When two poodles sauntered from a freshly converted apartment house in downtown Newark this summer, it made the news. No, the dogs weren’t in any trouble, they were merely tethered to a well-heeled woman out for a stroll: a perfect specimen of that species beloved to real estate brokers, the highrise urban dweller. For New Jersey Business magazine, which reported the incident, they are a sign of better things to come.
As Mayor Cory A. Booker swept into office in 2006 on a platform of radical reform, he vowed to make Newark a “national standard for urban transformation.” And in June, he took a big step forward by appointing Toni Griffin as director of community development, charged with rebuilding the planning machine of New Jersey’s largest metropolis nearly from the ground up.
To many New Yorkers, this city of about 280,000 on the Passaic River has long been a tattered way station, glimpsed from passing Amtrak trains or en route to Newark Liberty Airport. But beyond the image of shells of buildings and broken windows is what planners call a robust urban infrastructure primed for a new half-century of growth. Though Newark’s population had dwindled dramatically from its peak of more than 440,000 in the 1930s, a boomlet since 2000 made it the fastest-growing major city in the Northeast. With commuter-friendly transit links to New York, dormant development capacity, and ample urban amenities waiting to be tapped, the Booker camp is betting hard on Newark’s future.
“With the coming of the Booker administration and changes in the region, Newark is in quite a different position than it was a few years ago,” observed Max Bond, partner at Davis Brody Bond. “As housing in New York gets more expensive, more and more people are looking at the possibility of living in Newark. In the regional context, there really are terrific opportunities.”
Shortly after the 38-year-old Booker came to office, he delighted planners by sitting down with the Regional Plan Association (RPA) and volunteers like Bond to draft a vision plan that would knit together the 100-odd neighborhood studies, urban renewal plans, and sundry agendas that had been moldering in City Hall file cabinets. This remarkable document, the product of dozens of planners, architects, city and state officials, and faculty of the New Jersey Institute of Technology, sprang from a three-day charette in 2006. With groups brainstorming about specific projects—from airport economic growth to the new downtown arena—a focused plan emerged: Revamp the 17-year-old masterplan. Overhaul the 1960s zoning ordinance. Ban sky bridges. Establish rapid-transit bus routes. Make mixed-use a mantra. At public meetings presenting the report, administration officials got an earful from residents keen to put Newark’s plans into practice.
Enter Griffin, who grew up in Chicago and studied architecture at Notre Dame, as well as at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (where she is now a visiting design critic). Launching her career at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Chicago office, she gravitated to planning and was hired to direct planning and tourism development for New York’s Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone Development Corporation. She then moved to Washington, D.C., where she oversaw large-scale redevelopment for the city’s planning office, taking charge of downtown, waterfront, and commercial corridors. She later served as vice president and director of design for the Anacostia Waterfront Corporation, helping to make 2,000 acres along the Anacostia River corridor into a model for rebuilding inner cities. She is known for hitting the ground running.
"As an architect,” Griffin said, “my training is in problem-solving and in building. I see planning in the same way. I’m not interested in doing plans that sit on the shelves.”
Digging in on the first phase of Newark’s masterplan, Griffin convened a team including SMWM, Phillips Preiss Shapiro Associates, Justice and Sustainability Associates, and Chan Krieger Sieniewicz to define a vision that will lead to a more proactive and transparent planning process. Staff will also draw on the RPA’s draft vision plan and local design firms with the aim of revising the master plan and zoning ordinance for the 24-square-mile city, a task expected to be a multi-phase, multi-year effort. To build a central planning department out of what had been, in the James era, splintered among varied boards and offices, Griffin also aims to beef up her own staff, now home to four planners. “I want to hire a mix of planners with design backgrounds, designers with planning backgrounds, and economists,” she said.
Shifting to more immediate goals, the Booker team has targeted downtown residential development as a priority, citing 1180 Raymond Boulevard, a long-vacant Art Deco office tower in the heart of downtown. Recently converted into 317 rental units, it is rapidly filling with, yes, the aforementioned poodles—and just the commuters the city hopes to attract. (Eighty percent of the tower’s occupants work in New York.) “We’re aiming to build upon the trend started by premier new residential buildings like 1180 Raymond Boulevard,” said Stefan Pryor, Newark’s deputy mayor for economic development. Pryor, who led the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation through its forced quiescence before arriving as a high-profile hire for the Booker administration, is actively working on projects that have been thwarted by Newark’s outmoded regulations. He cites the city’s incoherent zoning rules as a persistent problem for developers who want to convert commercial buildings into housing. “There are side yard requirements and backyard requirements and onerous parking requirements,” he said. “We are going to eliminate those.”
