Breaking the Box: Newark’s City Planning Forum

“Newark, the largest city in New Jersey, is the commercial, industrial, and cultural center of an urban area containing more than a million people. About half of these people live in Newark, while many of those residing elsewhere, work in Newark, shop there, attend its theatres, and are part of the complex economic and social structure inherent to a large urban community.” Unfortunately, this introduction to Newark’s 1947 City Master Plan has become the very distant past, after a painful, brutal, and sometimes even bloody decline of six decades. However, the author of the master plan, the legendary American city planner, Harland Bartholomew, would be happy last night at the Newark Museum to watch Toni Griffin, a talented city planner, conducting an exercise to “break the box” in order to revitalize this desperate city.
In March 1914, Harland Bartholomew was hired as America’s first municipal planner, here in Newark. In 1920, he worked on the first city master plan of Washington D.C. Against tremendous political pressure, he insisted that the already started planning process had to go back to a systematic survey, the foundation for a sound city plan. Eventually, he settled in St. Louis while contributing to hundreds of plans all over the country. As he often said, the city plan “must be a plan of the people and for the people. Otherwise, it is doomed to failure from the beginning.”

Interestingly, Toni Griffin has built her career following the exactly opposite geographic route from her Mid-Western origin to Washington D.C. and to Newark. In Washington D.C., she started the planning staff and the process from the ground, hiring a planner for each of eight wards and creating 39 neighborhood plans, which served as the basis for some larger-scale master plans. Her eclectic team of planners, attorneys, architects, urban designers, landscape architects, and people with development expertise worked in collaboration to master the complexity of urban growth.

Newark, with its long decay followed by an anarchistic but shallow real estate boom, is in a rather chaotic aftermath waiting for Toni Griffin, particularly when the unprecedented American economic growth has just moved into a dangerously uncertain retreat. Starting right after her arrival, Griffin invited a group of architects to look at the ubiquitous Bayonne Box, which many people love to hate. However, from last night’s design presentation, the architects have seemingly taken the order of “breaking the Bayonne Box” rather literally. As Professor Toni Schuman of NJIT told me, “Some new designs are just better boxes, which have to be constructed by better developers.” Deep setbacks, vast curb cuts, car-forward frontage and the vinyl box, are obviously Toni Griffin’s lesser concerns.

The country is facing a drastic demographic change. Among all industrial countries, America will be the only one that will experience a rapid population growth, with a rate even much faster than China’s in the future 20 years. Toni Griffin’s guest, Laurie Volk of Zimmerman/Volk Associates, a highly respected market researcher and expert on the new urbanism, provided a fast approaching urban future, dominated by aging Baby Boomers and 78 million “Millennials,” which will more likely to live in cities with smaller and more sustainable housing as singles and couples, rather than as traditional families. Our cities will look very different. “It will be a crime if Newark misses the opportunity to reflect changes in this center of population growth,” she concluded to architects, planners, and city leaders. The era of the Bayonne Box is over, not only because of an already observed surplus of these expensive cheap products, but also because a Newark of “any-development-was-a-good-development” is over, declared by the Deputy Mayor Stefan Pryor.

On my way out of the auditorium, where hundreds of local “Utopians” were still excited about the new Newark, I passed by the 12 new housing designs in the hallway. Interestingly, many of them call themselves “Breaking down the box,” or “Push/Pull” boxes, but they all leave a large sacred box at the ground level untouched, the box for parking our beloved automobiles. I cannot help thinking about Lewis Mumford, the great American thinker of the city, who said many years ago, “The right to have access to every building in the city by private motorcar, in an age when everyone possesses such a vehicle, is actually the right to destroy the city.” Has the country adopted policies of obsessive automobile ownership as its de facto urban (suburban) policies? Have the people of New Jersey acted on that right to destroy Newark? Haven’t we had enough? Have we reached the historic moment to also break that sacred box, once and forever?

Out of the Ivory Tower and Into the Streets

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.

Equitable Process

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.

Public Impositions

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.

Transit Village

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.

Multiple Redevelopers

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.

