NNewark is building again. Yes, that Newark—the city in Jersey that burned after the ’67 riots, the one that helped to define “white flight,” that struggles still with almost impenetrable unemployment and homelessness and crime. That city is building.
And here it all is—its past and present and future—pouring through Irene Hall’s floor-to-ceiling windows downtown: the whites and browns of the Old First Presbyterian Church, founded in 1666; haggard red brick facades with windows sealed off by cinderblock; the neon blue lights of Hotel Indigo, which opened last year in a long-vacant, century-old building near the busiest intersection in Brick City.
“The colors are amazing,” Hall declares on this late February morning.
Though the five-year-old Courtyard Marriott, just up the block, doesn’t take Hall’s breath away, it is the first new hotel built in Newark’s downtown in 40 years.
If the story of Newark’s revitalization is all about buildings, Hall, a 60-year-old principal at a charter school here, is living inside one of its newest characters. Her eclectic, fifth-floor apartment is one of the residential units in Teachers Village, a $150 million, mixed-use project financed through a consortium of private and public investments and blessed with mammoth government tax credits. The development lives along five blocks of Halsey Street, just off of the city’s main thoroughfare and was designed to convert into residents some of the 6,000 teachers and administrators who commute to this city of 280,000 each workday.
“When we started thinking about middle income housing,” says Ron Beit, the project’s lead developer, “we thought, ‘Whoa, wait a minute. We have this crop of teachers coming into Newark every day and the energy they bring would be a great catalyst for our plan.’”
Thirty-three transactions and $130 million later, Beit and partners had amassed 79 properties, eight of those destined to become Teachers Village. The rest lie in wait for the next phases of the plan: a hotel; more residential, retail and office space; even an aeroponic farm smack in the middle of the city.
Beit, who was once described by Booker as the “James Brown of development,” uses words like “metaphysical” and “ecosystem” when discussing his vision for Teachers Village. Berggruen is even more elegiac. “Newark basically got abandoned, it was like a blank canvas,” he says by phone from Paris in early March.
“My feeling is every neighborhood deserves beauty and quality, not because it’s challenged. Newark needs love. Paris doesn’t.”
But Beit and his partners sensed an opportunity. Newark’s relatively cheap land prices and its proximity to New York City—20 minutes or so by train—had attracted new investors and development to the city for the past decade. But there was still a “doughnut hole” in the center of Newark’s downtown, a circle of blight ringed by the city’s more established businesses and government institutions. What this urban abyss needed most, Beit thought, was middle-income earners willing to live and spend money there.