By Tom Wright and Kate Slevin
This week is a busy one for Newark, NJ, a city that has recently gotten a lot of attention, both from media outlets, housing advocates and the real estate industry.
Today the Newark City Council will consider legislation for a proposed inclusionary zoning ordinance (#17-0842) which would mandate at least 20% of apartments in new buildings or substantially renovated buildings be set aside for affordable housing. The proposal was rumored to be close to passing this summer, but was pulled from the agenda at the last minute. RPA has strongly supported the bill, which is consistent with our recommendations for a more inclusive and affordable region.
Also on the agenda are two other pieces of legislation that would allow bigger buildings in certain areas downtown. Specifically, the changes to the City’s Master Plan would alter the Riverfront Redevelopment Plan (#17-1424) to allow 20-40 story buildings, and areas near Penn Station (#17-1437) to allow for taller (18-20 story) buildings, including on lots that currently have parking lots.
While the inclusionary housing proposal has broad support, the other two are drawing concerns from activists in the Ironbound community, which abuts Newark Penn Station to the southwest and would be affected by the rezoning. Organizations like the Ironbound Community Corporation have said the proposal for taller buildings would cause displacement in their neighborhood and hurt the area’s community character. The neighborhood is a vibrant, predominantly low-rise area, although 8 stories buildings are currently allowed to be built.
The proposals have caused a lot of debate in urban planning circles, because they pit two important goals against each other. Newark Penn Station is a major transit hub and commercial district with excellent access to both Midtown and Lower Manhattan – precisely the kind of place where density should be encouraged. Business groups point out that rents will rise with or without the new development, and are eager for new jobs. But the revisions are coming just two years after approval of the City’s Master Plan which was developed over years and through time-consuming meetings and charrettes. Community groups are frustrated that the city is changing course without a similar level of community involvement.
Newark isn’t alone in dealing with this. Many cities are facing these types of challenges, and finding themselves divided over priorities and processes. Newark needs to grow and capitalize on this opportunity, but do so without displacing existing communities. This can be done by engaging the community in the planning process, putting safeguards in place to protect current residents, and working carefully to make sure that new development fits into the existing fabric of the surrounding communities. Other cities illustrate that stopping development altogether does not stop gentrification, and may only make the city and region less affordable in the long run.
Newark needs to grow. But as it does, will it find a path that shows our region that growth can happen without large-scale displacement and inaffordability, or will it be the next Brooklyn? We all have a stake in the future.