The Jersey City Powerhouse patiently sits on Washington Street, just outside a sea of newly built Trump funded high-rise buildings. The partially crumbling brick structure, graffiti laden walls, and broken cathedral windows make the building seem as though it is just another artifact of the former rugged and booming economic days. Yet it has a long and politically charged history that renders an interesting conversation surrounding the identity that a dilapidated building can hold for its ever changing community.

The Powerhouse served as the main source of power for the first sub-aqueous transit system between Jersey City and lower Manhattan. A momentous feat and an architectural wonder at the time, it burned coal for the train line up until the 1920s. The infrastructure that it powered was essentially the early version of the PATH (Port Authority Trans-Hudson) line that now operates on a 24/7 schedule back and forth between New Jersey and New York City. Upon its closing in the 1920s, it served as a warehouse for the rail yards that historically dominated the area, sitting for decades as just another creaky waning post industrial structure. With surrounding parcels intermittently serving as artists loft over the years that followed, much contention began to rise over the use of the area.

The structure was eyed as talk of high rise buildings and residential development began. It soon became the iconic anchor of a newly formed neighborhood district known as “PADNA” (Powerhouse Arts District Neighborhood Association). PADNA began to organize in efforts to protect the area as a space for artists and to thwart the proposed development of high-rise buildings. As zoning ordinances were exchanged between city officials, the city eventually settled on “WALDO” (Work and Live District Ordinance); an ordinance that would protect both the area and the building as a thriving work and live space. The Powerhouse emerged as an image of this preservation effort and in 2001, it was recognized as a historic landmark.

Fast forward to 2013, and we can see even more compromise. Aside from its split ownership between the Port Authority of New Jersey and New York and the JC Redevelopment agency, there appears to be an agreement as to the future development of the building.

The new vision seeks to honor the architectural genius behind its original design. It aims to bolster the brownfield lot into a cultural representation of both what the city once was and where it is going. It is slated to become a mixed arts and entertainment building with the goal of keeping as much of the original structure in tact as possible. Stabilization has already begun as well as demolition modifications such as removal of the infamous smoke stacks. As such, the Powerhouse can be seen as the classic redevelopment story: part preservation, part face lift.

But there is more to this story than a convoluted history and recent ability to attain compromise. While it stopped serving as a power source close to 100 years ago, its mere existence continued to socially energize the community. The very structure itself is a well known symbol that represents the movement and voices in the neighborhood that fought so hard to keep this less than decadent structure in tact. How is it that such an old and devious structure can bear so much weight within a community? The recipe seems to be time. The fermenting deliberation over the building has launched a social movement and its stagnant progress has given developers and planners alike a run for their money. Be more creative, think harder.

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  • Magnitogorsk

    Fascinating article and community effort – its hard to tell what the community intended to accomplish with its initiative: preservation of the Powerhouse for the sake of its historical/aesthetic significance or was the Powerhouse preservation initiative designed strategically as a bargaining chip to keep the high-rise development out . . . my cynical side says the latter is likely true – but, regardless of the character of their initial motivations, their longstanding commitment has left an indelible positive mark on the neighborhood in the shape of an historically significant structure.

  • Would you be kind enough to explain “a sea of newly built Trump funded high-rise buildings”?

    As far as I can tell, there is just the one Trump Plaza and a plan for Trump Plaza II. I’m not acquainted with this sea of new built buildings.

    Have I missed something?

    • Magnitogorsk

      I understand your point, but the sea can have different connotations. The one your comment references involves the geographic vastness of the sea. Another way to think of the sea, aside from its size, is its unruly behavior. The sea is dynamic, always moving, sometimes claiming new land as the tide rises. Perhaps it is in that second sense, the sea’s behavior, that the article is drawing upon – where the development characterized by those Trump towers threatens to encroach upon the Powerhouse.