How the City of Newark is Leading in Historic Preservation

The city of Newark, New Jersey, has a strategy for historic preservation, multi-sector partnership, and the creation of new residential mixed-use development in the heart of downtown.

Newark is demonstrating that, while simple economic arithmetic may dictate demolition and abandonment when it comes to older downtown structures, those willing to see beyond the next fiscal quarter tend to reap far greater rewards. (photo: Harry Prott/Newark CEDC)

Is historic preservation only the crusade of upwardly mobile, urbanist Whites with a longing for a bygone era, or is it the essential strategy for every city and town that thinks creatively about place, the built environment, and the long-term prosperity of residents? Although that was not the intended question that was up for debate at the Legacy City Preservation forum, a gathering of preservation experts and legacy city practitioners in Newark, New Jersey, that was a recurring theme.

The participants themselves, some long-serving historic preservation professionals and many avid volunteers working vigorously in cities, were a mix of men and women from assorted races and ethnicities. They were all highly vocal, highly engaged, highly motivated, highly educated (even without counting the number of Ph.D.’s in the room) and highly entrepreneurial. More than this, many of the stories about first-hand experiences in cities demonstrated the importance of acquiring a certain adeptness at working “the system” to secure desired goals. Those telling the stories also were skilled at pushing for systemic change to advance a broad-based agenda that supports many avenues for community revitalization.

In truth, I felt right at home! Although I’m not regularly creating networking groups for home improvement do-it-yourselfers (Brick + Beam Detroit) or residential micro-development companies (Buffalove Development), the work being done by these folks is the bone marrow of cities. This is from where community strength and resilience springs.

(photo courtesy L+M Development)

Construction workers labor to restore the core of the Hahne & Company department store in downtown Newark. (photo courtesy L+M Development)

The Newark forum was partly a celebration of the rehabilitation of the historic Hahne & Company department store building, a collaboration among the City of Newark, Rutgers University – Newark, L & M Development, and J. P. Morgan Chase. Together these partners, along with several others, are reactivating the former department store as a centerpiece of Newark’s recovering downtown. A similar coalition of partners have nearly completed renovation of the former American Insurance Company tower at 15 Washington Street where the day’s events took place. These are transformative projects in terms of historic preservation, multi-sector partnership, and the creation of new residential mixed-use in the heart of downtown.

(photo courtesy L+M Development)

An architect’s rendering of the soon-to-be-finished Hahne & Company department store restoration. (photo courtesy L+M Development)

Once the grande dame of the local retail industry, the Hahne’s building was abandoned and in a state of disrepair for the past 30 years. During a hardhat tour of the renovation ($174 million, 400,000 sq. ft.), the development team highlighted the future for the building. By December 2016, the mixed-use, mixed-income space will be open to the first residents. A total of 161 rental units, 60 percent market rate and 40 percent for low income residents (at 60 percent of area median income), will be ready. The retail floors, with anchor tenant Whole Foods, will open in March 2016. Rutgers University – Newark will house their Department of Arts, Culture, and Media there, which will include classrooms, artist studios and gallery space. Nearly every relevant tax credit opportunity was leveraged for this project – historic preservation, new markets, and low income housing. For the coup de grace, the great skylight – 4-stories above the central atrium – is being meticulously restored to its former glory.

For Rutgers University – Newark’s burgeoning campus, building preservation and reuse has been a religious calling. Moreover, the imagination and creativity that has gone into rethinking what a university campus is and ought to be is remarkable. University Chancellor Nancy Cantor spoke in almost lyrical terms about the future use of historic spaces both for students and residents. For her, and for many others in the room I suspect, the process of historic preservation has taken on poetic qualities. It is as if the buildings themselves, being returned to productive use, will not only stand more proudly but will instill in those who see and use the space a sense of achievement and hope, and fortify the community for the work ahead.

Heady stuff and quite a challenge for any individual much less a historic structure. After all, we are not talking about the Pyramids at Giza or the Parthenon. But, in effect, the point of the projects are to connect present needs with past capacity. This theme runs through the entire “Action Agenda for Historic Preservation in Legacy Cities” produced by the Preservation Rightsizing Network – an agenda for cities having considerably more infrastructure than needed for the smaller population base now present.

Some of the most interesting work in cities today is in those places at the center of headlines about depopulation, disinvestment, dilapidation, dysfunction, despair, and general disaster. But the headlines never tell the full story nor even the right story. The truth about legacy cities, or any city seeking growth for that matter, is that the social and civic infrastructure (government, residents, philanthropies, neighborhood associations, faith institutions, businesses and schools) are at the heart of setting a vision and implementing the plan to reach the goals.

In legacy cities, preservationists are taking full advantage of the assets they have available – 60 to 100 years of growth in the built environment that yielded homes, factories, shopping arcades, warehouses, transportation systems, public utilities, parks, schools, and neighborhood residents. Although simple economic arithmetic may dictate demolition and abandonment, those willing to see beyond the next fiscal quarter tend to reap far greater rewards. It is for this reason, for the creation of a more prosperous and distinctive place – a place that people want to live in or go to rather than drive through – that historic preservation needs to be an essential strategy for every city and town.

Brooks, J.A. 2010About the Author: James Brooks is NLC’s Director for City Solutions. He specializes in local practice areas related to housing, neighborhoods, infrastructure, and community development and engagement. Follow Jim on Twitter @JamesABrooks.