The Manhattan Institute’s
Center for Rethinking Development
Ideas that shape the city’s planning, housing, and development
A Monthly Newsletter by Julia Vitullo-Martin, MI Senior Fellow

Will Newark Finally Come Back?

Julia Vitullo-Martin, September 2006

(©Julia Vitullo-Martin)

Of all the American post-industrial cities still devastated by the effects of job loss, urban renewal, federal redlining, highway construction, riots, flight to the suburbs, corruption and mismanagement, Newark, New Jersey, has the best chance of returning to the ranks of the successful. Unlike St. Louis, Gary, or Detroit, Newark's location—positioned at the very heart of the strongest and most powerful metropolitan region in the country—at first glance seems to make its comeback inevitable. Jurisdictions all around it are thriving, billions of dollars in private investment have poured into rival Jersey City, and Newark looks poised to receive its share of the New York region’s growth and prosperity.

But the return of Newark has often been heralded before—indeed, every time a government agency announced a new infusion of cash or a new corporate tower rose downtown. Meanwhile both the neighborhoods and the underlying infrastructure suffered, and Newark fundamentally remained weak.

(©Julia Vitullo-Martin)

But this time may be different. Newark has an appealing, well-educated, energetic new mayor in Cory Booker, who has substantially raised the city’s credibility for investors, says Arthur Stern, developer of Eleven80, downtown Newark's first market-rate residential tower in 50 years. Indeed, the goodwill towards Mayor Booker from Newark's business leaders and developers is impressive. They are both hopeful and patient. "I think he has 18 to 24 months to show he can turn Newark around," says corporate lawyer Ted Zangari, who has drafted a 12-point economic development agenda on behalf of the Newark Real Estate Board. "My expectation is that the administration will be very aggressive in moving projects forward," says real estate consultant Thomas Banker.

Nonetheless, the problems Mayor Booker must overcome are daunting, a word he himself uses. The previous administration left the city in sorry financial shape, requiring Booker to climb out of a huge fiscal hole even as he tries to attract new tax-paying businesses and residents.

EVERY BAD PLANNING IDEA IS ON DISPLAY IN NEWARK
Newark is a living laboratory for nearly every bad planning idea of the 20th century. Urban renewal destroyed whole neighborhoods, replacing low-rise, vernacular residences with public housing projects. Built on superblocks, the projects wiped out the original grid as well as commercial and retail (©Julia Vitullo-Martin) activity. Soaring crime was excused and tolerated. Interstate highways cut the city into pieces, dividing and isolating it. Corporations, most prominently Prudential Insurance, tried to help. But they built fortress-like towers, connected to the train station and each other by skywalks, bypassing the streets entirely and even turning their backs on the waterfront, now walled off by parking garages and hostile structures. What was supposed to have been a major downtown asset, Military Park, was elevated and gated, limiting public access to a few hidden entrances. Meanwhile, surface roads were widened to facilitate fast traffic, making escape to the suburbs easy and efficient. Gradually, stores, restaurants, and cafes closed, leaving only a few discount stores behind.

(©Julia Vitullo-Martin)

The only comfort here is that a few even worse ideas were rejected. The previous mayoral administration, for example, had wanted to condemn private property to site a sports arena for the New Jersey Devils adjacent to the train station. This would have permitted fans to enter and leave Newark with the same lack of interest—and spending—as office workers in the towers. An arena is now being built several blocks inland, though the necessary planning decisions to make it work successfully—including a pedestrian bridge—have not been finalized.

YET NEWARK'S ASSETS ARE MANY
In transportation, Newark has it all: a major international airport 10 minutes away, an international container port on the waterfront, passenger and freight railroads, a light rail, and highways. Newark is easier to access than almost any city of its size in America. In honor of its sense of itself as an entrance to the New York metropolitan region it named one of its corporate developments Gateway—but this status remains in the future. Indeed, Newark's tremendous potential remains just that—potential waiting to be actualized.

What is to be done? Newark's business and civic leaders have many ideas.

Promote market-rate housing in the downtown core, says Ted Zangari, whose law firm, Sills Cummis Epstein & Gross, is one of Newark's oldest. That's going to require new tax incentive programs, because Newark’s tax structure currently discourages market residential investment.

(©Julia Vitullo-Martin)

Bring people downtown by creating compelling reasons to be here, says developer Arthur Stern, whose New York-based Cogswell Realty has renovated two magnificent Art Deco office buildings, one for offices, the other for residences.

Publicize Newark's being a relative bargain compared to New York, Jersey City, or Hoboken, suggests Edward Rytter, executive director of the Real Estate Board. The administration sees clearly that Newark has "competitive, even favorable, pricing," says Stefan Pryor, the newly appointed deputy mayor for economic development.

Activate the waterfront, urges Doug Sarini, Vice President of Edison Properties, one of downtown Newark's largest land owners. The New Jersey Performing Arts Center, opened in 1997, attracts hundreds of thousands of people to its events, which often include waterfront events. But the rest of the waterfront is dead, as far as the eye can see. Sarini would like to see a waterfront commission established to implement an activist vision of the waterfront.

(©Julia Vitullo-Martin)

Attend to the aesthetic qualities of the city, urges Professor Clement Price, director of the Institute on Ethnicity, Culture, and the Modern Experience at Rutgers University. Newark is too unsightly, too gritty, he adds, saying it needs "the clean look" that healthy cities have. The signage and facades of many stores blight the downtown, says Linda Epps, president of the New Jersey Historical Society.

Connect neighborhoods to downtown, says Donald Becker, Executive Vice President, Edison Properties. Newark's most famous and probably most successful neighborhood, the Ironbound, east of Penn Station, is cut off from the rest of the city, the main access being a dark, dreary railroad underpass. Edison Properties is urging the city to build a pedestrian bridge over the tracks to connect the Ironbound to the downtown core, and eventually to the new arena and the hoped-for mixed-use development.

Keep crime down, says everyone, a principle Mayor Booker fully understands. He has been quoted repeatedly saying that Americans will live in cities so (©Julia Vitullo-Martin) long as they are safe, but will flee the moment they turn unsafe.

"The advantage Newark has is that it was and is a great city," says Arthur Stern, "with a terrific infrastructure, culture, and people. The goal is to layer in the new with the old to restore what historically made the city so special. We have it all—transportation, great museums, a waterfront, an emerging arts district. The pieces are all here. We don't have to create a city from scratch. It is a matter of simply building on our strengths."

WHAT’S NEXT
The Booker administration, in office since July, has enlisted the Regional Plan Association to produce a foundation-funded economic development strategic plan—laying out housing, planning, zoning, and economic principles—by mid-October, when the Mayor reports on his first 100 days in office.

 


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“For the past two decades, the City of Newark has seen massive changes and enormous growth. We have witnessed new construction, new businesses, and even new centers of learning and the arts. While this should have signaled a period of abundance and financial stability, it has not. Instead during these years, the prior administration made tragic financial decisions marked by serious mismanagement, profoundly poor investments, failure to invest in critical infrastructure, egregious waste, unrealized revenue, and patently poor financial planning. This period of economic growth should have not only yielded more opportunities for Newarkers in terms of jobs and career options but it also should have secured for Newark a bright financial future. To the contrary, we find ourselves facing the most daunting fiscal picture in Newark in approximately 30 years.”
Mayor Cory Booker
Budget Message to the Municipal Council, August 21, 2006
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