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Newark: Living the Dream, Finally?

Artist rendering of proposed Esplanade, riparian gardens

A bustling waterfront plaza with live music, a beach and an art gallery. A fantastic park linking two vital city centers with a walkway over traffic. Seven-thousand new apartments, six new hotels and dozens of big name retailers. Not today, but soon, this will be Newark, a city whose opportunities promise to be as diverse as its population.

“Newark is on the rise because you have strong investment,” says Carmelo Garcia, Executive Vice President and Chief Real Estate Officer of the Newark Community Economic Development Corporation (CEDC), the city agency at the heart of Newark’s updated and committed redevelopment. “You have two billion dollars in redevelopment investment. Commercial investment is $800 million, not to mention that these are Fortune 500 companies headquartered here in Newark. And then, if you add the higher Ed such as Rutgers and NJIT, just the investment they are making alone is $400 million.”

New Jersey’s largest city has been a punching bag and a punch line for decades. Once known as the stolen car capital of America complete with a reality TV show to prove it, Newark had a rep and it wasn’t good. But while the rest of America made jokes, an army of development experts, elected officials, business leaders, community activists and citizens poured resources and hope into the Brick City. Now, in 2017, the City of Newark is not only a world center of business, medicine and education, it’s about to get an infusion of new energy and aesthetic beauty through two transformative projects– an expanded Riverfront Park and the conversion of a two-acre, downtown parking lot into Triangle Park connecting Penn Station, the Prudential Center and the up-and-coming Ironbound neighborhood.

Carmelo Garcia

“We are developing our riverfront which is 17 acres, 3 miles, with a world class destination waterfront park,” says Garcia. “This thing is in full motion where Phase 3 of the park right now is going to be constructed, and then Phase 4 through 7 so that in the next two years, this park will be completed.”

Triangle Park, whose signature piece will be a half-mile pedestrian bridge that will traverse McCarter Highway, is slated for completion in 2018. It is part of Mayor Ras Baraka’s vision to expand Newark’s appeal beyond the 10-year old Prudential Center. In that spirit, Carmello Garcia is the latest and, possibly, the most energetic messenger of the promise of Newark, selling the city’s assets to developers, companies and investors with a flashy new presentation titled Why Newark?

Why, indeed. A city with a history of political corruption, economic hardship and the unfortunate buzz of almost daily street crime hardly seems inviting. But that, according to Garcia and the Baraka administration, is the old Newark. Somewhere along the line, companies like Panasonic, Prudential, Audible and Cablevision found Newark not only hospitable, but desirable.

You have Burlington which is coming into Newark, Whole Foods, Petco, Grabbagreen, you got GMC,” says Garcia. “These are real retailers who people say, you know, there’s something going on over there.”

Already a center of international shipping with the east coast’s largest container operation, Newark is home to Rutgers Medical Center, the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Seton Hall University and Berkeley College. The New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) attracts headline performers from all musical and theater genres. Ethnic restaurants– Spanish, Portuguese, Latino, Italian– abound. And there’s plenty of mass transit to bring people into the city. How and why did all this happen? To Carmelo Garcia, it’s pretty simple.

“If I am attracting Latinos, millennials, young professionals–if I’m attracting the minority, professional community, or coming out of Manhattan, Brooklyn, etcetera– New York is too expensive. Jersey City is saturated and too expensive. Guess what? My next stop is Newark because it’s 18 minutes from Manhattan.”

Like other old cities rife with institutionalized politics and conflicting loyalties, Newark’s future, and it’s present for that matter, are constantly being negotiated. The push and pull of political, economic and ethnic diversity give the city both a dynamic lifeblood and an uneasy edginess. While growth has been a major priority, so has fighting crime. Yet, Garcia believes the tide is turning and one indicator can be found on the college campuses.

“There’s no parent in America who’s going to send their child to be educated at a university in a city that’s unsafe,” says Garcia. “Clearly, we’re having an increase in enrollment. They’re coming from out of town. And the reality is, that’s a strong indicator of Newark’s promise and Newark’s safety.”

For perhaps the first time in a decade, there is virtual unanimity among opposing forces in the desire to make Newark into a safe, fun, world class city that its residents, and all of New Jersey, can be proud of.