Community Profile: the Ironbound Community Corporation

The Ironbound Community Corporation has been partnering with residents since 1969. In this community profile, I discuss with their Director of Family Services, Jonah Gensler, how the ICC is helping to build a better Newark.

Jonah Gensler, Director of Family Services at the Ironbound Community Corporation (ICC) walked me one of ICC’s new Family Success Centers in the heart of the Ironbound. He apologized for the sparse rooms as he pointed out childrens’ play areas, counselling stations, a commercial grade kitchen, and the occasional room he remarked was “room for growth”. This is the first in a two-building expansion of the publicly-funded community services organization, which has been growing by leaps and bounds in part due to new state funding.
Jonah sat me down in his office and painted the picture of the ICC as an organization that pairs community advocacy and services, and described how they are applying this model to two Ironbounds: the East and West neighborhoods. “It’s the Forgotten Ironbound,” Jonah said of the East side — an area physically and economically cut off from the bustling Ferry Street nightlife closer to Penn Station. He went on to describe the danger and neglect that residents of the Hyatt projects, for example, experience on a day-to-day basis. Regulars at TDN may recall the story of a pastor at a local church who was nearly shot in this area, and the recent article in the Times about how some Port Newark shipping companies have been using a tract of riverfront property to store empty shipping containers, obscuring the view of residents. ICC staff worked with that Times reporter. “We brought her into those projects,” he said, “she was horrified.”

The ICC, in addition to providing services such as family counseling, education, and job placement, has been advocating for Ironbound quality of life issues for years. The ICC fought City Hall’s initial placement of the Bears’ baseball stadium over Riverbank Park. Despite significant momentum from the city administration, the ICC won and preserved one of the few open spaces provided for Ironbound residents.

The holistic approach towards improving the neighborhood closely aligns with the pillars of Booker’s plan to solve the city’s ills. Given this, and the administration’s use of non-profits to catalyze community improvement programs, it should come as no surprise that the Mayor’s office has scheduled a press event at the new ICC building this week.

I asked Jonah how individuals can help the ICC and found out that nearly all of the organization’s work comes from paid staff rather than from volunteers. He did note that they are looking for help in January providing tax guidance. The 4 or 5 needed volunteers don’t necessarily need a particular skillset, but they will need mandatory training, which the ICC will host through December. If you’d like to help and want more information, please contact me at ken@dailynewarker.com.

I’ll be meeting up with Jonah for a podcast interview soon, so stay tuned.

Bayonne Box: Symbol of Newark’s Ill Planning

The three-family, triple-decker, aluminum-sided, front garage-dominated housing type, known as the “Bayonne Box,” has become the default housing type for new construction in Newark. Even the 2004 Land Use Element of City Master Plan urged to “provide more land which allows two-, three-, and four-family detached housing, which has become the housing choice for both public and private sector builders.” Meanwhile, the city has started to suffer from the devastating effects of the Bayonne Box proliferation. In its 2006 Newark Vision Plan, the Regional Plan Association called for alternative designs. In his first State of the City address on last February 8, Mayor Booker requested the city to “identify and encourage design alternatives to the ‘Bayonne Box’ model for two- and three-family houses.” The new Director of Community Development Toni Griffin is organizing a housing design symposium next Wednesday to introduce better design models and higher design standards (see below). What is wrong with the popular Bayonne Box? Is it just aesthetic embarrassment and construction defects?
To find out the genesis of the box, I called the reference librarian of the Bayonne public library last summer. She responded angrily, “People like to make fun of Bayonne.” Only after learning that I am a Newark resident, she pointed out, “We have moved away from that kind of development.” It is true that the small town of 61,842 residents has become much more forward-looking in its physical development. For instance, its redevelopment of the former naval base alone will create over 6,700 high density housing units, 750 hotel rooms, 340,000 square feet of retailing space, and 242,000 square feet of civic space. Many apartment developments have long included underground parking. “Newark Box. That’s what you should call it,” the librarian added with some satisfaction.

