As I’ve said before, I feel that the prospects for renewed development in downtown Newark are fairly high. This wouldn’t be the first city in New Jersey to go through a period of massive development in recent times. Two PATH Train stops to the East is Jersey City. Here, on land previously dominated by rail yards serving New York City, new towers have been going up. While there are some developments that do very well in terms of creating a pedestrian friendly public realm, the buildings along Christopher Columbus Drive unfortunately do not. If Newark is not careful, developers may repeat these mistakes. Unfortunately many of these mistakes will leave a multi-decade legacy. Newark cannot afford to make such costly mistakes. From my walks around this area, I think there are four lessons that can be learned from these developments. These lessons can be applied in Newark and any other urban area.
Buildings should front directly on to pedestrian space
One Evertrust Plaza at the corner of Christopher Columbus Drive and Washington Street is a great example of this problem. The 17 story high-rise is separated from the street by large swaths of grass, some parking and what appears to be a 5 foot tall fence. Fortunately this building does not include parking underneath. If that was the case, the pedestrian entrance would be largely ornamental. An entire block in this superbly transit accessible neighborhood is completely devoid of street activities. It is possible to cut this building some slack; it was built in 1986, at a time where the developers can claim they didn’t know any better. Ultimately, the one message that One Evertrust Plaza gets across is, “Stay away!” Fortunately, this appears to be a correctable mistake. The first floor of the high-rise could be converted to pedestrian oriented activities, the fences could be removed and the excess space could be redeveloped. The space between the building and the intersection of Christopher Columbus and Washington could hypothetically become a well activated pedestrian plaza.
Blank walls should not be permitted
All around the Exchange Place station of the PATH train there are buildings that present a blank wall to the street. These make for a miserable pedestrian experience. 70 Hudson Street has perhaps the worst of these blank walls. This 12 story high-rise is built upon a parking garage. Along Sussex Street, the building at street level is composed of garage entrances and air vents. The Grand Street isn’t much better. Instead of garage doors and air vents, this side has glass with only two pedestrian entrances along the 230 feet of building. While this style of development certainly is more profitable for the developer, it has a negative impact on the city in general. The lack of amenities, particularly in such an urban context, means that people are less likely to want to live or work in the area. This certainly has to have an impact on the land values, though it would be hard to measure given the unique characteristics of this site: riverfront property, views of Manhattan and great transit access.
Pedestrian access should be at street level
Although there are buildings that are an improvement over the previous two examples, there are still problems. 50 Columbus is a great example of progress without achieving a pedestrian friendly building. Here a 36 story highrise has an attached parking garage with ground level commercial space below both. This building even attempts to have active entrances along its back side on Steuben Street. Unfortunately these commercial spaces are a couple of feet above the sidewalk necessitating stairs and ramps. This might not seem like that big of a deal. Who cares if some people have to walk up a couple of steps? This does not create a significant burden for anyone trying to reach the businesses. However, it does create a significant separation between the businesses and the sidewalk. Instead of naturally passing by the businesses as a part of a walk down the street, people must make an active choice to get close. Stores that rely on window shopping are unlikely to find success here since most eyes will be separated from windows by 10 to 15 feet. Jersey City may have a good reason for this sort of separation. Given its location at the mouth of the Hudson River, Jersey City is highly vulnerable to sea level rise and was flooded during Hurricane Sandy. That said, I have seen the same sort of developments in non-flood prone locations (Kilmer Square in New Brunswick, NJ). Frankly I think this reflects a certain design laziness as opposed to a calculated resiliency strategy (the stores in University Center on Easton Avenue in New Brunswick show how a good architect can deal with these street level issues) . Even if this separation was created for sea level rise, the design work needs to be redone to better integrate the store level and the sidewalk level.
Storefronts should be small
I have noticed that in several developments in Jersey City, the ground level commercial space is broken up into large spaces. By having fewer rentable spaces, it is a much easier site to manage. However, by having these larger spaces, the building relies on the presence of larger stores. This poses two problems. First, there are only so many stores out there that can occupy a larger space. If you get a Five Guys, you’re doing fine. However, if you don’t get it or another larger store, the space sits empty and kills street life in the area. Second, the small number of places that can occupy larger sites means that the diversity of options is limited. While not every store in a city should be small, every building with ground floor commercial should be able to accommodate smaller stores. Asia Dog in lower Manhattan has an interior width of only 10 feet. While this is an extreme, an average divisible width of 20 feet would be a great improvement. If needed, these stores can be combined to create larger spaces, but at least they would be designed to handle the smaller ones as well. These smaller stores will create more diversity, attract more independent and local stores, generate more street activity and ultimately have higher levels of occupancy over the long run.