Barry Meister has heard the rumors, and denies them emphatically: He has no plans to relocate Steel Craft, the small factory he owns in the Ironbound section of Newark, NJ, that has been in business for 57 years. Steel Craft produces parts for fluorescent lighting fixtures and employs 30 people. The rumors started when construction of 22 new houses began opposite Steel Craft. Are these homes a sign that the neighborhood is going residential?
Not at all, according to Meister. “I don’t know if they’re going to complain or not,” Meister says about the new homeowners. “But I hope they realize we’re a factory in business.” He says that Steel Craft has trucks moving in and out during the day, and it can get noisy, especially in the summer when the doors are open. And there’s a night shift. However, he is not anticipating problems. In fact, he owns an empty lot near his factory, and instead of expanding Steel Craft he’ll build five houses himself next year.
Meister is not alone. Private developers are flooding into Newark, and in the absence of citywide planning the result can seem chaotic. For decades, Newark was starved for private development, and the city’s efforts to revitalize its downtown were perceived as “downtown-centric,” coming at the expense of the neighborhoods. But now that private developers have discovered Newark’s neighborhoods, many community leaders feel they are in danger of being crushed by a runaway train. City officials, caught off-guard by the resurgent interest in Newark, are finally updating the city’s 1980 master plan. To make sure they have a voice in this process community-based organizations (CBOs) are broadening their mission by getting involved in planning to ensure city leaders hear what residents have to say about proposals that will shape the way Newark looks for years to come.
Martha Lamar is disappointed when she hears about Meister’s plan, but she says it’s understandable. “The city’s zoning allows housing to be built in most industrial areas so there are few regulatory hurdles for the developer,” she says. Lamar is a planning consultant who has assisted the Master Plan Working Group, an ad hoc coalition of Newark CBOs created in 1997 to monitor and critique the city’s planning process and to ensure public participation. The group emerged from the Newark Organizers Alliance, which was launched by the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey (HCDNNJ). Lamar was director of technical assistance for the network from 1992-1998.
Brien O’Toole, who worked with Lamar at HCDNNJ, is now senior program director at the Enterprise Foundation. In 1999, Enterprise supported the Ironbound Community Corporation, based in the city’s East Ward, in its efforts to develop its own neighborhood plan. Newark had inaugurated master plan workshops in 1998, so “there was an incipient connection between the community and the city,” says O’Toole. But the Newark Organizers Alliance saw an opportunity to create a stronger connection. “The city was developing its master plan approach as it went along,” he says.
Mark Barksdale, an executive analyst in the Newark Office of Economic and Housing Development, who is also a planner and architect, says the city is tackling the land use element first, one of 11 elements required by state statute in the master plan. The hope that they could inform and influence the planning process galvanized the member organizations of the Master Plan Working Group. Lamar says as many as 20 CBOs participate at any given time.
Each of the member organizations has distinct, as well as common, concerns about the quality of life in their neighborhoods. Both ICC and La Casa de Don Pedro in the city’s North Ward are dealing with issues of crowding and rampant development, and came up with detailed plans of their own. “Ironbound Community and La Casa went beyond the land use element to address open space and schools,” says Raymond Ocasio, executive director of La Casa.
Monsignor George Lutz, pastor of Holy Trinity Church in the Ironbound, sees the surge in population in his congregation and others, and the resulting stress on schools and city services. “It seems as if the city doesn’t follow a plan, they just go with the dollar bill,” he says. “They let good properties go through their fingers.” Msg. Lutz, who is participating in ICC’s committee on the master plan, says the community has a desperate need for new schools to ease overcrowding, and for open space for parks and recreation. The densely populated Ironbound is home to about 51,000 of Newark’s 270,000 residents, and separated from the rest of the city by the railroad tracks that give the neighborhood its name.
Nancy Zak, director of ICC’s community outreach, found the early drafts of the city’s master plan troubling. Zak says the city had designated three-fourths of the East Ward as a mixed-use district, allowing commercial and residential uses to coexist in proximity. “Martha helped us frame the issues technically and provide a critique of the city’s draft,” says Zak.
Toni Caldwell, executive director of Tri-City Peoples Corporation, says problems in the West Side Park Community of Newark include deteriorating school buildings, unemployment and underemployment. West Side Park is in the Central Ward and has about 15,000 residents, mostly African-Americans and a growing number of Latinos. It also contains the most impoverished census tracts in Newark. “You just can’t build housing,” says Caldwell. “The human capital issue needs to be addressed.”
She would like to see community workforce development centers included in the plan to prepare residents for the kinds of jobs that will enable them to sustain mortgages, such as in the well-paid construction trades. Richard Cammarieri, director of community organizing for New Community Corporation in the city’s Central Ward, agrees. “What we have in Newark is growth without development,” he says. “You can build all the housing you want, but that’s not going to change the quality of life in Newark. That will only come with income generation.”
Barksdale says the city will tackle the 10 other elements of the master plan once the Central Planning Board adopts the land use element. And he adds that workforce development centers could very well be a part of the economic development element of the plan. Lamar says it’s understandable that the city would tackle land use first. “It’s the most important element because it determines how land throughout the city will be used.”
As executive director of Corinthian Housing Development Corporation, Dwight Walker envisions building a village of market-rate and subsidized housing in addition to stores. Walker grew up in the Central Ward in the late 1950s, early 1960s, and remembers a vital retail corridor on Springfield Ave., including bakeries, shoe stores and mom-and-pop type stores. “That’s what I envision, the neighborhood I grew up in, except on a larger scale,” says Walker. So far, Corinthian has constructed 94 rental units and 23 town houses in the West Side Park Community.