Automobile Obsession

Over the course of last century, the American home, as well as all aspects of the society, has been designed to focus on automobile usage. The treasured machine takes a great space in repose, as well as in motion. As soon as technology improvements made the automobile less explosive and flammable, architects moved it out of the old carriage house and into the integrated living space. Frank Lloyd Wright was among the first in the 1920’s to design attached garages for his beloved Lincoln Continentals in his Chicago Oak Park house. Architects Keck and Keck’s 1926 modern structure, a forerunner of the Bayonne Box, featuring a dominant three-garage front with a wide curb-cut, was even named as a Chicago landmark in 1994. The garage has become the most massive exterior feature of new homes. Some New Urbanists call it “garagescape.”

The impact of a brutal garage, a paved front driveway, and a twenty-foot curb-cut in front of every new home can be devastating. In the case of Bayonne Box, planning for the most direct vehicular access, the frontal driveway location, and obtrusively parked vehicles destroyed the fabric of a healthy pedestrian-oriented neighborhood. In Ironbound’s Sumo Village, while negotiating with big cars on the sidewalk, pedestrians are often forced to witness the selfish display of a junk closet through those open garage doors. Furthermore, the Bayonne Box loudly promotes a destructive way to organize all aspects of life in our city and beyond through automobiles.

Some design remedies might try to mitigate the visual impact of the Bayonne Box through such means as a rear access lane or alley. However, the popularity of the box design among Newark developers is related to antiquated city ordinances for the minimum parking requirement, which required five to six parking spaces for a three-family structure. Many city planners call for adoption of a “maximum” parking standard, which restricts one parking space per 1000 square feet development, compared to four spaces now in Newark. Jersey City currently has an even lower ratio than the suggested maximum ratio for Newark. Given the mass transit advantages enjoyed by the city, homes with transit village designs will not only break the Bayonne Box model, but will also attract many different home buyers, who tend to commute to work by train.

Urban Sprawl

With land of only 24 square miles, Newark is among the cities with the highest density in the country, even after the drastic decline of its population in past decades. However, those who pass by Newark along the Northeast Corridor are often amazed by row after row of Bayonne Boxes plopped up swiftly in the Ironbound section. Another missed opportunities for higher density urban redevelopment, which is ideal for creating jobs, bolstering city revenue, and improving the state’s energy efficiency if replacing these structures with sufficient office capacities. Some prominent transportation planners such as Martin Robins and Jeffrey Zuppan predict, “Nearly 11.5 million gallons of gasoline a year would be saved by increasing the number of jobs in downtown Newark, essentially doubling them, instead of locating them in the suburbs.” The city has to immediately stop building Bayonne Boxes here and to establish financial and zoning incentives for developers to build higher density units, and encourage companies to those locations where public transportation is readily available to their employees.

Risky Finance

These expensive Bayonne Boxes rely on risky finance and count heavily on rental income for the owners. Some Ironbound developers are known for delivering a “secret” extra rental unit with all water and gas pipes hiding behind sheetrock for an easy do-it-yourself conversion. According to recent census figures, Newark is among the highest percentage (over 40 percent) in the nation where homeowners spend more than half their income on housing. Attracted by the American Dream in these multifamily Bayonne Boxes, working families have taken various risky loans to buy much more housing than they need, betting unrealistically on continuing increase in value of their properties and personal income. When these conditions failed to materialize and rental incomes fell short, many owners of Bayonne Box multifamily homes suffered from ruined credit, foreclosures, and broken hopes.

Visionless Uniformity

Jane Jacobs espoused that a vital urban life rests on preserving neighborhoods of mixed-uses, mixed-users, and mixed-styles, with active residents and pedestrians as eyes and ears of a safe community. Newark has its own example of a lively neighborhood along Ferry and Wilson Streets, with vertical mixing uses in buildings, with a focus on retail on the ground floor and street level, and residential on the upper floors. The enlivened community creates an exciting presence of economic and social activities not only during the day, but also in the evening and on weekends.

