Big plans for the notoriously run-down Garden Spires in Newark

BY Michael Hill, Correspondent |

In the past, Garden Spires was well-cited for code violations, but Wednesday it was celebrating what’s to come.

“If Garden Spires is going to look like these placards you see up on the wall, then the residents have a lot to look forward to,” said Newark Mayor Ras Baraka.

Through public-private financing, Garden Spires’ 650 apartments in two 20-story buildings will go from looking like dilapidated public housing to decked-out high-rise condos.

“It’s going to average $80,000, or $90,000 or $100,000 per unit. That’s effectively building new,” said Charles Richman, executive director of the New Jersey Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency.

Omni America bought the two buildings of Garden Spires on Aug. 23, closing the deal. Now it hopes to make a huge difference in the lives of all of the tenants and to attract even more.

Former baseball all-star and Seton Hall alum Mo Vaughn is the comanaging director at Omni America.

“Looking to put $50 million into these buildings and give tenants what they deserve — quality of life,” Vaughn said.

The goal is to restore Garden Spires to better-than-new when it was built in the 1960s.

“This was mixed-income housing. You saw people of all occupations and professions. There was no stigma attached to living at 175 First Street and people were clamoring to get apartments here,” said Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver.

But, somewhere along the way, decay set in. Garden Spires became run over with rodents and disrepair, and the targets of former mayor and current Sen. Cory Booker who staged a 10-day protest here, and state senators and housing advocates. Despite conditions, Garden Spires kept passing HUD inspections and the owners kept collecting $6 million a year in federal subsidies.

“If I could sue HUD myself, I would,” said HUD Regional Administrator Lynne Patton after a previous tour.

Last July, Newark did sue Garden Spires’ owners.

“That was a turning point,” said Richman.

14 months later, the mayor says the redevelopment fulfills his pledge to keep Newark affordable.

“We want decent and affordable housing. We want living conditions that we would live in ourselves,” Baraka said.

Patience Roberts has called Garden Spires home for most of her life. She welcomes the renovation, but wants more.

“So I’m hoping these new owners will be receptive to being involved within the community, not just as far as paying rent,” said Roberts, who is founder of Ma’at Youth Services.

Patton said she’s officially declaring war on slumlords, and will work on improving how HUD inspects properties.

“This is an opportunity to make sure that a Garden Spires never happens again,” said Bill Good, a senior tenant organizer at the Greater Newark Tenants Coalition.

The consensus here is soon work will transform Garden Spires from the worst conditions to the best — for this and the next generation.