Newark has yet to see its bright day since 1930 when its population (490,000) and its manufacturing and retail power were at its peak. Now, that day has been set for 2025. Toni Griffin, Director of Planning and Community Development, is presenting a “majestic” vision, in Deputy Mayor Stefan Pryor’s words, about the city’s daunting effort to shape its future. In three “listening sessions” entitled “Shifting Forward: Newark 2025,” Griffin is inspiring hundreds of Newarkers from all walks by reviewing Newark’s over 300 past development plans and declaring the beginning of the master planning process of 18 to 24 months.
By 2025, Newark will revitalize its downtown into a living community with tens of thousands of new residents. Various mix-use and high density developments will add to the existing housing stock above the street level, which has turned dark since the late 1930’s. The Passaic River waterfront will become one of the most valuable regional assets, pumping energy into the city and its neighborhoods. Newark’s cultural and historic resources will project a new image to the world. The growth of the higher education institutions will create a city of learning, filling the painfully enduring educational gap among the city’s young people. With its strategic advantages of mass transit, Newark will exemplify a sustainable city of the 21st century. Toni Griffin calls a new Newark “the city of choice.”
If 2025 is too distant in the foggy future, a city of choice seems totally beyond any stretch of conventional wisdom. Participants of the listening sessions were excited, but “scared,” as some of them stated. How can any reasonable person not be scared by Newark’s daunting challenges?
- The city has a paralyzing high unemployment rate of 40 percent.
- Sixty percent of the work force endures the hard daily journey out-of-town.
- More than 30 percent of Newark’s children are living below the poverty line.
- Annually, over 1,700 ex-prisoners re-enter the city with no help and no future.
- Over 50 percent of families are headed by single females….
Professor Clement Price and Richard Cammarieri of New Community Corporation, among many long-time residents, cautioned about the equity of future development and the issue of race and class. Indeed, the top emphasis of Newark’s “Shifting Forward,” according to Toni Griffin, has been job creation for Newarkers. She said, “If the goal were to reduce our unemployment rate by half, there needs to be 16,000 new jobs created.” She believes that the goal is definitely achievable through development in the port and the airport (9,000 new jobs), in new retail (3,000) and in small businesses (4,000). Deputy Mayor Stefan Pryor further emphasized the development of affordable housing to counter any threat of gentrification, “The city economic development plan has aimed for more affordable housing units far exceeding the total in the past 20 years.”
Since Macy’s closed its doors in Downtown Newark in 1992, mainstream businesses have shunned the city, which has been through extremely heavy, if not total, destruction in the past 60 years. A few big names, such as Old Navy, Kinko’s, and soon Starbucks, have folded their reluctant ventures in the city in the past ten years, despite our self-congratulated cheering. Obviously, Newark is redlined by corporate business models, which refuse to share in our perception of the future. Listening to Toni Griffin in Rutgers’ Berson Conference Room, I kept thinking of an analogy created by Griffin herself— “breaking the box.” It refers to not only the ugly Bayonne box, but also Newark’s conventional development and planning box, relying solely on the market through a highly secretive process.
The city, in fact, should have learned the lesson as early as the 1950’s during those falsely hopeful years of urban renewal. Despite the support of tens of millions of federal dollars, the market forces refused to take a risk on the city’s renewal. Newark’s most powerful builder-planner of 22 years, Louis Danzig, tried to “break the box” by lobbying in Washington D.C. and actually re-writing the 1949 Housing Act for the Congress to include development of institutions. Rutgers-Newark has been the direct beneficiary of the “breaking the box” effort. In early 1959, the university was only weeks away from breaking ground for its law school at 37 Washington Street, without a cohesive campus. The city and the NHA turned the direction by delivering first 12 acres of Rutgers’ campus for only $785,000 after removing hundreds of families and properties using the amended Housing Act.
In 2000, the over 1,900 urban universities nationwide spent a total of $136 billion, which amounted to nine times the federal government’s spending on jobs and urban development. Many urban universities, such as the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Pittsburg, have become pillars of their host cities’ physical and economic development. Philadelphia’s Temple University, for instance, has grown to be one of the largest urban universities, from a commuter school — not much different from Rutgers-Newark — into a residential university.
By reclaiming the city’s longtime investment and integrating the city’s higher education institutes in the “Shifting Forward” plan, Newark holds a unique “breaking the box” development strategy, which few other cities can dream of. The universities and their leaders have to join Newark and its people, not only to fulfill their social obligations and “pay back our debts to the host city,” in the words of Rutgers’ President Mason Gross (1959-1971), but also for their mission as urban educational institutions.
During the listening session, Rutgers-Newark’s Executive Vice Chancellor Gene Vincenti commented on his experience with Toni Griffin’s planning office, “Working with you in the past year has been wonderful, just like a dream.” It is encouraging to see the fruition of Newark’s long-planned “breaking the box” development strategy with its universities. To reflect the principles of “Shifting Forward: Newark 2025,” Rutgers needs to upgrade its five-year-old physical master plan, rooted in an old paradigm when a fortified campus with lots of on-site parking and banked land was “fashionable.” After all, as NJIT’s President Robert Altenkirch has said, “Our institution’s future is rooted in the future of Newark.”