Some early “Bayonne” design, such as the 1940’s garaged row houses on Holland Avenue of Bronx, at least paid great attention to the Tudor gables, façade details, chimneys, terraces, and stoops, in order to establish an individual identity for each house. However, the quick construction of Bayonne Boxes in Newark deliberately stands for a soulless uniformity, which leaves out any architectural details and street amenities. As the result, these houses effectively turn streets solely for automobile storage and movement. In one of the Sumo Villages off South Street, a great number of identical multifamily houses share a small corner play area for children, with dusty and broken equipment. Oh, Bayonne Boxes, what a community killer!

Political Corruption

A majority of Bayonne Boxes in the city were built by three politically connected large real estate developers, who acquired public land with a deep discount, together with easy zoning variances, tax-abatements, and other perks. Other crony-turn-developers, such as Jackie Mattison, Emilio Farina, and Tamika Riley, who had little or no development experience, all had a hefty share of the 5,000 parcels of cheap city land. These cookie-cut shoddy constructions were often done by workmen under the condition that they got paid only after the houses were sold. While the current city administration is ready to lift the moratorium of land sales and to settle with developers, future public subsidies should not be on the land, but rather directly on affordable and sustainable housing that agrees with the city’s strategic plan and high design standards.

A Chinese proverb says, “It is not too late to mend the fold even after some of the sheep have been lost.” Some cities, such as Portland, Oregon, have adopted strict ordinances to guide development. For instance, three-quarters of a house façade must be house but not garage. Some economists and planners have long argued that the property tax is antiquated; for reasons that not only is wealth now held in many intangible forms, but also development in depressed urban center has been discouraged. Instead, some forms of land tax may encourage proper urban land use policies, discourage land speculation, and prevent shoddy constructions on cheap land. Obviously, the city has to go far beyond toothless and suggestive design alternatives to battle the Bayonne Box phenomenon.

TRANSFORMING THEBAYONNE BOX” INTO A NEW HOUSE FOR NEWARK
Wednesday, November 28, 6 pm – 9 pm
Newark Museum Auditorium

Sponsored by:

  • City Division of Planning & Community Development
  • Regional Plan Association
  • Urban Land Institute

Associated Press: “Relative of Newark man killed by rookie cop doubts he had gun”

Associated Press: Relative of Newark man killed by rookie cop doubts he had gun

Sevillie Sumler is no stranger to funerals, not after holding services last year when two of her sons were shot to death in separate incidents. But with $4,000 still due to the undertaker, and an ache still in her heart, she’s not sure she can deal with yet another young relative shot down in the street.

This time, however, the killing was done by a rookie Newark police officer.

She doubts police had reason to shoot her great-nephew, 21-year-old Jihaad Sumler, after hearing accounts of his last moments from his friends.

He was killed about 1:15 a.m. Thursday outside the apartment complex where he sometimes stayed in recent years, and just a few blocks from his great-aunt’s town house.

Authorities said police went to the Kretchmer Homes in response to reports of gunfire there. Police said Sumler was being chased and drew a weapon when he was shot.

A loaded .357-caliber handgun was found next to Sumler after the shooting, said Paul Loriquet, a spokesman for the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office.

Sevillie Sumler said she heard a different account from those with her nephew that night.

“They all said Jihaad did nothing wrong. He had both hands up,” Sumler said as she sat next to a shrine bearing the ashes of her two dead sons. Jihaad Sumler told police, “I ain’t got nothing,” she said. “And they shot him anyway.”

The shooting remained under investigation Friday by police internal affairs officers and the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office.

A police spokesman, Detective Todd McClendon, declined to comment on Sevillie Sumler’s assertions. He urged witnesses to give a sworn statement to police.

NJ.com profiles Eleven 80 Raymond

NJ.com: For rent, More Jerseyans shunning McMansions for life in luxury apartment buildings.
NJ.com has a piece today on renting in New Jersey and features Eleven 80, Newark’s first luxury condo buildng in 40 years.

Rent for a 2-bedroom apartment in the highrise can run upwards of $2,600. Seems high for Newark, but the rent is quite a value for a lavish building that’s a 20 minute train ride from the World Trade Center.

