Let’s play Guess That Neighborhood: Today’s location is a former industrial hub that has evolved into a high-end residential and retail district with a burgeoning art scene that includes a tribute to the late, great David Bowie.
If you said Soho you’d be correct, but also incorrect. See, this is not the posh Soho of Lower Manhattan with its galleries, boutiques and cast-iron lofts. This is Soho West in Jersey City, famous for having, well, the Cast Iron Lofts, a pair of luxury high-rise apartment towers (no cast iron included).
Though the name smacks as somewhat disingenuous — seeming to capitalize on the cachet of an established brand — and some in the city would rather its newest neighborhood not be a carbon copy of a district across the Hudson, as far as Manhattan Building Company Chief Operating Officer Lou Mont is concerned, the moniker just makes sense.
“We branded it as Soho West because it’s south of Hoboken and west of Manhattan,” Mont explained. “Some people call it the Lackawanna area and, officially, it’s the Jersey Avenue Park Redevelopment Area.”
A Jersey City official declined to comment on the branding choice but said the area is typically called Lackawanna, a reference to the large warehouse complex nearby.
Of course, like Bowie, the name Soho is a British import, first belonging to a district in West London, just as York is a British city and Jersey a British Isle. Lack of originality is nothing new in this area.
In reality, the neighborhood is more like the Bushwick to Newport’s Williamsburg, a rough around the edges industrial landscape splashed with colorful murals. Except Soho West had even less housing stock than Bushwick did pre-gentrification, as in none at all when Cast Iron I broke ground seven years ago.
Regardless of what the area is called, its ongoing renaissance is the result of an impressive undertaking by the city and the three developers with skin in the game: Manhattan Building, Hoboken Brownstone and BNE Real Estate.
The involved parties aren’t just stacking up apartments; they’re also working to make the area livable. New streets and sidewalks raised above the flood line, improved sewer drainage, new streetlights and fiber optic cable are all coming to the area just south of the Jersey City-Hoboken border, all at the eventual expense of the developers.
“We think this is a prime example of a good public-private partnership with a proven and quality development team,” Hannah Peterson, Mayor Steven Fulop’s press secretary, said. So far, three of Manhattan Building’s projects in the zone have been completed: Cast Iron I and Cast Iron II, which combine for 387 units, and the Soho Lofts, a 377-apartment complex two blocks to the south that began leasing late last year.
Next in the pipeline is Van Leer Place, a two-building, 500-unit development on the western side of the neighborhood from by Hoboken Brownstone and BNE. This project replaces the seven-acre Van Leer Chocolate complex, a former brownfield site that once housed a factory and warehouse.
The joint venture also plans to develop 305 Cole Street, a five-tower, 1,100-unit complex that will be sandwiched between Manhattan Building’s two sites.
When all is said and done, the district aims to be a self-sufficient community of 7,000 people.
“It’s a fair bet that between five and 10 years from now, this entire neighborhood will be built out wall to wall,” Hoboken Brownstone Company co-founder George Vallone said.
The term “wall to wall” isn’t far from the truth. This new neighborhood is tightly bound on all four sides: train tracks to the north, highway ramps to the south, the New Jersey Palisades to the West, and the Lackawanna warehouse and public housing to the east.
However, Vallone is not threatened by these barriers. He believes residents will enjoy easy access to Jersey City’s brownstone-lined Hamilton Park neighborhood by walking or biking beneath the 12th and 14th Street viaducts as well as similar access to Hoboken thanks to paths beneath the train tracks.
Hoboken Brownstone also is working to build more pedestrian paths to connect its properties to one another as well as to stations along the Hudson County Light Rail.
“It’s actually very accessible, we’ve noticed that people are moving into Cast Iron and Soho from Hoboken because Hoboken has turned into a bit of a [traffic] bottleneck during rush hour,” Vallone said.
“People that don’t quite understand how this neighborhood fits into the whole city just don’t understand how accessible it really is.”
The area will also become more car-friendly with freshly paved, newly connected and possibly redirected streets replacing the gravelly, pothole-strewn pavement that exists today. These and other projects will be financed through a bond that will be paid off by special tax applied to the new developments.
Between the Cast Iron buildings, Soho Lofts, 305 Cole Street and Van Leer Place, there will also be more than 130,000 s/f of ground-floor retail space and a new park between 16th and 18th Streets.
The area has attracted a craft beer bar, a spin studio, a yoga and pilates center, a daycare and Art House, Jersey City’s oldest arts-based non-profit. Also, Mont said a fresh market has leased 5,000 s/f at Cast Iron and a deal is in the works to bring an Italian restaurant and bakery into 4,400 s/f at Soho Lofts.
Though completion is several years out, the developments in the area have already brought new life to a swath of land once solely populated by defunct factories, rundown warehouses, vacant lots and public storage. Roughly half the tenants have come from Hoboken or elsewhere in Jersey City, Mont said, while 17 percent moved from New York City and the balance hails from the suburbs or out of state.
Many are young professions looking to “move up” to a more amenity-rich complex, Mont said, though he’s also seen an uptick in parents and empty-nesters.
“We’re seeing so many more families and children than we did years ago,” he said. “People are deciding to put down roots now, in particular, many with two-year leases that are having children and deciding to stay.”
As of last week, Soho Lofts is 80 percent leased. Mont believes it will reach capacity before the end of the summer. Then the company will shift its full focus to its next project, the redevelopment of the sprawling Statco warehouse that stretches between 16th and 14th Streets to the west of the lofts.
Along with 1,100 residential units, the 26-story, three-building Statco complex will also carve out 25,000 s/f and 40 parking spots for a community use, most likely a new police station. Vallone said he’s also heard interest from a Montessori school that might like to set up shop in the new neighborhood.
Mont credits the success of the rising area, whatever it may be called, to the fruitful partnership the private developers have formed with City Hall.
“They understand what we’re trying to do here,” he said. “They created a redevelopment zone for the expressed purpose of seeing development and our company, obviously, is producing the buildings, so they’ve been very, very cooperative and very professional with us at every step of that development process.”