New York Times: Bayonne, N.J.: Grit Gives Way to Luxury, and Skee-Ball – The Bridge Art Gallery

By C.J. Hughes | New York Times
October 3, 2018

The former manufacturing hub, once home to a massive Standard Oil refinery, is recasting itself as a bedroom community.

From the lofty perch atop the Bayonne Bridge, which spans the Kill Van Kull to Staten Island, the postindustrial waterfront city of Bayonne, N.J., resembles a miniature model. Down on the ground, Bayonne, which has about six square miles and 67,000 people, has more conventional proportions.

Yet there is still a pleasant sense of proximity, residents say. Short blocks, shopkeepers who know their customers, and families that stick around for generations foster intimacy.

“It’s really the best of both worlds,” said Arthur Saks, 30, who moved to Bayonne in 2010 from the Great Kills neighborhood on Staten Island. “It’s close enough to New York to have a city feel, but you get that small-town vibe at the same time.”

Mr. Saks, a chef and restaurant consultant, initially came to help a city with “a pizzeria on every corner” expand its dining options: A pizzeria hired him to add a white-tablecloth option.

With a career that has taken him to Alaska and other far-flung places, Mr. Saks was wary of putting down deep roots, so he rented a two-bedroom apartment with his girlfriend. But over time, Bayonne, where Mr. Saks has relatives, began to charm him. After marrying that girlfriend, now Annemarie Saks, 30, he bought a two-family house with her in 2015, for $410,000.

Today, the couple and their infant daughter occupy a three-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment with a home office in that house; a two-bedroom, one-bathroom rental is downstairs.

Last spring, Mr. Saks cut the ribbon on Saks Off Broadway, a sandwich shop he owns, which, in a nod to Bayonne’s ubiquitous dish, serves a “pizza-wich,” a folded-slice creation. “I have become a huge advocate for what Bayonne can be,” he said.

The future appears to be arriving quickly. Since the last recession, or about 2010, more than 6,000 new apartments — many with snazzy finishes and New York City-style amenities — have opened, are under construction or are in the works, according to planning officials.

Most have come to life since 2014, when the current mayor, James Davis, took office. Proudly pro-development, Mr. Davis has awarded property-tax breaks to builders, despite criticism. “Abatements work,” he said, citing next-door Jersey City as an example.

After its factories closed, Jersey City reinvented itself as a bedroom community of New York City, a transition that some in once-booming Bayonne would like to replicate.

As apartments rise in Bayonne, new businesses are appearing on Broadway, a three-and-a-half-mile commercial strip lined with vintage bakeries, cigar shops and newsstands that often appear unchanged from the 1950s.

Infrastructure is also improving. Last year, Stephen R. Gregg Park completed a nearly $4 million restoration that added fields and paths. And a first-of-its-kind ferry to Manhattan will set sail from the east side in January, according to a plan by city officials.

Though Bayonne, once home to a massive Standard Oil refinery, will likely continue to evolve, residents said, its current low-key life is not a problem. “Bayonne isn’t really a place for hitting the town,” said Nicole Perry, 49, who sold a two-bedroom in an older co-op in Rego Park, Queens, two years ago to rent a larger two-bedroom in a full-service Bayonne building where similar units start at $2,350 a month.

When Friday night rolls around, Ms. Perry, an assistant principal in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, makes a beeline for Jersey City’s hopping Grove Street area. But she would never live in a place that lively, she said: “There’s a need to escape from the busyness of life.”

What You’ll Find
The peninsula of Bayonne was probably not named for the French city, said Carmela Ascolese Karnoutsos, Ph.D., a local historian. More likely, it was a derivative of Bayonia, an 1859 development plan that would have added large homes on wide lots to a parcel stretching between two major bodies of water: Newark Bay and New York Bay.