If you want a glimpse of where New Jersey’s housing market is headed, a good place to start would be Eleven-80, a 317-unit luxury apartment building in Newark.

Located just a few blocks from Penn Station, the newly renovated Art Deco-style high-rise is packed to the gills with over-the-top amenities on a par with anything a well-heeled renter might find in a luxury Manhattan apartment. There’s a slick, four-lane bowling alley, full-size gym with steam room and sauna, 24-hour concierge service and indoor basketball court.

William and Bray Mitchell, New Hampshire transplants who have been renting a two-bedroom apartment at Eleven80 for the past year, are officially hooked on apartment living. The Brays, both 50, describe themselves as “empty-nesters,” with their three children off at college. So when William Mitchell’s company, Audible.com, an online audio-book seller, relocated to Newark, the couple had no qualms about packing their bags and renting an apartment in the city.

While a single-family home still defines the American dream, the number of high-end renters is growing in New Jersey, according to developers and experts on the state’s housing market. The trend is fueling the development of luxury apartment buildings in places such as Livingston, Morristown, Rahway and Red Bank.

Eleven80, Newark’s first high-rise luxury residential development in almost 40 years, was completed last year and is already two-thirds occupied, according to Arthur Stern of New York-based Cogswell Realty, the developer.

Rents range from $1,400 a month for a studio to $2,600 for a two bedroom — significantly cheaper than the average two-bedroom luxury rental in Manhattan, which can run upwards of $6,000 a month. In Jersey City, a similar apartment can run between $3,600 and $4,200, Stern said.

Rents in Newark and elsewhere in New Jersey represent a bargain for empty-nesters like the Mitchells, who want to trade in their trophy homes for a more hassle-free lifestyle; young professionals, who want the vitality of city life but don’t want to pay Manhattan prices; and well-heeled couples who want to live in style while they accumulate enough money to afford New Jersey’s sky-high housing prices.

“If you are a couple and you are both starting your careers, and you have settled into a salary of $60,000 or $70,000, it’s hard to spend $6,000 a month on a Manhattan rental and still save enough money to save and get ahead,” Stern said.

Fleeing Suspect Shot, Killed by NPD in the South Ward

Newark Star Ledger: “Newark police kill man after foot chase”:http://www.nj.com/starledger/stories/index.ssf?/base/news-4/1195192049111370.xml&coll=1.

A Newark police officer shot and killed a gunman yesterday after a foot chase in the city’s South Ward, authorities said.

The 1:15 a.m. incident was triggered by reports of gunfire on Ludlow Street. When officers arrived, they found a group of 10 to 15 men hanging out, authorities said.

The men scattered, and the officers chased after them, cornering several of them at Ludlow and Virginia streets, police said. One suspect, 21-year-old Jihaad Sumler, allegedly pulled a gun and pointed it at one of the officers.

The officers shouted “gun.” An officer whom police did not identify fired at Sumler, hitting him twice in the torso, according to the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office. He was taken to University Hospital, where he was declared dead.

Investigators found a loaded .357-caliber handgun near where Sumler collapsed, prosecutor’s office spokesman Paul Loriquet said. Authorities believe it was the weapon Sumler pointed at the officers.

According to the New York Times, an investigation is underway: Newark: Police Shooting Investigated.

The Westinghouse Building: Will a Sad Story Turn into “an Incredible Light”?

Frequent commenter Zemin Zhang lives in downtown Newark. He’s been long fighting the battle of taking down the Westinghouse building which blights the Broad Street Station area. Mayor Cory Booker suggested on last week’s Newark Today show on WBGO that this dilapidated warehouse will be torn down during his administration — a ray of hope for Zemin and his James Street Historic District neighborhood. He provided this commentary in an email today. — Ed.


