|The Manhattan Institutes|
Center for Rethinking Development
Ideas that shape the citys planning, housing, and development
If Newark is lucky, the federal criminal indictment of former Mayor Sharpe James will signal the death throes of its old life as a battered, forsaken, shady city of the pastand its new life as an energetic, safe, handsome city of the future. Newark has many things going for itmost importantly, its location at the heart of the New York metropolitan region, the country's strongest. Can it throw off the shackles of the past, and exploit its geographic location to reclaim its spot as an important city in the Northeast?
A WELL-SITED CITY
And yet few cities have been as badly served by their public officials. While most media accounts of Sharpe James's wrongdoings have focused on his lavish travel and entertainment, his far more serious crime was against the neighborhoods he had sworn to care for and protect. His betrayal of black neighborhoods represents a betrayal of all that he claimed to stand for.
At least one of the theoretical promises of black political leadership back in the days when black elected officials were few was that they would save vulnerable neighborhoods by haltingeven preventingthe all-too-familiar downward spiral of black in-migration, financial red-lining, blockbusting, housing deterioration, arson, and abandonment.
BETRAYED BY URBAN RENEWAL
By the time Sharpe James became mayor in 1976, failed government policies and middle-class flight had weakened much of Newark, except for a few corporate-supported blocks downtown and a few enclaves, like the Ironbound and Forest Hill. Mayor James's own neighborhood, the South Ward, not far from Newark International Airport, was one of the worst. Hundreds of vacant lots were interspersed with one- and two-family houses, most owned by struggling householdsmany of whom eventually lost their property to mortgage foreclosure or to the city of Newark for failure to pay taxes. The South Ward also became home to public housing projects, many since demolished.
It is in this neighborhood that Sharpe James, in his last term in office, chose to sell public property, mostly empty lots, to his friends and supporters at prices far below market value.
For this he's been indicted by a federal prosecutor. But from the neighborhood's point of view, the real crime is not the cheap sale price but what then happened to the property: mainly nothing or, even worse, arson. Instead of selling to legitimate developers, who would have renovated old houses and built new ones, repopulating vacant blocks, James turned the property over to speculators, who flipped the lots repeatedly without improving them. So even though new town-houses are sprinkled throughout Newark's residential neighborhoods, vacant lots and poorly maintained properties dominate far too many blocks.
A REBIRTH WITH BOOKER?
The truth is that while Newark's assets are impressive, its economic progress has been held back for decades by race. Consultant Daniel Biederman, who is working on a redesign of a major downtown park, recalls how a top official in the previous Sharpe James mayoral administration told him "if you don't look like me, you can forget about it." Mayor Booker phrases the problem delicately: "I'm the mayor of an incredibly diverse city. But diversity worked to the disadvantage of Newark in the previous administration. You saw it in their anti-growth sentiment, in their regulatory practices, and in the pervasive corruption that used to worry business." Beset by double-digit unemployment and with one-fourth of its residents living below the poverty line, Newark is ranked right behind Miami as the second poorest major American city.
In the past, even Newark's assets have often worked against it. The Booker administration sees this clearly. Newark is said to be the most accessible city of its size in the country. Yet ease of getting in has also meant ease of getting outand Newark has never had anything approaching a 24-7 environment. At the end of every workday, employees flow out of the corporate towers into the trains and cars that will take them home, far outside Newark, leaving downtown empty by 6:00 p.m. But thereís very little to do in downtown Newark were employees to want to stay for an evening's entertainment, nor is there very much residential development for those who would like to live close to where they work.
"Retail has been under-invested in Newark," says Stefan Pryor, deputy mayor for commerce and economic development. "Not only do we have retail leakage to surrounding towns, we have almost 100% leakage in categories like restaurants. We don't even have restaurants in the college area where we have four university campuses. Instead, we have lunch trucks parked on the streets. We have no need for charity. But we want a recognition among retailers that Newark is an emerging market."
The Booker administration intends to enlarge that emerging market via rezoning. It recently persuaded the City Council to approve an as-of-right commercial conversion zone in which the lovelybut deteriorated and largely vacant1930s office buildings can be renovated for residential use. The one successful residential conversion, the 35-story once-abandoned Lefcourt Building, which was begun in the James administration, is now mostly rented at market rates. The sticking point for other projects will be the proposed tax abatements, which developers say are necessarybut which some council members oppose as giveaways. Lefcourtís owner, Arthur Stern of Cogswell Realty, has two other vacant downtown buildings he hopes to convertbut only with tax abatements.
PORT'S GROWING VOLUME
The port, however, employs few Newark residents. "The last administration didn't recognize there was a port," says Jeffrey Wolpov, CEO of Distribution Solutions Inc, a trucking and warehousing company. "We felt completely ignored." DSI and many other firms located on port property are doing well financially now that the port is boomingand they want to expand onto the underutilized property around them. Much of the property looks abandoned to the naked eyeas well as to the eye of Deputy Mayor Pryor. "We're doing an inventory of abandoned properties," he says, deploying inspectors from the fire department and neighborhood services. Once an abandoned property is listed, the owner must rehabilitate it or lose it under an expedited tax lien foreclosure process. Mr. Pryor argues that the process will free up property for productive port use, and also help him negotiate for additional jobs for Newark residents. "Port jobs are the manufacturing jobs of the global era" he says. "For us, theyíre the gold we intend to mine."
Meanwhile, Mayor Booker is in a race to get the good things going fast enough to ward off the bad things, of which Newark still has plenty. If he carries off Newark's turnaround, he will have accomplished something thatís never been done in Americathe rescue and recovery of a mainly black, poor, mid-size city.
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