Is Newark the Next Brooklyn?

December 15, 2016


The “homeless billionaire,” a world-renowned architect and the future of Brick City.

Newark 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.

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.’”

Beit started buying up downtown Newark in 2005 with financing from private investors, including Nicolas Berggruen—the chairman of private equity firm Berggruen Holdings who has pledged to give away most of his fortune. (Berggruen is sometimes referred to as “the homeless billionaire” because he lives mostly in posh hotels.)

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.

When the first Teachers Village buildings debuted in 2013, Beit was joined at the ribbon cutting by Sen. Cory Booker, then the city’s mayor, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and a host of public officials, investors and students. There were also protestors, chanting “We need real jobs” and wondering why the city wasn’t as enthusiastic about pouring millions of dollars into creating employment opportunities for its beleaguered residents. When construction’s done in 2016, Teachers Village will consist of eight, low-rise buildings housing three charter schools and a daycare facility, 65,000 square feet of retail, and 205 residential units designed by the world-renowned Richard Meier, Newark’s native son and architect of the Getty Center in Los Angeles and the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art in Spain.

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 this also is true: The project in all likelihood would not have gotten off the ground without the potential for profit. Investors and financial institutions, after all, rarely throw money at something without the prospect of a return on that investment. There are also some in Newark who are skeptical about the plan. Erecting a few residential buildings in the center of town, they say, does not a community make; it also does little for long-time Newark residents in the poorest neighborhoods beyond the city center. Nor does this type of project create the kind of high-tech jobs in high-growth industries so often needed to kickstart and sustain a modern economy.

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.

Soaring real estate prices in Manhattan pushed people to Brooklyn, then over the Hudson River into Hoboken and Jersey City. Newark, Beit wagered, would be next, and teachers would lead the way.


People have been trickling out of Newark for years. The exodus started during the 1950s, with the advent of better transportation and the emergence of suburbs that fueled the American dream of home ownership. L. Bamberger & Co., Kresge’s and Hahne & Company—the iconic “Big Three” department stores that in the 1920s and 1930s lured crowds that rivaled Times Square’s—began to sag.

But the watershed for the city came on July 12, 1967, in what the late Rutgers University professor and historian Clement Price called the city’s most defining and most misunderstood moment. On that day, a crowd descended on a police precinct to protest the arrest and beating of a black cabbie by white officers. Protesters looted and tossed Molotov cocktails and police moved in.

All told, 26 people were killed, and over 1,000 were wounded over five days. White families who hadn’t already left—the poor and lower middle-class Irish and Italian and Jewish populations—fled, raising generations who mostly thought of Newark as a place to avoid.

Springfield Avenue, where so much of the violence occurred, now has a Home Depot and some chain restaurants, along with a movie theater developed by Newark native and basketball star Shaquille O’Neal.
There were others with even bigger dreams for Newark’s revival, men like Harry Grant, who proposed a 121-story tower near city hall in 1986. It would have been the tallest building in the world at the time and part of a project Grant called, without irony, “Renaissance Mall.” Grant went bankrupt and the mall sat half-finished for nearly two decades. It was torn down in 2005 and replaced by the Prudential Center, which was completed in 2007 through a private-public consortium.

“That Harry Grant project was an individual’s dream, and it reminds us of how individual dreams often fall,”  then-Mayor Sharpe James said in 2005.