A Rutgers researcher, Josh Mann, observed that the Westinghouse building “is reflective of the past, present, and future of Newark.” At the site of the great American inventor Seth Boydon’s early 1800’s workshop, the Westinghouse facility had been a part of Newark’s manufacturing powerhouse since 1882. In its heyday (1910-1950), 3,000 workers daily at this 4.5-acre complex produced a variety of products, from electric curling irons and watt-hour meters, to loudspeakers for early radios. Finally, like the fate of hundreds of Northeastern manufacturers, the Westinghouse building dimmed its lights in the late 1970’s, leaving this city of mostly unemployed poor minorities.

On December 29, 1983, the New West Urban Renewal Corporation, one of the many names of the family business of Ivor Braka and his two brothers, bought the complex for $2 million, “as is.” In October 1987, the brothers found a buyer, Newark Venture, who ordered an enviromental study from Accutech Environmental Services. After learning about the six areas of concern and an estimated clean-up bill of about $500,000, the buyer cancelled the contract within months. The Braka’s failed to change the buyer’s mind with their own counter-study, which indicated only limited contamination.

In 1992, New West had a more thorough environmental contaminant survey done to evaluate potential development options. Besides an asbestos problem like all old buildings in the past 100 years, former workers had used diesel fuels, solvents, degreasing materials and PCB’s. Also, the underground storage tanks had some leaks. In addition, there were four 55-gallon drums labeled “Waste Benzene” and one drum of sodium cyanide. However, the contamination has always been limited in this “Brown Field” site, different from the Super-Fund site of the Bloomfield Westinghouse facility, which had involved with the “Manhattan Project.”

In 1994, New West filed nine counts of complaints against Viacom, which had purchased Westinghouse’s remaining assets, together with some of its liabilities. The legal battle lasted for eight years until the Braka’s filed a second legal case against the same defendant in 2002. Judge Stephen Orlofsky of U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey granted a partial summary judgement on seven counts for the defendant, based on the statute of limitations. The remaining two complaints were dismissed by the court. Apparently, the Braka’s got nothing from the legal battle, but a seemingly exaggerated reputation for the building’s contamination.

In 2004, a large company headed by the Newark-born Stanley Gale invested to rehabilitate the historic building of 500,000 sq. ft. The new partnership between the Gale Company and the Braka’s United States Realty and Investment planned to develop retail space at the ground level, office space on the next level, and condominiums on the upper floors. The remediation work was scheduled to start in three months. (Obviously, it was feasible to save the building then.) In February 2006, the New Jersey construction heavyweight Mack-Cali solidified its dominant position in a $545 million deal with all statewide holdings of the Gale Corporation, bringing a new partner to the Braka’s at this site. As people can remember, the “ever-lasting” construction boom looked very promissing in Newark in 2005 and 2006. When the lightrail moved to its completion and Broad Street Station became busier by day, the nearby 4.5-acre property increased its value, along with people’s expectations. Obviously, the claim of contamination would be paid off this time by the call for a complete demolition and a plan of a much larger scale. (See a “serious plan” at http://www.aetnarealty.com.)

The brothers also own the building next to the Little Theatre on Broad Street and the Food Court complex across from PSE&G, a large building at the corner of Broadway and 51st in New York City, as well as many not-state-of-art properties from Maryland to Wisconsin to Texas. As the Aethna Realty website said, under the leadership of the highly experienced Ivor Braka, the company has been very successful in investing on strategic properties like the Westinghouse building at the “right moments.” However, any impressive development on these propeties has yet to be seen. In fact, things are not always very smooth. For instance, in the Congress Plaza Hotel of Chicago, which Ivor Braka invested in with a partner, an 80-year-old Syria-born Albert Nasser, a very contentious labor dispute broke out between the management and poor minority workers. (See http://www.congresshotelstrike.info.)

