Jersey City could finally earn its place as the so-called sixth borough.
Just across the Hudson River, the Garden State’s second-largest city has gentrified in recent years but had always lacked the night life and street traffic to build a viable entertainment district.
Now, a host of changes are under way or are being considered in hopes of creating a vibrant downtown with an expanded restaurant row and more entertainment and music venues.
“We will be able to create more spaces where music, art, and culture can be enjoyed,” said Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah Healy, who is expected to address the developments during his State of the City address Thursday evening.
In a city of 250,000 where some residents recall having to walk blocks just to find a lunch counter, the changes are dramatic.
In December, Jersey City—which has few music venues and dance clubs with DJs—introduced a new class of entertainment license to allow restaurants to host live music.
And the City Council extended an already established restaurant row last summer, and is set later this month to vote to expand it again, this time into the Little India neighborhood.
The zoning measures come as Jersey City’s food and culture scene is drawing hipper establishments.
“Without a doubt, it’s become more of a destination,” said Jelynne Jardiniano, owner of LITM, a restaurant and lounge. “People want to have a reason to stay in their neighborhood.”
A former chef for the Momofuku Noodle Bar in Manhattan is opening an eatery in restaurant row this winter that looks to showcase “all that New Jersey has to offer,” according to his Kickstarter announcement.
The New York pizza chain, Two Boots, also hopes to open a location in midspring.
And residents say their cool cachet ratcheted up when Barcade—a bar in the hipster epicenter of Williamsburg in Brooklyn—opened an offshoot in the downtown area last year.
“We’re 10 minutes from the World Trade Center,” said Mas Kuwana, a 31-year-old Jersey City accountant, “there’s no reason why we can’t compete.”
Most of the new developments are taking place near Grove Street, the center of the city’s downtown and the location of a PATH station. And the changes the city is seeking come after a long history of decline and rebirth.
Grove Street was once the city’s downtown shopping district, but by the late 1950s and ’60s, it was nearly vacant. There were few sit-down restaurants, though hardscrabble bars catering to warehouse workers were common.
“Every place you drank was a shot-and-a-beer joint,” said Nick Acocella, a Hudson County resident and editor of Politifax, a weekly publication that covers New Jersey politics. “It was a very bad neighborhood.”
Artists and others seeking low rent started to move to Jersey City in the 1980s, and the pace increased in the early 1990s. By 2000, Jersey City was joining Hoboken as a place for urbane professionals to settle—though it still had more 99 cents stores than bars and restaurants.
The city established a three-block restaurant row in 1999 near the Grove Street PATH station, and a few eateries followed.
But an old city ordinance restricted the number of eating establishments that could serve alcohol on a block. Restaurant row establishments had to close by 11 p.m. And nightclubs were mostly restricted to commercial areas near highways.
In 2005, the city began allowing restaurants and bars serving food to remain open until 1 a.m. on weekdays and 2 a.m. on weekends. Five restaurants have opened on Newark Avenue since, Ms. Jardiniano said.
Restaurant business plummeted after the recession in 2008 but has since rebounded and has started to attract revelers across New Jersey on weekends, she said.
City officials said they want to capitalize on the momentum.
“We want people to spend money in Jersey City, not Manhattan,” said Councilman Steven Fulop, an early champion of restaurant row. “You do that by creating an environment that’s business-friendly and arts-friendly.”
In January, the city loosened complicated entertainment license requirements that were expensive for club owners and that resulted in illegal rock clubs sprouting up.
An entertainment license downtown required a variance, an expensive process that typically involves a lawyer. Bars could apply for temporary permits, and the system ended up being abused by venues that morphed into illegal rock clubs, Mr. Fulop said.
A new class of entertainment license now allows restaurants to host live music. The permit would be subject to annual review and costs $600 for restaurants.
Community groups were resistant, but the city tweaked the policy to limit the hours and track problem locations with noise meters. The city spent $5,000 on the readers and training for enforcement officials, said Carl Czaplicki, director of the Jersey City Department of Housing, Economic Development & Commerce.
“It’s fair. It’s based on evidence, not innuendo and hearsay,” he said. “Politics can’t be involved.”
The city began issuing the permits this month. “Numerous” people have since expressed interested in opening a small music venue, and one current city restaurant proprietor is considering a new space, Mr. Fulop said.
contributed to this article.