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.

A Focus on What Divides Us

Democracy is messy. Big surprise! There are no philosopher kings with boundless wisdom available to make decisions for us. We are on our own and each citizen must decide for him or herself what is truth and falsehood and what is reasonable or what is unacceptable.

Battles between neighborhood residents and real estate developers are at this moment playing themselves out in cities across the country. Literally in my back yard, the fight in which I am most interested is over the use of a public school site in a mixed residential-commercial neighborhood which also is part of an historic district. Add that the centerpiece of the controversy is the development’s proximity to the recently (2009) renovated farmers market originally completed in 1873 and you get some sense of the scope of the challenge.

At its core, the battle is over the character of my Washington, D.C., neighborhood – an existing mixed-use and transit-connected neighborhood a mere seven blocks from the U. S. Capitol building. In contrast to the orderly street grid laid out by Pierre L’Enfant, the issues in this case are far from simple.

  • How dense is too dense and what is the proper proportion of mass to density?
  • How much parking is required for a development less than 300 yards from a public transit stop?
  • What is the right mix between residential, retail and other commercial space uses?
  • Will a planning process be allowed to reach its own conclusion or will one side push for legislative or judicial intervention?
  • What protections are essential when the historic structure at the center of a thriving neighborhood will be impacted by whatever development is finally decided upon?
  • What should neighbors expect from each other when lines are drawn and sides are chosen over an issue that undoubtedly will shape the future of civilization and all human kind as we know it from now until kingdom come?

The institutions of local government – advisory commissions, planning and zoning boards and city council committees – will have the chance to address these questions over the coming weeks. I am just idealistic enough to believe that a transparent process can harness competing interests and yield an outcome that accepts the will of a majority while protecting the views, interests and rights of a minority.

That hope is boosted by the latest writing from E. J. Dionne. In his new book, Our Divided Political Heart, Dionne suggests that our society has a proven capacity to find balance between the competing needs of the individual and the community. This theory echoes the view of Robert Putnam who also expresses his faith in the role of individuals and neighborhood groups to carry out efforts that achieve civic renewal. Now all that needs to be done is for the competing parties to agree to the size and shape of the bargaining table.

Pedestrian Firenze

During most times of the day throughout the entire year, the narrow and often times cobble stone streets of Firenze (Florence), Italy are not so much roadways as they are large sidewalks.  Mayor Matteo Renzi is serious about protecting and preserving the historic character of his city – the cradle of the Renaissance.  During his tenure, he has taken steps to enforce laws adopted earlier which establish a Zona a Traffico Limitato (ZTL) or a traffic restricted zone in the city center.  He also has launched new efforts to move people more efficiently using innovative mobility strategies gathered from other places around the world.

At some intersections, a simple chain is strung across the road to mark the no-drive zone.  In other places, round metal bollards with a flashing light on top protrude from the pavement to mark the pedestrian zone.  These gentle and not-so-gentle markers help define one of Europe’s most livable and walkable cities.  On foot and at a leisurely pace, one can cover the distance from the Academia where the statue of David by Michelangelo stands, past the Uffizi Gallery and across the River Arno to the Pitti Palace with hardly a concern about a speeding automobile.

Of course the streets of central Firenze are planned for mixed use neighborhoods.  Small shops and restaurants occupy the first floors and above, on the remaining floors, are residences.  There is no such thing as a central business district or a peripheral residential district.  People live and work and recreate in an all-encompassing space that both serves residents and draws visitors.  Merchants carry on a thriving business despite the absence of cars and parking.  In fact, the festive atmosphere of the street undoubtedly improves sales.

Vehicles are permitted under particular rules and residents have special permits allowing them to get to and from their homes.  A taxi can generally move through the cordon at strategic points to allow them to ply their trade.  Exceptions are of course made for emergency vehicles and others providing a public service.  It’s all very manageable and desirable on so many levels.  One can experience the rich social contact and participate in the gentle art of strolling and being at one with a place.

Granted, Firenze is a destination city with rich historical and architectural advantages and a cultural character that cannot be replicated elsewhere.  It is simply a unique and timeless place.  However, the principles being applied to maintain these advantages, to capitalize on the benefits of place and to renew the face of a city for the present millennia can be studied, appreciated and carried elsewhere for the benefit of other cities.