Rethinking the Old Essex County Jail

NJ Appleseed and PLANewark are helping to sponsor a new exhibition about the old Essex County Jail. The exhibition will be installed behind the main staircase in the Hahne’s Building Atrium. Please join us this Thursday, May 16th at 2pm to celebrate the hard work that went into the exhibition. The exhibition has an accompanying website listed at http://oldessexcountyjail.org.

We will also be hosting a panel discussion later this summer to contemplate the role of historic preservation in our growing city. Please stay tuned for announcements!

5 Reasons Why MX-3 Should Not Pass

Over the past year and a half, the Baraka administration has pushed for an amendment to the Newark Zoning and Land Use Regulations (NZLUR) primarily to create a new MX-3 zone in the Ironbound neighborhood, directly adjacent to Newark Penn Station. This new zone calls for taller, denser buildings, most of which would require compliance with the nascent Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance. That means most large buildings in the new zone would need to set aside a minimum of 20 percent of the total number of residential units for Affordable Housing, as defined by the State of New Jersey.

On the surface, this is a noble idea and can serve to benefit the City of Newark for decades to come. Considering that a large portion of the  land in question is currently underutilized as surface parking, vacant, or small scale industrial uses, it is clear something needs to change in this area. Penn Station is the busiest train station in New Jersey, after all, and Newark deserves a grade A transit-oriented neighborhood.  Unfortunately, the current draft of the ordinance is short-sighted and riddled with errors and vague language. It simply is not ready to become law. Below are five reasons why the ordinance should not pass as it exists today.

1. MX-3 will make housing less affordable in the Ironbound

Housing markets generally work on a regional scale; think NYC metro area. The more housing you build, the cheaper overall housing becomes throughout the region. However, latent demand is so intense in the New York City metro area that simple supply and demand economics is irrelevant at the neighborhood scale.  Housing has been built denser and faster than anytime in history resulting in higher and higher housing prices immediately adjacent to new development. Several studies have confirmed that this often results in displacement of nearby residents. We only need to look at Jersey City or Hoboken to see this playing out. Newark and the Ironbound will succumb to the same market forces over time if there is no attempt to build affordable housing.

It’s no question that Newark needs to build more housing next to Penn Station where there is high demand, but this ordinance does nothing to preserve affordability in the neighborhood. The city’s Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance requires affordable housing in the future MX-3 zone, but with a large loophole that allows developers to pay a nominal fee for each unit not built on site. If given the choice, a for-profit developer will always choose this option because the fee associated with each unit is much less than the cost of actually constructing a unit. The City has already shown a willingness to accept such payments in lieu thus far. It remains to be seen if on-site construction will be enforced bin the most critical areas (i.e. next to a busy train station).

All of this means that it’s likely no affordable housing will be built in the MX-3 zone where it is most critical for an inclusive city. This in turn will result in higher property taxes and higher rents for neighborhood residents, as has happened elsewhere in Northern New Jersey.

To fix this, the Council can require as a condition of approval for large buildings that affordable housing must be built on site. This is called a “Conditional Use  Standard” which is applied to any “use” listed as ‘C’ for Conditional in any zone. The thinking is, in exchange for building higher or denser, developers should be required to provide affordable housing. We would suggest all High Rise Residential buildings be listed with a ‘C’ and include specific provisions for the MX-3 zone in the Conditional Use Standards (Chapter 6).


2. MX-3 Encourages overdevelopment without infrastructure improvements

The area slated for the MX-3 zone already suffers from routine flooding, sewage backup, and poor air quality. This is all true while a large portion of the land remains unbuilt. Once new buildings are developed, all of these problems will be worse. There will be less open land to absorb rainwater, more demand on the public sewer and water systems, and less vegetation to absorb air pollutants.

To the City’s credit, the draft MX-3 ordinance does include some “sustainability standards” for all new buildings in the zone, but this does not address the most critical impacts of overdevelopment on Newark’s combined storm sewer system. The City should introduce a companion ordinance that exacts impact fees or requires private investment in the public infrastructure to mitigate the worst impacts of these future developments. The City has indicated it may be willing to do so, but so far this has been unaddressed.


3. Text is poorly written and susceptible to abuse

Much of the language in the draft ordinance is unnecessarily complex and confusing. This will likely result in different interpretations of key provisions leading to unintentional results. For example, it is unclear whether certain tall buildings, such as hotels or office buildings, would be considered the “Detached Commercial” building type or the overly verbose “Ground floor commercial, including retail, office or service use with commercial or residential above” building type. It’s important to note that there are no restrictions on building height for “Detached Commercial” buildings, meaning towers exceeding 20 stories could feasibly be built in this area. This is contrary to the City’s statements that all buildings within the zone are limited to 12 stories (the text now reads “145 feet”). At the very least, this discrepancy should be clarified.

Other provisions are not sufficiently defined. For example, the open space requirement under the “sustainability standards for MX-3” is too flexible. An owner could conceivably provide a covered driveway or paved area and comply with this definition. We have seen such a space on an application that was previously approved. Surely this is not the intention of this requirement. The City needs to spend more time on this ordinance to ensure that text cannot be misinterpreted.

