NEWARK: A conversation on our city

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NEWARK A conversation on our city PLANewark Maia Zhang .

Newark: A Conversation on Cities Copyright Š 2019 by Maia Zhang. For information contact:





W h y a l l t h e q u e s t i o n s ? ......................2 P a r t O n e .....................................................3 P a r t T w o ...................................................12 About PLANewark ......................................19 Acknowledgments......................................20

Why all the questions? An Introduction It is not often that I think about why the sky is blue or what causes the wind. Nor do I think about why the trash is picked up on Tuesdays, or what time the streets get cleaned. Often, the most important truths of our daily lives and routines are taken for granted. Perhaps asking simple questions can open a door for complex thought. From afar, Newark is a chaotic symphony of bureaucracy, sirens and street corners. One cannot hope to make sense of this song without hearing each note. Thus, in an attempt to hear the music of Newark, I tried to ask questions about the everyday and overlooked. Hopefully these questions help you, as they have me, to consider what Newark means and how it can change for the better. If so, the second part of this booklet serves as a practical guide to citizen activism.

Part One The Questions What is a city? Short Answer A city is defined by its past and present purpose. Long Answer A simple definition of a city could be that a city is a wealth-generating machine. It makes the poor not-so-poor. However, by this definition, New York and London are the same. In order to understand what defines a city, what makes New York different from London, one must understand those who built the city and those who live in it. Similarly, to understand a city’s needs and possible evolutions, one needs to see the layers of complexity that drive it: history, structure, and culture.


What does it mean for a city to be sustainable? Short Answer A sustainable city is not a perfect city; it is one that can change. Long Answer Cities are arrangements of people. New York started off sustaining on the beaver trade. That was not an inexhaustible resource. However, the reason that New York did not disappear was that it had a varied enough economy so that the city could find another source of profit. Essentially, it did not put all its eggs in one basket. A city’s ability to survive derives from the ability to change, to adapt to new economies and sources of profit. Naturally, city’s success is also heavily related to the prosperity of the area/country it is in.


What is a good neighborhood? Short Answer It’s one that you enjoy living in. Long Answer A good neighborhood has local businesses, is close to mass transit, it is unique, has open space for everyone, has safe, well-lit sidewalks, has bike lanes, has crosswalks. It should be more pedestrian than car oriented and have a strong school and medical system and business community. Not only does a good neighborhood have amenities, it presents them in an aesthetically pleasing, accessible manner. It calls people to the streets rather than ushering them into their homes.

Flowers on the former Westinghouse site


Why is it important for a neighborhood to be walkable? Residents get to know locals and become more aware of nuances in the streets. It is friendlier and it is safer. If residents pay attention to the comings and goings of their area, it creates a sense of community.

What effect does green-space have? It’s a place to congregate. A place to decompress. A place to play safely and is a filter for noise and air and the hustle and bustle of city streets and concrete. Even the smallest pocket of green-space is important (like in Lower Manhattan).


Why are trees important? Short Answer A tree is, quite literally, a breath of fresh air. Long Answer Newark is about 10 degrees (F) hotter than other parts of New Jersey, like Montclair. Trees are important, not only for the beautification of a neighborhood. They serve a number of environmental purposes. They absorb heat, cooling down the streets, they stop water runoff from overloading the sewers, and they make the air cleaner by absorbing carbon dioxide.

How do you define security in the context of a neighborhood? Residents and businesses are looking out for each other. When a street is activated with pedestrians it is physically and psychologically safer. A safe neighborhood brings people together and creates an “eyes on the street” mentality. That is to say, video surveillance aside, neighbors look after each other’s safety.

What is a safe street? A neighborhood does not have to become gentrified to be safer. It should look beautiful, comfortable, easy to use. Ideally, the street should have no more than 2 lanes. However, if there are more lanes then the street should have medians. On narrow roads people go much slower. Also, street art, crosswalks, flowers can cause cars to slow down, making the street safer.


What is urban redevelopment? Short Answer Urban redevelopment refers to the process of reuse in cities. Long Answer Redevelopment is used to describe a place, typically an urban center, that has already been developed and is a process of new transformation. In the case of cities, it is a function of the obsolescence of buildings (aka: structures that have reached a degree of uselessness that warrants reuse). A historian might say that urban redevelopment is the ongoing, natural evolution of human habitations over decades/centuries. A real estate developer might say that redevelopment serves to find a better use for a piece of land. That is, the replacement of existing infrastructure so that the new building might generate more profit.


What is a developer? According to Collin’s Dictionary, a developer is “a person who buys and develops (aka: makes more profitable through construction or renovation) houses, buildings, and land in order to sell them and make a profit from them. This means to say that a developer’s primary motive is profit. That being said, profit and beauty are compatible. They can and do work together.

Why should we talk to developers? Short Answer Making developers aware of your community’s needs is the best way to have those needs met. Long Answer Communicating directly with developers can actually benefit both parties. It is in developers’ interests to talk to the neighborhood because when a community fights against a development at City Hall, the developer spends time and money for lawyers and planners, and they risk the rejection of their proposal. If the community and developer compromise before the plan reaches City Hall, the developer saves money and the community gains a better design. With an open mind, there doesn’t have to be a loser.


What is good development? Short Answer Good development is thoughtful development. Long Answer The zoning in a neighborhood stipulates certain qualities (height, setback, etc.) that a development should have in order to fit the flavor and potential of the area. In addition, if new developments are created for a wealthier consumer than the local residents, the neighborhood can be pushed out. A poorly incorporated development is socially and/or economically hostile. A well incorporated development is respectful of the existing buildings and existing community.