In 1991, Corinthian was promised land on S. 11th, but recently a city housing official casually mentioned to Walker that the city was “entertaining a proposal” from a private developer for that same lot. Walker appealed directly to the mayor, and had a signed document to prove his claim and stop the sale from proceeding. “It’s all about politics in the city,” says Walker, who adds that Corinthian has an excellent relationship with Mayor Sharpe James, which has helped the organization fulfill its mission. “I think the city’s plan is pretty good,” says Walker.
Alan Mallach, NHI’s research director and a former director of housing and development for the city of Trenton, helped ICC write its own neighborhood plan. “The idea was to come up with something that would be a statement of what the community wants,” says Mallach. “The Ironbound plan establishes ground rules in a part of Newark that doesn’t need to convince developers to build. There has already been inappropriate and excessive development.” ICC’s land use plan would, among other things, limit the height of buildings in the section of the Ironbound that abuts Newark’s Pennsylvania Railroad Station; preserve open space along the Passaic River for recreation; provide for playgrounds when new schools are built; identify separate zones for industries and businesses where no houses would be allowed; and create a community preservation area where special design standards would maintain the character of the community.
The work that ICC has done in laying out a vision for the Ironbound has not gone unnoticed by city officials. Dr. Niathan Allen, director of Newark’s Office of Economic and Housing Development, says the city would like to see a more level playing field for other nonprofit organizations that want to weigh in on the planning process and will make $600,000 available to help CBOs create a plan for their neighborhoods “so that it’s not one neighborhood dictating for the whole city,” says Dr. Allen.
As for what will ultimately be incorporated in the city’s master plan, Dr. Allen would only say, “what’s consistent with the master plan will be adopted.” Sound planning principles would include the ability to adapt to changes in land use, he adds. “You have to have a balance,” says Dr. Allen. “You can’t have all housing without open space. You always have to keep a balance between zoning and positioning the city so it is financially solvent.”
The city updated members of the Master Plan Working Group on the revised draft of the land use element in early April. Cammarieri says the new version appears to respond to many of the concerns that were aired in the first ward meetings more than two years ago. Lamar agrees. “The new proposed land use element does seek to separate industrial and residential,” she says. “It’s an important step in the right direction.” The city will hold ward meetings on the land use element before going in May to the Central Planning Board, which will also hold hearings, giving residents and CBOs a chance to weigh in once more.
Lamar says members of the Master Plan Working Group are concerned about the housing element of the plan, which the city has yet to begin work on. “There is a big concern about the lack of affordable rental housing in the city, the units torn down by the city and the rise of market-rate units,” she says. “People feel it’s important to address the need for affordable rental housing and affordable homeowner housing.” The property tax structure would also have to be addressed – a recent tax revaluation by the city saw property taxes quadruple in some cases, causing anxiety for many elderly homeowners on limited incomes. Nonetheless, Lamar praised Dr. Allen’s efforts to complete the land use element and his willingness to take the concerns of the Master Plan Working Group into consideration.
It’s clear that it can be a challenge in any city for CBOs to be treated as equal partners in the planning process. O’Toole urges CBOs to engage with city officials early, and to be prepared for reluctance on the part of many municipalities “based on wariness that the process will take forever, be a gripe-fest or a stalking horse for political adversaries.”
He also suggests that CBOs expand their vision of what city and community planning can and should encompass. For example, the conventional wisdom among many Newark observers is that planning is a tug of war between downtown development and community revitalization. But O’Toole believes that focus is misplaced. “People say downtown is not the neighborhood, but you can’t have a flourishing neighborhood without a successful downtown,” he says. “It’s not one at the exclusion of the other. And that doesn’t speak to how resources are assigned and applied.”
Out-migration to the suburbs has had an enormous impact. “Be mindful of the urban core’s place in the region. Cities, particularly in the Northeast and Midwest, have shrunk and their surrounding regions have grown. The bottom line is, people who have a choice are going elsewhere.” In his view, this illustrates a struggle, not between the downtown and the neighborhoods, but between the urban core and the region. By enlarging their perspective to be cognizant of the region, CBOs can “use downtown” instead of disparage it, to tap into employment growth and the expansion of the transportation network. “Thinking about that, you go beyond polarization,” says O’Toole. Cammarieri agrees, up to a point. “That’s a straw man that we disparage downtown,” he says. “You want a downtown that works.”
Newark has an 8.1 percent unemployment rate, compared to a 3.8 percent rate statewide. Moreover, 29.1 percent of households have no wage or salary income and depend solely on public assistance. “We need to find a way to get downtown development to provide a benefit to residents, and we need mechanisms to ensure that it happens,” says Cammarieri. “Too many residents are in distress, and we have to address those kinds of needs.”
Alan Mallach, NHI research director and Brien O’Toole, Enterprise Foundation senior program director, cited the following examples of cities and organizations that have fostered sound models of community participation in city planning.
Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations
99 Chauncy St.
Boston, MA 02111
City of Minneapolis
Department of Community Planning and Economic Development
350 S. Fifth St.
Minneapolis, MN 55415
Minneapolis Neighborhood Revitalization Program
Crown Roller Mill, Ste. 425
105 Fifth Ave. South
Minneapolis, MN 55401
Neighborhood Planning for Community Revitalization University of Minnesota
330 Humphrey Center
301 19th Ave.
South Minneapolis, MN 55455
Slavic Village Development
Cleveland, OH 44127
City of Seattle
Department of Planning and Development
700 5th Ave., Ste. 2000
Seattle, WA 98124-4019