Nobody naively believes that Newark’s renaissance would be as easy as real estate dealers’ trumpeting, which has been going on in the city for over two decades with limited results. Meanwhile, everybody has been talking about the city’s unique assets, such as transportation advantages and higher education institutional presence (i.e., “ed and med”) for as long as people for more than one generation can remember, also with limited results. All of us, however, would agree, at least in theory, that the comeback of this city cannot simply be copied from somewhere using questionable conventional strategies, such as tax-abatements and public assistance, but should follow a powerful, courageous, and creative new paradigm.
The resilient people of Newark fortunately have had a demonstration of this new paradigm, which could become a unique national model for urban economic development, engineered by a local higher education institution. President Bob Altenkirch of the New Jersey Institute of Technology, since coming here in 2003, has long concluded that “Newark offers every asset basic to such a cluster (for economic development): invention, design, development, product, market and distribution.” He believes that “higher education is a primary engine for moving technology into a knowledge base that serves as a basic national resource.” Now, with an energetic young mayor supported by competent economic development expertise, President Altenkirch has taken his paradigm further out of the ivory tower and into the streets through the NJIT Gateway Project. (See www.njit.edu/about/administration in “Office of the President”, then “University Planning”.)
On January 7, 2006, the New York Times reported on the city’s changes through what had happened along one street, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. However, the article left out the most crucial stretch of the street between Orange Street and Central Avenue. Since early 2006, NJIT has planned a daring project to be the catalyst of all downtown development from that missing piece. As residents of the James Street neighborhood for the past two decades, we have closely studied and scrutinized every detail of this unprecedented project, initiated by an institute without millions in the endowment fund like the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia, or NYU. However, our conclusion on this project has been encouraging and convincing.
Completely Transparent Approach
In the history of the city and the state, the NJIT Gateway Project is the first time that a state research university has acted as a redeveloper to initiate public and private cooperation for every aspect and every phase of the estimated $400 million endeavor. The project aims for far more than just market benefits, with the soundest governance. After a two-year thorough investigation, on October 25, 2007, the State Commission of Inspection (SCI) published its long awaited report on the governance of the state’s universities. Despite the wide-spread financial waste and abuse among universities and malaise that has afflicted New Jersey municipalities for years, NJIT came out as the best governed institution. As a state institution in the city, NJIT has to report not only to its own Board of Trustees, but also to the supervision of the city and the state, without “pay-to-play” and without backroom deals with political cronies.
The project aims to effectively build a “24/7” mixed-use “city within the city,” which will spur the addition of thousands of new residents in a few years. The university has unequivocally declared that it will not use the power of Eminent Domain to condemn any property. Future developers alone must negotiate with property owners to obtain any private property needed. Also, the university does not seek its campus expansion into the city’s commercial and residential neighborhood.
Affordable Housing Development
The NJIT Gateway Project will result in hundreds of affordable rental units for young professionals. Working closely together with the Newark Housing Authority, the success of the NJIT Gateway Project makes the prospect of a truly mixed-income development more feasible and attractive in the Baxter Terrace area. Without the Gateway Project to first establish a link to the downtown and the Broad Street Station, and to provide necessary amenities, a publicly financed mixed-income housing project is unlikely to succeed. In the 1950’s, Mies van der Rohe’s Colonnade and Pavilion Buildings and NHA’s Columbus Homes were done in a reversed order and therefore, doomed without needed mutual complement, among other pitfalls.
NJIT and Saint Michael’s Hospital are all institutions exempted from local taxes. With large pieces of under-used and non-performing properties, the project will create a viable community, with hundreds of new jobs without much further cost of the city as incentives. The project is completely different from building a business school in a formerly fully occupied building, leading a permanent loss of the city’s tax revenues.
The state’s transit village plan has strangely excluded the city. The NJIT Gateway Project, nevertheless, will be the first in the city to obtain a transit village designation. It will be a key to truly explore the mass transit assets of the city and overcome many practical obstacles to urban development in an automobile culture. The project will serve an experiment for a progressive “maximum” (not the minimum) parking ordinance for the city.
High Design Requirement
At a time when Bayonne Boxes are proliferating in the city, the NJIT Gateway Project engages one of the most reputable developer and an architecture firm, who both have good nationwide record for urban university-initiated community projects. The project will feature mixed-income housing, ground-floor quality retail, a gourmet supermarket, and parking structures instead of surface lots and individual Bayonne Box garages, as well as possibly LEED-certified “green” buildings. NJIT has the unique asset of involving its own prestige design expertise.
Meaningful Public Participation
From the beginning, the NJIT Gateway Project has engaged local residents, as well as the university community, as stakeholders, the highest form of mutually beneficiary participation. Dr. Altenkirch initiated many unscripted open-dialogs with the community. Concerned private citizens sit in stakeholder meetings on all aspects of decision making.
Although the success of the NJIT Gateway Project largely relates to other development projects in the area, Dr. Altenkirch insists on realistically taking a project that “we can put our arms around,” financially and politically. With the leadership of the city administration and the coordination of the Department of Community Development, this approach, in fact, benefits the city greatly. With the university’s governance structure and credibility as reserve, the NJIT Gateway Project can move first with provisions for a strict timetable to be met. Other privately sponsored redevelopers will have a better chance to proceed, particularly in the precarious financial period of our economy. Moreover, multiple developers, rather than a single development authority, are more efficient and less subjected to political cronyism.Obviously, the NJIT Gateway Project has its weaknesses. For instance, the University of Pennsylvania’s ten-year approach to develop West Philadelphia had the university’s own investment of over $200 million. Newark has much less resources to attract investment than a city of a million people. Furthermore, the city has missed the most favorable development time, busily plopping up those Bayonne Boxes on cheap public land. However, all the weakness only makes the unique approach of a 125-year-old local university more respectable. Also, it gives more reasons for the city administration to mindfully take decisive leadership and immediate action. We learned that Dr. Altenkirch was a good sprinter, just as our mayor a star football player, who should know that timing and speed are the essence of the game. Without putting this project with all its undisputable merits as the highest priority, we will miss yet the last train forward.