4. The process is opaque, rushed, and non-democratic

The original MX-3 ordinance process in 2017 was fraught with poor outreach and weak community engagement, if any. It took just over 3 months to introduce and pass the ordinance after much community resistance and only one, heated, community meeting. Proper notice wasn’t given to residents The quick turnaround resulted in much confusion over which version of the legislation was being brought to a vote, and some councilmembers and planning board members seemed unfamiliar with the provisions set within. Eventually, that version of the ordinance was struck down in court, in part due to the improper response by the City.

When the City of Newark restarted the process in late November of 2018, it did so with the expectation that the ordinance would pass in less than one month, before an artificial deadline at the end of 2018. The deadline was later extend by about one week. That being said, the administration made an effort to host several public meetings to help inform the community about what was coming. Those meetings produced substantive feedback about the organization of the text, specific planning requirements for different building types, and a concern for public infrastructure.

Since receiving comments from community stakeholders, virtually none of it has been incorporated into the draft text. Instead, the new draft has eliminated or reduced required setbacks, removed a 12-story limit, and continues to permit buildings in excess of 12 stories – this is all contrary to the public feedback. Through and through, the remaining portion of the ordinance is almost exactly the same despite the deficiencies that have been pointed out during the lawsuit. It begs the question, who is this benefitting and why has the process been so divisive? The community clearly wants changes to the draft, and they are willing to compromise – several people suggested height limits of 10 stories, well above what is existing and greater than what is currently allowed. Still, the City hasn’t budged and they haven’t given clear reasons as to why such a zone change is needed. Such a large change to the zoning requires more transparent engagement, more time, and better planning. Without those things, we’re left with subpar legislation that will do more harm than good and likely benefit only a privileged few.


5. Sets a bad precedent

This zoning amendment represents the first major adjust to Newark’s brand new zoning ordinance. Passed in 2015 and based on a Master Plan from 2012, the current ordinance is less than 4 years old. That ordinance is derived from a thorough public process which sets requirements for all zones throughout Newark, including the R-5 / future MX-3 zone. By amending the ordinance so soon with little community support, and little explanation, the City is setting a precedent for all future zoning changes. That means any new administration can simply change the text as it sees fit without regard to those who will be most impacted by such changes.

At the very least, the administration should incorporate into the text some of the very specific and relevant comments given by the public. Perhaps this will restore some good will and show future administrations that you need the support of the community being affected.

aerial view of the proposed mx-3 zone

New Study Assails Secrecy Surrounding Amazon Headquarters Bids

We all know that Newark is one of the 20 finalists in the running to be selected as the location for Amazon’s second headquarters and that, to lure the company, the state and city are offering up to $7 billion in tax credits and other incentives.

The reason we know that much is because New Jersey and Newark both passed legislation on the subject, exposing the process to public scrutiny.  But the bid Newark submitted to Amazon has not been disclosed. And though huge amounts of public resources are also involved in the bids of the most of the other 19 contenders, including  Chicago Dallas, Miami, and New York City, even less is known about most of those other bids.

The troubling secrecy surrounding the high stakes process is the subject of a study released on April 3 by Good Jobs First, a non-profit that focuses on corporate accountability. The title encapsulates the important issues at stake: “Public Auction, Private Dealings: Will Amazon’s HQ2 Veer to Secrecy Create a Missed Opportunity for Inclusive, Accountable Development?

Continue reading New Study Assails Secrecy Surrounding Amazon Headquarters Bids

LAWSUIT CHALLENGES IRONBOUND UPZONING

In a process that took years, spanned three mayors and was led by an urban planner who just won a MacArthur “genius” award based, in part, on those efforts, the City of Newark overhauled its zoning laws in 2015.

It was the first such comprehensive revision in more than 50 years and was widely praised not only for the substance of the new zoning,  which was based upon goals of environmental justice and accountable development, but for the open, participatory process by which it was adopted

Recently, in a move that would seem to undermine the well-thought out plan embraced just two years earlier and to contradict its participatory approach, Newark amended its zoning to increase the maximum building height in part of the Ironbound. And it allegedly did so without providing nearby residents the legally required notice.  Continue reading LAWSUIT CHALLENGES IRONBOUND UPZONING

NEWARK PLANNER WINS GENIUS GRANT

Photo by John D. & Catherine T.  MacArthur Foundation/CC BY

PLANewark salutes the selection of Damon Rich, as one of 24 MacArthur Foundation fellows for 2017. Rich is a designer and planner who shares the PLANewark vision of building a vibrant and reinvigorated Newark through equitable and sustainable environment and land-use practices.

He and the other honorees will each receive a $625,000 “genius” grant, bestowed annually on creative people, working in any field, who have shown “extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.”

Rich was chosen for “creating vivid and witty strategies to design and build places that are more democratic and accountable to their residents.”

Continue reading NEWARK PLANNER WINS GENIUS GRANT

Do surface parking lots detract from a city’s stability and sustainability efforts?

Written by Cheryl Fallick
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Comparative views of Downtown Newark in 1871 and 2016, showing the destruction of viable neighborhoods for use as parking. Image via Newark Metamorphosis.

