Newark Project Aims to Link Living and Learning
NEWARK — Work has begun on an education-centered community featuring three charter schools and affordable housing for teachers in the city’s decayed downtown, with much of the design work done by the noted architect Richard Meier.
The development, called Teachers Village, is expected to cost $149 million when it is completed two years from now. It will consist of eight low-rise buildings clustered around the intersection of William and Halsey Streets, in Newark’s Four Corners historic district. As such, Mr. Meier has designed buildings to reflect the historical nature of the area.
Teachers Village is receiving millions of dollars in government subsidies in various forms, with $14.2 million being provided in equity by the developers. Two of the buildings, together about 134,000 square feet, will be leased to the charter schools and day care while offering retail space on the ground floor. The other six buildings, totaling about 289,000 square feet, will contain as many as 220 rental apartments for teachers with retail space on the ground floor.
Teachers Village received its final approval at the city level in March 2011, but did not break ground until last month with a ceremony that included Mayor Cory A. Booker, Gov. Chris Christie and several private developers and investors.
Mayor Booker, who has shepherded the project from its first presentation in 2010, was not available for comment and referred a reporter to a news release: “Teachers Village shows that when Newark dreams big and makes ambitious plans, we can achieve development projects that meet the highest standards for innovation and excellence. While the global economy is struggling, we in Newark have fought to create transformative change that will lead to educational, economic, and social gains for our citizens.”
While the project seems to have the city’s unqualified support, some residents have protested the inclusion of the charter schools instead of traditional public schools, and others have said they felt left out of the planning process and disliked the project’s reliance on large public subsidies.
Ron Beit, a managing member of the lead developer, the RBH Group of Manhattan, said, “We were very committed to the point that you needed to create this community overnight.” Other partners include the billionaire investor Nicolas Berggruen; the private equity giant Frederick Iseman; the financier Warren Lichtenstein and his firm, Steel Partners Holdings; and the short-term commercial lender BRT Realty Trust.
Teachers Village is the first step of a development project by the same developers that will entail building or rehabilitating 15 million square feet of space, including several skyscrapers, on 32 parcels of land downtown.
The school spaces have been leased to two established Newark charter schools, Team Academy and Discovery Charter School, and a new charter, Great Oaks Charter School. The schools, with a charter school that abuts the site, are expected to accommodate about 1,360 children.
They and their families are potential customers for the stores that will occupy the 64,000 square feet of retail space being built, Mr. Beit said. So are the residents of the 220 apartments, which are not restricted to teachers, he said.
The residences in Teachers Village will be marketed toward Newark educators in charter schools, traditional public schools, private schools and universities, Mr. Beit said. About 40 studio apartments must be kept affordable according to government requirements, but Mr. Beit said the public subsidies involved in the project will enable developers to keep all their prices low — about $700 a month for a studio; $1,000 to $1,100 for a one-bedroom; and $1,400 for a two-bedroom apartment, he said.
“Our vision for Newark is really sort of a middle-income utopia, very much like how Queens and the outer boroughs have succeeded tremendously with their retail,” said Mr. Beit, who is working with Jacobs Enterprises of Clifton, N.J., to build the retail space.
He said the larger downtown development, which is to have a wide range of rental apartments and condominiums, both subsidized and market rate, may eventually draw more upscale retailers and affluent residents attracted by Mr. Meier, who is known for buildings like the Getty Center in Los Angeles.
Mr. Meier, who designed five of Teachers Village’s eight buildings — the others were done by a local architect, Mikesell & Associates, and KSS Architects of Princeton — also spent a significant amount of time working on the streetscapes in the plan. He said he expected to work on the master plan for the larger project beyond Teachers Village, also in the historic district.
“We spent a lot of time with the local landmarks commission to make sure that the designs were historically contextual,” Mr. Meier said, “and to ensure the neighborhood was true to its historic roots, while at the same time ensuring that the community has a unique distinction and quality suggestive of the new chapter commencing in this neighborhood.”
While residents appear to be in consensus regarding the need to revitalize downtown Newark, several said Teachers Village would not serve a broad enough swath of city residents. Donna Jackson, a full-time community activist, said many members of the public felt disengaged from a planning process that largely involved only business owners.
“We have no problem with improvement going on in downtown Newark,” she said. “The problem is this new development continues to drive out Newarkers. Most of us in Newark feel that again this is another prime example of segregation and building for only a certain few.”
Cassandra Dock, another activist, said that at public meetings before the Newark Preservation and Landmarks Committee and planning board in 2010, Teachers Village was described as being fully financed by private investors, and news reports from that period bear that out.
Adam Zipkin, Newark’s deputy mayor for economic and housing development, said that while Teachers Village is receiving many tax credits, “we’ll still be getting hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in the other additional property tax payments, tax abatement payments, as well as payroll taxes and parking taxes, so the project is obviously good for the city financially, but it’s so much more than that. It’s hundreds of construction jobs, and hundreds of permanent jobs that Newark residents have substantial opportunities with.”
Mr. Beit said the project was first presented as being partly publicly financed. Teachers Village is receiving subsidies that include $22.7 million in Qualified School Construction Bonds; $5.3 million of Redevelopment Area Bonds; Federal New Market Tax Credits worth about $38 million and New Jersey Urban Transit Hub Tax Credits from a New Jersey Economic Development Authority allocation of $39 million. The project is also receiving $12 million in loans from Newark, the Brick City Development Corporation and the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, Mr. Beit said.
Other residents said that including only charter schools in Teachers Village reinforced the image of a segregated community downtown.
“Rather than investing in new charter schools, why not invest in real change for schools that have been serving Newark’s youth for decades?” asked Kathryn Strom, a member of the New Jersey Teacher Activist Group.
Mr. Beit said that when Teachers Village was in the planning stages, Newark’s school district was consolidating, but that he would be happy to lease to any tenant school, whether public, private or charter.
Mr. Beit’s partner, Mr. Berggruen, said that unlike other developers in Newark over the years, who have started projects that foundered before completion, Mr. Berggruen intended to see the revival of Newark’s downtown through the long haul.
“As much as Newark in the last few decades has really suffered, it was historically, 50 years ago or more, a great success,” Mr. Berggruen said. “That means it’s a city that can be rebuilt, but you have to start with baby steps.”