Brick City Boom: Why Newark is Poised for a Huge Comeback

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Newark is looking for a come-up.

Few places in the New York City metro offer as much opportunity for growth and development as Newark. Unfortunately, Newark’s reputation precedes it. It’s difficult to gloss over a history of high crime rates, corruption, and urban plight which make it a tough sell as the next Manhattan commuter city. Shaking that image has been an uphill battle for city officials attempting to lead a revitalization effort.

“People kind of laughed at us,” recalled senator and former mayor Cory Booker about his experiences trying to draw investment to Newark.

Jersey City did it. The Garden State city just across the Hudson was often snubbed, until skyrocketing housing costs in recent years and an astronomical cost of living in NYC forced New Yorkers to give it a serious look. Newark deserves the same consideration.

Though its less-than-idyllic image isn’t entirely undeserved, the weight that those issues are given perhaps are. Crime and urban decay are problems that are in no way unique to Newark. Such concerns have haunted cities in New Jersey at large along with most major American cities, very much including New York which casts a skyline that can be seen from almost anywhere in Newark.

Newark may still have some issues—much like Philadelphia, Chicago, or Los Angeles for that matter— but those problems don’t define the city, and they don’t mean the city doesn’t also offer a lot of opportunity for residents and investors alike. Leading the charge to spur positive change are world famous architects, major developers, billion dollar groups of investors, and even Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

The Newark revitalization effort has had its ups and downs, but no one can make the claim that it’s been for lack of trying. Serious money has flowed into the city with the aforementioned Zuckerberg being one of the first, and most high profile names to invest in Newark.

The story behind Zuckerberg’s 100 million dollar investment into Newark’s school system is an elaborate one, and it includes names like Sen. Cory Booker, Bill Gates, Oprah, and New Jersey Governor and presidential hopeful Chris Christie. The fascinating details are fully chronicled in the recently released book The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?, but the end results of the donation are mixed. Whatever the case, the action itself grabbed headlines across the nation, and it may have kicked off Newark’s aggressive gambit to be taken seriously as a city with a future.

Equally headline grabbing is a man named Ron Beit who, along with a team of investors, has purchased large chunks of downtown Newark to erect extravagant projects out of urban decay such as an 8 building “Teacher’s Village” with 205 affordable residences, 65,000 square feet of retail space, 3 charter schools, and a daycare facility. The residences are being designed by world renowned architect Richard Meier, the designer of the stunning Getty Center in Los Angeles and native son to Newark.

Beit also spearheaded the development of the nation’s largest indoor vertical farm, which is capable of producing two million pounds of greens a year. The farm, run by company AeroFarms, is being constructed in a former industrial site right in the center of the Newark.

Developments such as these make all the business sense in the world. Land in Newark is cheap, and both local and state governments are chomping at the bit to do everything possible to incentivize businesses to develop it. Beit and his investors have bought up $130 million in properties in Newark—which many not seem like much, but they paid an average of $20 dollars per square foot for about 6 million square feet of building area. For comparison, non-prime areas of Brooklyn go for up to $250 per square foot. Beit’s group were also awarded $117 million in tax credits from the federal government and another $39.5 million from the state.  

Newark needs it. The city still struggles with retaining a young, professional workforce.

“There’s lots of people who come into Newark to work, but what happens after 5 P.M is that most of them leave,” notes Jeffrey Robinson, academic director at the Center for Urban Entrepreneurship & Economic Development, “You’ve got to get people to live downtown.” It’s an issue Beit hopes to address with his Teacher’s Village.

Other developers are following suit, and many of them—as Beit often does—are forgoing the traditional model of demolition and high rise construction in favor of the renovation of warehouses and historic buildings for unique and modern living spaces. It’s helping transform the slightly stigmatized nickname of “Brick City”, which has invoked images of decaying abandoned spaces, into one that’s more readily associated with a hip creativity.

Besides a close, easily commutable proximity to NYC, an extremely approachable cost of living, and dirt cheap property values, Newark has something else going for it that’s powering its boom: the power of the underdog story, and the passion of the local populous. Business opportunities aside, people truly want to make Newark a better place. The city was home to people like Shaquille O’Neal, Whitney Houston, and Governor Christie; all three of which have poured support into the city.

Ron Beit wants the developments he’s leading to be ones that are good for the city hence the creation of a world-class, high tech, major vertical farm to attract jobs, growth, and attention (the city is by no coincidence finally landing its first Whole Foods store), and a Teacher’s Village which offers competitively priced units at Newark market values rather than more profitable luxury condos. Beit himself was raised in Jersey, just across the river from the Bronx.  

Outsiders like Donald Katz, CEO of Amazon subsidiary Audible.com, are also helping the new narrative. When Katz chose Newark as the headquarters of his empire, his decision was met with chagrin by his business partners who had concerns over the viability of the city as a host to for their employees. Critics even warned Katz that his employees would quit. In the end, not only did the plan move forward, but Katz rejected any incentives the city offered including tax credits. The company would go on to engage heavily with the community by hiring paid interns from local high schools and by creating the Reading Pals program which pairs employees with struggling middle school students.

The primary concern for any post-industrial American city, from Cleveland to Detroit, is to bring the jobs back and put people into homes. A kickstarted economy and full coffers allow a city to spend as it needs to and fund its own success. But developers like Beit and his partners see the situation in Newark differently as a matter that’s beyond dollars and cents.
“Newark basically got abandoned, it was like a blank canvas,” commented Nicolas Berggruen one of Beit’s main backers while comparing Newark to other cities, “My feeling is every neighborhood deserves beauty and quality, not because it’s challenged. Newark needs love. Paris doesn’t.”