For years, downtown Newark’s Military Park, barren and surrounded by vacant buildings, was a symbol of the despair that set in after the 1967 riots. Now it’s at the center of hope that a long-sought recovery for New Jersey’s biggest city may finally be taking hold.
Across from the park’s northern edge, the old Hahne & Co. department store debuted last month as a $174 million redevelopment with 160 apartments and a Rutgers University arts program and jazz museum currently displaying such artifacts as Miles Davis’s trumpet and a gown worn by Ella Fitzgerald. There will also be offices, a restaurant by celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson and a Whole Foods supermarket that’s set to open March 1, bringing life to a building that had sat empty since 1987.
A reputation for crime and poverty has kept Newark, just 10 miles (16 kilometers) west of Manhattan, mostly on the sidelines of the urban revival that’s transformed swaths of blight into trendy neighborhoods across the U.S. A surge of construction, with the Hahne’s project at its heart, is a sign the city’s luck may be about to change. Developers and their backers — Prudential Financial Inc. and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. among them — are aiming to build the critical mass needed for Newark to improve its image and fill new towers with residents who prize affordability and easy access to mass transit.
The city is “probably the beneficiary of an overheated New York market, where there’s money looking to land,” said Jeff Kolodkin, a New Jersey-based managing director at brokerage Newmark Grubb Knight Frank. With a multitude of companies investing in Newark, “even if a project or two doesn’t go as well as everyone would hope, all of them are not going to go bad.”
About 2,000 residential units were approved for construction last year, adding to the 2,000 that have been built since 2014, according to the city Department of Economic and Housing Development. In that period, about $1.7 billion has been invested in residential, commercial and industrial projects.
Newark’s comeback has been predicted before — in the late 1990s with the opening of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and a minor-league baseball stadium, and again almost a decade later with the Prudential Center hockey arena — but the hoped-for revival never fully blossomed.
“Folks have been probably overlooking Newark for a long period of time,” Mayor Ras Baraka said in a phone interview. “It just needed us to be really focused on it, market it, to push hard around development.”