What is Newark’s future? Short Answer “I believe the children are our future Teach them well and let them lead the way” Whitney Houston Long Answer Newark suffers from stagnancy. The fact that people pay attention so much to where one grew up in Newark is a troubling sign. In a vibrant city nonnatives are not labeled as “outsiders” because everyone is an outsider. When attention is paid nativity or non-nativity it is an indication of stagnancy, a lack of dynamism. People come and go, a city changes and grows. Newark still holds less than half of its possible population capacity. It used to be a much larger, denser city than it is today. This means that Newark has the backbone, history and infrastructure to support many more people. This is a strength that the future can take advantage of.

Mural of Amiri Baraka on McCarter Highway


Part Two Logistics What is a variance? Short Answer It is essentially a permission slip from the city. Long Answer As defined by the Zoning and Land Use Regulations of Newark, a variance is “permission to depart from the literal requirements of a zoning ordinance.� Essentially, it is permission to break the zoning regulations of a certain neighborhood.


What is land banking? Short Answer It’s waiting for a bigger payout. Long Answer New York City’s property value is already very high, thus when someone buys land it is in their best interest to develop it immediately and cash in on their investment. Newark, however, is different. The property value is lower, but has the potential to increase. So, when a speculator buys a plot of land, they often do not develop it immediately. The landowner instead leaves the land vacant or turns it into surface parking until the property value increases. In downtown Newark alone, there are 300 acres of surface parking. This desert of pavement is a product of the phenomenon known as “land banking.”

Houston, TX


What is a master plan? Short Answer It’s a blueprint for a city’s future. Long Answer A city’s master plan is a general plan for the form and structure of future developments, streets, public spaces, buildings and much more. Newark’s master plan stipulates what can be built where. When a potential development differs significantly with the master plan it must be approved by the Zoning Board of Adjustments to receive a variance.

Image provided courtesy of Damon Rich and Jae Shin


Who makes decisions? Municipal Land-Use Law is New Jersey state law that governs all landuse and planning issues within the state. It defines the planning regulations of all the cities. The Newark Zoning Land Use Regulation outlines specific organizations that make decisions. Landowners: determine if they want a development to occur in the first place. They make the initial decision to begin a development’s process. Landowners can be: Private individuals Development corporations State, county or city entities The Zoning Officer: works in the Economic and Housing Development Department (where the Planning Office is housed) and determines which boards an application has to go through.


The Central Planning Board (CPB)

The Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA)

Landmarks and Historic Preservation Commission

Makes decisions on any project that mostly conforms to regulations (may need minor (C) variances), or requires a site plan review. They also review changes to zoning ordinance or redevelopment plans as requested by City Hall.

Reviews applications that are requesting major (D) variances to zoning regulations, which means that either they want a specific use that isn’t allowed in the area, or they’re requesting extra density or extra height.

Makes all decisions relating to historically defined neighborhoods and historic buildings.

11 members: 10 appointed by Mayor, 1 by City Council

9 members: appointed by City Council

11 members: appointed by Mayor

All members must be Newark residents.

5 members must be Newark residents

9 members must be Newark residents.

Where are decisions made? City Hall Council Chambers mostly (Unless otherwise stated). A developer or landowner might hold a public meeting or focus group in a different location.


When are decisions made? Here is the general timeline of a development: 1. A land owner decides to develop/build something at anytime. 2. If it is a historic site the Newark Landmarks and Historic Preservation Committee review it first at a monthly, Wednesday meeting. 3. If application poses environmental questions it goes through the Environmental Commission. 4. The application goes through the Central Planning Board during a bi-monthly, Monday meeting. 5. Alternatively, the application goes through the Zoning Board of Adjustment during a bi-monthly, Thursday meeting. -


At least 10 days before: the property is required to post an announcement of when the hearing will take place in a public newspaper (The Star-Ledger) and on the property. They also have to mail a posting to all property owners within 200 feet. One can find listings on The issue is that most owners are renters, and most mail gets sent to the post office as opposed to the actual address. This is when locals can speak their mind.

6. The building gets a building code review after application is approved and drawings are made. 7. Construction takes 1-3 years 18

About PLANewark “PLANewark (Planning and Land-use Advocates for Newark) is an unincorporated association that has been established as a project of NJA, though we have our own officers and set our own programmatic agenda. We are a coalition of proud individuals who live and work in Newark with a shared vision for a just city. We are fully committed to building a vibrant and reinvigorated Newark through equitable and sustainable environment, land-use, and transportation planning practices. PLANewark works towards these goals in three main ways: • • •

We provide technical assistance for community groups and citizens to meaningfully participate in Newark’s planning and zoning. We advocate for a more democratic and transparent planning and development process. We educate residents and decision-makers about sound planning and land-use practices as well as the detriment to the public of poor urban planning.”

Acknowledgments I have lived in Newark since I was born, in 1999. Growing up in this city I witness lots of changes, for better or worse. My experiences have taught me that, even when Newark is blighted, it is graced with potential. The photographs you see here, unless otherwise noted, are a glimpse of Newark through my camera. I am not a planner, an architect, a historian, or a developer. I am just a student. So, to find any answers, many wonderful individuals generously lent me their knowledge. I’d like to thank (in no particular order) Joel Freiser, Stephanie Greenwood, Samer Hanini, Caileen Kok, Christopher Kok, Brendan O’Flaherty, Brendan Pytka, Dave Robinson, Damon Rich, Madeline Ruiz, Darius Sollohub, Renée Steinhagen, Tyler Tourville, Nancy Zak, Myles Zhang, and Zemin Zhang.