The Civil War scuttled those designs, and Bayonne is more densely settled today. Across a grid of numbered and lettered streets, skinny two-family houses, many dressed in siding, stand shoulder to shoulder. Cars park on paved front yards. But high-rises are rare in this low-slung city (at least so far), which allows for some breathing room. And many streets, particularly on the west side, are dead-ends, creating hushed, private enclaves.

Larger single-family homes turn up here and there, as on Wesley Court, which is dotted with colonial and Italianate houses. And West 24th Street houses Sunset Bay, one of the few mobile-home communities left in the region.

Among the first major new developments to arrive, in 2009, was the complex now known as Harbor Pointe, a four-story, 544-unit rental offering from Castle Lanterra Properties that has an outdoor pool, a cappuccino machine and games like Skee-Ball. It was built on the former Military Ocean Terminal, a longtime supply center for troops that closed in 1999.

The windswept property has been converted slowly. But three new residential complexes, with about 1,000 apartments, have broken ground there, city officials said.

Buildings are also sprouting elsewhere, often along the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail line. Examples include a 138-unit development on the site of a former parking lot at 19 East 19th Street, near the 22nd Street rail station, from the Ingerman company. The units, which include walk-in closets, are now leasing.

The project might be timely. Bayonne’s population reached 67,178 in 2017, according to census figures, up from 61,842 in 2000 (though still short of the 90,000 the city counted during its industrial heyday around World War II).

What You’ll Pay
On Sept. 24, 164 properties were for sale in Bayonne, according to Zillow. The priciest was a five-family building listed for $1.25 million; the least expensive was a two-bedroom mobile home listed for $50,000.

In 2017, the average jumped to $296,000, Mr. Hottendorf said, and in 2018, it is expected to reach $325,000. But that would still be below the 2006 pre-recession peak of $383,000, he said.

Rentals are also robust, said Steven Betancurth, an agent with Keller Williams City Life Jersey City Realty. In August, 26 two-bedrooms leased, at an average of $1,700 a month — about what it costs to procure a unit in an older building.

The Vibe
Diversifying the red-sauce scene on Broadway are restaurants like House of Flavor, a vegan cafe that opened in 2017. Also arriving that year were the side-by-side Bake N’ Brew Cafe and Little Boho Bookshop.

The Bridge Art Gallery opened in 2016 in a former funeral parlor. The gallery is owned by Cheryl Mack, 49, and Christopher Mack, 50, transplants from Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, who rent a three-bedroom duplex nearby.

“So many people say, ‘I only know Bayonne because of the bridge,’” Ms. Mack said. “We want people to know we’re more than just a bridge.”

A Costco is taking shape nearby, city officials said, as is a Starbucks, Bayonne’s first.

The Schools
Bayonne has 11 elementary schools, which serve students through eighth grade. The smallest is Philip G. Vroom Community School, which enrolled 421 students last year; the largest is Midtown Community School, with 1,087 students. Nicholas Oresko Community School, which has 444 students, offers a gifted program in fifth through eighth grades.

Bayonne High School, the city’s only public high school, has about 2,600 students. On SAT exams in the 2016-17 school year, students averaged 519 on math and 526 on reading and writing, compared to statewide averages of 552 and 551.

All Bayonne students must wear uniforms, which in high school means white, black, gray or maroon shirts.

The Commute
Manhattan-bound commuters can take the light-rail line, which stops at 45th, 34th, 22nd and Eighth Streets, to Jersey City, where they can catch a PATH train. Light-rail trains leave about every 15 minutes; a monthly pass is $70.

Those headed to Lower Manhattan grab PATH trains at Exchange Place; for the Midtown crowd, it’s the Newport station. A monthly PATH pass is $89, and the total trip can take more than an hour.

Some apartment complexes offer private shuttles to the trains.

In the mid-20th century, the area, on the Kill Van Kull, was home to an amusement park, Uncle Milty’s Playland. Today, there is Dennis P. Collins Park, which offers views of enormous ships rumbling toward the Bayonne Bridge.