Close to 100 Jersey City community members turned out in person, joined by an additional 50 virtually, Thursday night to learn more about a planned 2-year shutdown of an alleyway next to the Loew’s Theater in Journal Square.

Closing the 10-foot-wide pathway would allow some of the theater restoration work to proceed uninterrupted by foot traffic, according to Michael Pombo, a representative of Phelps Construction Group, of Boonton.

But a flyer advertising the meeting cautioned that, “more than 1,000 people per day access Journal Square through this alley (and) pedestrians will increase their walk to the PATH (transportation center) and Hudson County Community College) by 20 minutes.”

And many of those who attended the meeting, organized by the Journal Square Restoration Corp. and office of Ward C Councilmember Richard Boggiano, readily agreed with that premise.

Chris Bernardo, administrator of the Journal Square Special Improvement District, who served as the moderator of the meeting, said that many people with special needs who visit a private behavioral health center on Magnolia Avenue will end up struggling to get to buses at the PATH center if the alley is blocked.

Deputy City Fire Chief Henry DiGuilio said when responding to fires in the immediate area, firefighters hook up to “dead-end” hydrants at the foot of Magnolia and Pavonia avenues but, because pressure at those locations is low, they also rely on a full-service hydrant outside Boulevard Drinks next to the Loews in Journal Square Plaza.

“But if access to that hydrant is closed off,” DiGuilio added, “we’d have to bring water from (a pump at) Tonnelle Avenue.”

Jessica Quintana, owner/operator of McDonald’s in Journal Square, said: “I get all my deliveries through the back of the store. The trucks use the alleyway to unload.” Several other nearby retailers also rely on that connection, she said, adding that, “Closing the alley for two years won’t work for many of us.”

The plight of such businesses and inconvenienced residents “underscores the need for managed access to the site,” Bernardo said. “For more than 100 years, the alley been an important access point to the railroad and has offered clearance to Harwood Parking for 96 years.”

But the Loews stakeholders pledged to follow up on a suggestion by resident Chris Lamb, vice president of the Journal Square Community Association, to check with owners of nearby vacant stores to see if they’d allow contractors to store and/or carry equipment and supplies through the back to access the theater without needing to close the alley.

Loew's Alley | courtesy of Google StreetView

Jill Quentzel, whose family has owned 50 Journal Square, located in the alleyway, since 1982, reminded the theater contractor, “We offered help with the staging of the (theater) renovation,” and asked to be kept in the loop as the project advances. The city is taking steps to acquire the property.

At the same time, financial adviser Adam Cohen, who said he’s been involved in local building projects, urged the Loew’s contractor to “coordinate all utilities together” for more efficient and quicker completion and to then cover any still-uncompleted work with metal plates for pedestrian access.

Leslie Harwood, a principal of Harwood Properties, said: “We look forward to working with the city (to minimize) the impact (of the alley shutdown) on our customers. Maybe we can compromise on the time.”

Matt Weinreich, of Hopkins Group Management, which developed the 40-unit Elks Club JSQ on Magnolia Avenue, expressed surprise that the Loews contractor got approvals to close the alley in light of the fact that, “New York City doesn’t allow the closing of a street for construction.”

Boggiano insisted that, “The alleyway cannot close. People in the community have to walk out of their way and it’s not going to be closed.” He said the city wants to demolish 50 Journal Square, the city’s first “high-rise” (at 8 stories), which, he noted, was used as Frank Sinatra’s initial recording studio. “We’ve taken down enough – a lot of our old restaurants are gone. I want to see my ward protected.”

More tempered observations were offered by Bernardo, who said the new 3,000-seat Loews, “will be a significant boost to the local economy …. The Loews is going to be the centerpiece of Journal Square much as it was years ago …. but with progress comes a big amount of responsibility.”

And Diane Jeffrey, executive director of the Jersey City Redevelopment Agency, which is helping shepherd the project, forecast it will help “bring back the theater to its former grandeur … with uniformed ushers and a reconditioned pipe organ.”

At the same time, Jeffrey said she recognized that the alley closing would bring inconvenience and hardship to many locals. “I get that’s why you’re here,” she told the crowd. “It’s a disruption. And we’re here to listen.”

Among the theater-related work projects for which alley access will be key, Pompo said, are installation of new utilities, including telecommunications, two enclosed outdoor transformers, new sanitary sewer and gas lines, an elevator shaft for a 3-stop lift that will access a basement-level remodeled bathroom and lounge area, rebuilding part of the rear annex by replacing the masonry with a glass wall, bringing the the building’s fire suppression system “up to code,” repointing old brick and cleaning and restoring the marquee.

Target date for completion of alley-related work is sometime within the first quarter of 2026, Pompo said. When work will actually start has yet to be determined, he added.

Pompo said that moving materials like steel and concrete would be a “huge challenge with pedestrians using the alleyway.”

The original Loews opened in 1929 and cost $2 million to build. It closed in 1986 and the city bought the property in 1993 and was designated a state registered historic site in 2009. The volunteer group Friends of the Loews ran the theater under a lease agreement, hosting film screenings and modest events. In the aftermath of litigation by the city, the Friends retained their lease but agreed to allow AEG Live the right to book musical events. When the theater reopens, public programming is reserved for 55 days per year, according to the Friends.

In 2022, a $72 million Loews restoration project was initiated by Devils Arena Entertainment, a division of Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, with Jersey City contributing state and federal tax credits in support of the project. Reportedly, the overall cost has since climbed to more than $100 million, of which the city has set aside about $15 million in the current budget.

Ron Leir has been a journalist since 1972. That includes a 37-year stint as a reporter, copy reader and assistant editor with The Jersey Journal, followed by a decade as a reporter with The Observer in...