At this very moment, heavy machines are parked in front of the Westinghouse building, waiting for demolition permits. Last October, in its exciting “Newark Vision Plan”, the influencial Regional Plan Association called for “political action” against the owners to move the development ahead. In Mayor Booker’s 100-day report, one of the two development items was to urge the Westinghouse building owners to move forward at this strategic spot of the city. When our mayor attended a ceremony a few weeks ago for the demolition of the Lincoln Motel, he expressed his frustration on the slow-moving development at this extremely valuable corner, “A transit village here will provide hundreds of jobs for retail business. Thousands of Newarkers will live here and go to work in New York and New Jersey towns… We are going to see an incredible new light shine from this spot.” He gazed at the Westinghouse building. Some prominent transportation planners, such as Martin Robins and Jeffrey Zupan, have made impressive calculations on developing office spaces in the area for suburban office workers, who come here by mass transit, instead of cars. A minimum annual gasoline saving of 8 million gallons is only one of the many economic benefits for the city, the state, and the region. An incredible new light, indeed.

With what is happening now on Wall Street and on main streets, however, will the Westinghouse building lead to a happy ending soon? What if the seven-phased demolition results in “temporary” surface parking, which turns into yet another scheme of land-banking? I am sure that the owners’ deep pockets and unique investment strategies will not suffer from the delay. Then, will we become losers for another 24 years, waiting for “an incredible new light,” while our city cannot even take any “politcal action” on a now “legitimate” parking lot for automobile-loving commuters?

New York Times: Trying to Escape Attackers, Teenager Is Shot to Death

New York Times: “Trying to Escape Attackers, Teenager Is Shot to Death”:http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/14/nyregion/14newark.html

A 16-year-old boy running from attackers in Newark yesterday afternoon was fatally shot in the back just as he was climbing over a fence, the police said.

The boy, whose name was not released, toppled over the chain-link fence and landed on a dirty, discarded mattress, according to bystanders who described the shooting. A second youth who was also fleeing escaped, they said.

A number of youths were outdoors near the scene, in the fading light of the late afternoon. Friends and relatives rushed to the victim’s aid, lifted him over the fence and drove him several blocks to University Hospital, where he was soon pronounced dead.

A spokeswoman for the city, Lupe Todd, said that investigators had no immediate comment on possible suspects or a motive. The patrol car left the scene carrying one person whose head was concealed by a blanket, bystanders said.

The Uglier Side of “Post-Industrial”

The New York Times reports on one neighborhood’s battle with a container company which has completely blocked its view of the Passaic river with abandoned shipping containers: Containers Wall Off a Newark Housing Project.

Port Newark, one of the largest in the country, is also one of the largest employers in the state. That amount of industry in Newark brings its share of troubles to our neighborhoods. Even in the Ironbound, we’ve got the EPA shutting down factories and I’ve got a operating steel and fiber drum reseller driving 18-wheelers down my block. But this tragic story is just a whole other level of awfulness for Newark neighbors.

Tasha Solomon opened the grimy plastic blinds of her first floor-apartment in the Millard E. Terrell Homes, a housing project hard by the Passaic River.

She need not have bothered.

Although the river is only 100 yards from her apartment, Ms. Solomon, a 25-year-old mother of two, cannot see it from her window. Her view is a wall of rusty shipping containers that rises more than four stories, taller than any of the 12 buildings in the rundown housing complex.

“Is there a river over there?” she asked one recent afternoon.

Like drugs and gangs and poverty, the containers have simply become another unavoidable fact of life here, residents say.

For decades the project, operated by the Newark Housing Authority, has been flanked by storage depots where thousands of corrugated, trailer-size containers — a byproduct of the brisk commerce at the port in Newark and Elizabeth — sit stacked one atop the other in the barren cityscape.

There used to be some daylight.

An expanse of concrete between Ms. Solomon’s building and the murky river once served as the complex’s recreation area. Older residents recall mother-daughter kickball tournaments, dance contests, and summer evenings spent watching the lights from downtown shimmer in the distance.

“This is where we used to let it all hang out,” said Valerie Hall, who moved to the project in the mid-1960s and is one of the few who remember life before the containers. “When you’d look at those lights, it was like you could go downtown, and all you had to do was stand here.”

But about 15 years ago the housing authority, a troubled agency that barely avoided a takeover by the federal government in 2005, leased the gritty three-acre recreation area to a private container storage company. What once was a baseball field is now an expanse littered with shards of glass. And a patch of open space that allowed residents to look out on the river now provides a view of ripped and rusted cargo containers.