Bringing momentum downtown is New Jersey Transit’s mile-long light-rail link between the city’s two major transit hubs, Newark Penn Station and Broad Street Station. Opened in 2006 at a cost of $207 million, the line connects New Jersey Transit, Amtrak, PATH trains, and the city’s subway. It will hopefully extend residential and retail growth north across I-280, and to the two gemlike Mies van der Rohe towers known as the Pavilion Apartments. Opened in 1960, along with a third Mies apartment building near Branch Brook Park called the Colonnade, the towers today look lonely amid Colonial-style townhouses built on the site of the Christopher Columbus Homes public housing project, which were razed in 1994 after becoming a symbol of neglect and poverty.
Back near Broad Street, which Griffin sees a as focal point for the 45,000 college students who attend Newark’s five colleges and universities, there’s the Barton Myers-designed New Jersey Performing Arts Center, widely hailed as the project that put Newark back on the map when it opened in 1997. “It’s an area that can help to change the whole image of the city and brand it as a waterfront downtown,” Griffin said. Work has slowly progressed on the Joseph G. Minish Passaic River Waterfront Park, which would stretch north from the dominantly Portuguese and Brazilian Ironbound district (and its swinging tapas bars) to the downtown core. Griffin looks toward a teeming, two-sided waterfront along both banks of the Passaic; plans are already progressing across the river in Harrison, where the first phase of a development with 1,800 residential units, a soccer stadium, and a riverfront park is under way.
For many watching Newark’s redevelopment, the most bothersome legacy of the James administration may be Prudential Center, the city’s new downtown arena. Branded a boondoggle by Newarkers who questioned its $375 million price tag and prospects (it is home to the National Hockey League’s New Jersey Devils), the arena was nonetheless under construction by the time James left office. Mayor Booker, who once denounced the project as a “betrayal of the public trust,” has determined to embrace the squat, brick-and-glass behemoth, which opens this month with a ten-night stand by Bon Jovi. Ever the optimist, Griffin thinks the arena could catalyze restaurant and retail development just as the MCI Center (now Verizon Center) did for Washington.
The city’s hottest vehicle of change, however, is less likely to be Bon Jovi than the Port of Newark, because it has one thing Newark needs most: jobs. The city is closely studying how to redevelop land and capture job opportunities at the port, which employs relatively few locals. A similar strategy is taking shape around the airport, which Griffin suggests could be groomed as an “aerotropolis,” surrounded by efficient business and residential nodes. “Cities like Dallas are looking at neighborhoods around airports,” she explained, “and developing them as attractive places to live.”
Newark’s real estate boom has had unintended effects. As the market revived in former no-go neighborhoods, suburban-minded builders found a cheap formula to fill empty blocks: the Bayonne Box. A source of consternation to Newark planners, the narrow, three-story house has deep setbacks, vast curb cuts, and car-forward frontage (“a machine for parking,” growled one planner). The now-ubiquitous Bayonne Box is anathema to a rich and lively public realm, and Griffin’s team is looking to tweak zoning regulations to reduce curb cuts, hide vehicles, and create greener front yards. Her office has also drafted guidelines for new housing typologies, and will be hiring architects to test those concepts throughout the city. A similar program is under way to check the growth of car-centric shopping hubs. “We want to look at guidelines for how mixed-use town centers can fit back into the fabric of Newark,” she said.
Community groups, long inured to promises, are guardedly optimistic about their city’s future.
“So far Ms. Griffin has been sensitive and responsive to what we see as critical issues,” said Richard Cammarieri, chair of the master plan working group for the New Community Corporation, a network of citizen groups. “The biggest challenge is going to be ensuring that the planning process is in fact internalized for the entire city government. Everyone really has to buy into this.”
Longtime Newarkers have an endearing knack for looking at the bright side. “At least we have a planning department now,” Cammarieri dryly noted, “which we’ve never had before.”