The city of Newark, NJ is receiving renewed interest after years of decline. This is not the first wave of re-investment in the city after the 1967 riots, but it happening under different circumstances. When the Gateway Center was built, urban renewal was an auto-centric retreat from city life. Though the gateway center is connected to Newark Penn Station by an architecturally parasitic skywalk, much of the commuting is by car. There are a couple of parking garages associated with the Gateway Center as well as numerous surface parking lots (According to the 2012 Master Plan, within a half a mile of Penn Station, there are more than 20 acres of surface parking lots). The streetscape along the Gateway Center is one of the worst in the city. Here, transit riders could walk on the sidewalk from Newark Penn to their downtown jobs, but between the hostile built environment of Market Street and the welcoming environment of the skywalk, much of the pedestrian travel avoids the street. This style of development is no longer acceptable and threatens to hamper Newark’s renewed growth as an urban hub.
Why is Newark growing now? There are several reasons behind the renewed interest in Newark. The growth in investment in New York City has pushed land values there up and pushed development outward. This development has moved to Brooklyn, Queens and Jersey City/Hoboken. In each of these areas, the same increased investment is pushing development further out. Development in Downtown Brooklyn is pushing people to Bed-Stuy and development in Jersey City/Hoboken is pushing people towards Newark. Newark also has one major strategic benefit over Jersey City/Hoboken: it is a great transit hub. From Newark, you are only a 30 minute ride from Downtown and Midtown Manhattan. Six of the nine New Jersey Transit rail lines in Northern Jersey run through either Newark Penn Station or Newark Broad Street Station. Newark is superbly connected. On top of all of this, Newark has over 50,000 students (according to the 2012 Master Plan) and hosts the headquarters for several businesses. Newark has the essentials necessary to attract jobs and development, but it must adjust its development strategy to provide in demand amenities.
While the last wave of development in Newark focused on the car, this new wave must focus on active transportation, public transportation, and in particular pedestrian activity. People are moving into downtown neighborhoods and they are looking for convenient amenities. They want to be able to buy groceries, go out to dinner and enjoy themselves without having to deal with the hassle of using a car in an urban environment. Transportation demand among commuters is shifting from driving to public transportation. The ability to get work done or to get a high score on your favorite app makes public transportation much more enjoyable than sitting in traffic. Upon arriving in a city, these transit riders want to be able to walk or bike safely to their destination. During lunch, these individuals expect to have a wide selection of restaurants within walking distance to choose from. The era of building surface lots, parking garages and buildings that turn their back to the street must be over to attract and retain these workers.
Looking at two of the most recent developments in downtown Newark shows mixed results. The much publicized move of Panasonic from Secaucus to Newark resulted in the creation of a new office building near Penn Station. While the location is superb for promoting transit use, the design itself is anti-pedestrian. The building is set back from the street and further separated by a fence and landscaping. Fortunately, this is on McCarter Highway (a street unlikely to ever be pedestrian friendly). The streetscape along Raymond Boulevard, which would be more important due to its connection to Penn Station, was already degraded by the anti-pedestrian design of The Legal Center. Unfortunately, combined with buildings across the street, there is very little potential for significantly improving the quality of the pedestrian experience along Raymound Boulevard.
There is still hope for Newark though. Teachers’s Village, a development of the RBH Group, is very well done. This project will host 3 charter schools, 214 residential units marketed to teachers and 65000 sq ft of retail for 20 businesses. The stores open directly on to the sidewalk. The buildings, though containing some modern touches, respect the street wall and properly frame the space around Halsey Street. Parking is limited to one spot per unit and only available for a monthly fee; parking is not subsidized. As far as the design is concerned, my only critique is that I wish the 65,000 sq ft of retail could be divided in a way to allow 40-50 businesses instead of only 20. If done correctly, the smaller retail spaces would have lower rents thus making it more affordable for Newarkers to start businesses there. These spaces could be designed to be consolidated when successful businesses need to expand. Ultimately, the increased number of shops would make the area even more interesting. Nonetheless, this is a minor critique of a superbly designed development.
As Newark’s revival continues, there will be many projects where Newark can work to maximize its future prosperity. The time available for some of these projects is very limited. Once a building comes in, it is difficult to fix any mistakes in the design. Places like The Legal Center may require demolition before pedestrian oriented improvement is possible, something that isn’t likely to happen for decades. Over the next few posts, I will be writing about ways to improve public transportation and active transportation along certain corridors in downtown, standards necessary to improve the quality of development, and ways to fix previous mistakes. In the meantime, what improvements do you think Downtown Newark needs in order to be a successful area?