Our recent policy articles have asked this question.  New Jersey Appleseed is currently involved in a case that is working it’s way through the NJ Court System whereby the answer to this question from a group of concerned citizens in Newark is a decided “no.”

To read the appeal of City of Newark’s Zoning Board of Adjustment’s 13th d(l) use variance for a parking lot at 28 McWhorter Street, filed by Renee Steinhagen on behalf of group of concerned citizens click here.

Paving paradise and putting up a parking lot

Re-post from Al Jazerra America | Written by Sharon Adarlo

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The skyscrapers of downtown Newark are surrounded by surface parking lots. Image via Newark Metamorphosis.

During the day, parking lots in downtown Newark are jammed with cars belonging to government and corporate office workers. To some observers, the full lots might seem a useful facet of urban life and a sign of a healthy city economy.

 

But not to everyone. At night and during the weekends, the surface lots are desolate, quiet stretches of black and cracked asphalt.  Repeat this scene in other parts of this city’s downtown and you end up with many residents and urban planners complaining they are a form of urban blight. They sap the vitality of an area on the cusp of major gentrification, critics say.

There is also an economic cost: The dead spaces that cars take up don’t generate nearly enough in taxes for Newark’s coffers, and most of all, they might encourage crime. Some residents don’t feel safe around the empty lots late at night.

“I have been here for more than 20 years, and [crime] has been increasing. The synergy there is that with the crime increasing, so are the surface parking lots,” said Madeline Ruiz, an architect. “I used to feel safe.”

Nor are Newark residents alone. Many cities across the U.S. are also confronted by landscapes filled with similar ugliness, posing problems with stormwater runoff and acting as heat sinks.

Miami and Detroit suffer the same problem, says Streetblogs, a website devoted to transportation issues. This year, Rochester, New York, won the blog’s Golden Crater award, which recognizes the city with the most excessive surface parking. An aerial view of Rochester’s core shows a patchwork of blacktop and islands of buildings.

A study from the University of Connecticut compared three U.S. cities with modest parking lot growth and three with triple-digit percentage increases. It found that lot-dominated cities suffered economically. One example was Hartford, Connecticut, which loses $50 million a year thanks to its lots.

“Surface parking lots are holes in the urban fabric,” said Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at UCLA and an expert on parking issues in cities. “They don’t produce as much for the economy. The parking lot barely employs a few people compared to a restaurant. A parking lot doesn’t draw anybody to downtown.”

The result is a less healthy city, argue Ruiz and her husband, Dave Robinson, also an architect. They say the spaces are the opposite of what should go there: lively shops and apartments. And having fewer eyes on the street creates more crime-ridden areas.

Newark was a nominee for the Golden Crater this year, and it’s not hard to see why. In the vicinity of Newark’s Penn Station, “there are more than 20 acres of underutilized sites primarily being used as surface parking,” according to the city master plan.

In the latest flashpoint of the parking wars in Newark, a proposed lot has residents up in arms because it already has other parking lots on all four sides. It is on Bruen Street in the Ironbound area, a densely packed neighborhood known for its large population of Brazilian immigrants and Portuguese cafes.

The owners of the property and the person contracted to run the future lot need a variance from the city zoning board. A building on the property was damaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and was subsequently demolished.

“If you do any other business, it won’t work,” said Makram Demian, who owns the property with his brother Maher Demian. They argue it is logical to put in the 73-space lot because it’s surrounded by other parking. “It’s already decided by the neighborhood.” The zoning board has repeatedly delayed hearing their application, but a decision may be reached next month.

A request to talk to members of the zoning board was denied. Angelo Cifelli Jr., the board’s attorney, said members will not comment on a case that is pending. Repeated requests to the city press office were not met. Nor were queries to the planning and the housing and economic development departments.

When asked about parking lots at an unrelated event earlier this month, Mayor Ras Baraka said, “We are going to build up and not across. We are going to look at stormwater runoff.” During his election campaign earlier this year, he told concerned Ironbound residents that he sympathized with their concerns.

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Parking lot owned by J&L Corporation that faces toward Newark’s Prudential Center hockey arena.

Newark’s 2012 master plan calls for redevelopment of surface parking lots. New construction projects should get structured parking underground or aboveground, with stacked garages and ground-floor retail. A Whole Foods is slated for Broad Street in a few years. At Broad and Market Streets, the busiest intersection in the city, a mixed-use retail, residential and hotel development is imminent.

Rather than merely serve suburban commuters, Shoup said, the city can encourage landowners to redevelop wasted spaces by putting a hefty tax on them. “It’s just a nudge. It tells landlords it’s probably time to build,” he said.

Eran Ben-Joseph, the head of MIT’s department of urban studies and planning, said improved aesthetics could help surface parking lots. “They are not going away too soon,” he said. “If we design them the right way, they can be an asset.” He has proposed green parking, lots that use innovative ways of managing stormwater and adding vegetation.

Meanwhile, residents like Robinson are committed to fighting the scourge. “These parking lots are a cancer,” he said. “And they are spreading very quickly.”

Click here to view original article.