rates.

The ULI study then developed a plan for a Powerhouse Arts District, with the old Hudson and Manhattan train line Powerhouse on First and Washington Street as an anchor for a new, lively arts and entertainment area in Jersey City.

The new district could, according to the study, be designed for residential and commercial uses. In the ULI report, it states, "the city should actively support the pursuit of alternative financing mechanisms and incentives for projects including federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credits, low-interest bond financing and tax abatements.

Also recommended in the report for those buildings in this proposed district were artists' studios, retail shops, restaurants, offices and other spaces."

A longtime Jersey City resident who helped advise the ULI panel said recently that the district proposed can be a "connection from the isolated waterfront to the city....it would bring the businesspeople out of their offices." Many arts advocacy officials in the city who supported the study believed that employees of those corporations based on the Jersey City waterfront who usually leave after 5 p.m. to home or to Manhattan would spend time in the area if it was developed.

It was also recommended that there should be a redevelopment plan since many of the buildings in the area were old warehouses and factories that were in dire need of revitalization.

The study received its official unveiling at a March 8, 2002 ceremony in City Hall. Attendees packed the City Council chambers, hearing the panel present its study to the public.

Mark Munley, the director of the city's Department of Housing, Economic Development, and Commerce (HEDC), stood in the front of the chambers to tell the attendees that the city was willing to go forward based on the report.

Munley said, "[The city supports] the selection of a developer for the Powerhouse; changing the redevelopment plan; creating a national historic district; and possibly attempting to move one building forward into development as soon as possible. Obviously this will take money. The city is committed to spending money to do that."

In April 2002, the City Council passed a resolution that would enable the HEDC to look into a redevelopment plan for the area. By having a redevelopment plan, the city could create special zoning restrictions for that area. While the 111 First Street is not city-owned property, there were hopes that the owner of the building would be amenable to developing it in accordance.

Neither has happened, and as of May 2004, there has been very little movement on the Powerhouse Arts District plan. But last week, city planner Robert Cotter said that there are plans for a special meeting to take place with the Planning Board to do a redevelopment needs analysis, or a study of the conditions in the Powerhouse area, before going to the City Council with a recommendation to make it a redevelopment area.

Cotter, however, could not comment on 111 First St. and their role in this proposed redevelopment plan since the city is still facing a lawsuit from New Gold Equities regarding their opposition to the old WALDO plan.

111 First St. in limbo

Many of the estimated 120 tenants of 111 First St. are wondering what will happen next. They are fighting back, sticking with the old rents and refusing to pay the new ones. There are plans to organize finances and create a proposal to buy the building from Goldman.

Mayor Cunningham and other city officials have offered their support to the tenants of 111 First St., but tenants want to see more.

Kelly Darr, an artist who has had a space in 111 First St. for the past 13 years, expressed eloquently in a letter to the press what she believes is the uniqueness of 111 First St. to the arts community and the larger community of Jersey City.

"Without the art community at 111 First Street, culture in Jersey City would become sadly scattered and depleted," she wrote. "In preserving this great art center and further developing the Powerhouse Arts District we can establish what Hawaiians call 'ohana' - extended family in the most pure sense of community."
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