It made me sad to look out the window as the van went down River Road, though, sad for what is and what might have been. Of all the missed opportunities for urbanism, this is one of the most extreme that I know.
I'm not sure what was at the foot of the Palisades when the Dutch arrived in the area; probably just some scree like in the Palisades Interstate Park further upriver. Ferry docks were built at strategic points, and the railroads dug tunnels through the ridge to the docks. In this stretch of the river, the West Shore Railroad had a tunnel through to Weehawken, now used by the Hudson-Bergen Light Rail, and the New York, Susquehanna and Western had a tunnel to Edgewater, now abandoned. Tracks were built connecting the mouths of the two tunnels to the terminals of other railroads further south, and a series of piers were built along that railroad to ship various materials.
As the railroads cut back in the 1950s and 1960s, the shipping business migrated to other parts of the port area like Newark, or other parts of the world. Many of the piers were abandoned for years. Since the 1990s the area has experienced a huge construction boom. I'm sure there were several factors involved, probably including a significant rezoning, but it was also in part due to Arthur Imperatore's successful revitalization of the commuter ferry service, and the arrival of the light rail line.
Much of the ride down River Road in 1996 looked similar to what you might have seen in 1966, but it's unrecognizable today. Almost every pier, every plot of waterfront land, hosts either a shopping center or luxury housing. Many of the old buildings further inland have middlebrow stores and restaurants on their ground floors, and are being infilled with other shops and gas stations.
So this is infill development, really close to Manhattan, instead of way the hell out in Suffolk County or the Highlands. Why does it make me sad? Because it might as well be in Suffolk County. There are almost no walkable streets in the area. River Road has hardly any pedestrians and you can't blame people because it has wide car lanes, too many of them, and narrow sidewalks, and virtually none of the shops, restaurants or residences engage with that sidewalk. There is a semi-continuous riverwalk, but it zigzags around the piers and buildings, past windows and terraces that do not interact with it. Despite all this development, River Road does not make the frequent network map because you're very likely to wait more than fifteen minutes for a bus.
River Road is one of the reasons I'm so skeptical about "density" being an important factor in transit use or walkable streets. It's got density, or something resembling density. I don't know the numbers, but all of this new construction is apartments and townhouses, with no detached single family houses that I could see. But all that development was designed for driving.
Vela Townhomes. Photo: Hobokencondos / Flickr (be sure to check out the photostream for more waterfront goodness)
Every housing complex has tons of parking, often obscured by an overhanging apartment or townhouse ... structure (it's hard to call them buildings because the architecture is so fragmented). Sometimes the parking is in its own big ugly building, and sometimes it's designed so that it's immediately adjacent to the apartment or townhouse of its occupant. The new shops and restaurants are all the same kind of strip development, overloaded with surface parking that would be equally at home in Scottsdale, Arizona as on Tonnelle Avenue on the other side of the Palisades.
So here we have dense infill development a short distance from one of the most walkable job centers in the country, and still it's just as car-oriented as Phoenix. I'm guessing that the two biggest factors involved are the zoning code and outdated standards followed by the New Jersey Department of Transportation, which together have built one of the densest driving-oriented suburbs I've seen.
I call this a "trainwreck," because I've been watching it for years, powerless to stop it. Of course I didn't have this blog back in 1996, and I was only just beginning to grasp connections between transportation and land use. I had no way to talk coherently about this, and nobody who would listen to me if I had. So I've had to just sit and watch for sixteen years, as one unwalkable waste of space went up after another.