By David Cruz
Twenty years have come and gone since the New Jersey Performing Arts Center first opened its doors. The idea then was that a new neighborhood would rise around the arts center. Today, officials broke ground on what they predict will be that neighborhood’s signature project.
“The astounding part of that to me is that this has gone through three mayors, eight governors, several county executives, four board chairs at NJPAC and a new executive team headed up by John Schreiber,” said Larry Goldman, the former NJPAC CEO. He’s stayed involved in the real estate side of the organization, but the day-to-day of the arts center, including keeping the parties together for this deal, is a John Schreiber production.
“For so long folks have come in and out of Newark to see shows at the arts center and now we’re going to have a true urban arts and education district with residential and retail and education and nightclubs and lots of reasons for people to show up early and stay late,” he added.
Just around the corner from Theater Square is the Military Park neighborhood where, over the last several years, the rate of economic development has been unprecedented.
Nike, Starbucks, Whole Foods. They are actually lining up to get into Newark, where all along downtown, from the southern end, near Lincoln Park, all the way to the north end, where Riverfront Stadium was just sold and will be converted to a new community, signs of a new day are everywhere.
“Let’s start with the location,” declared Carl Dranoff, the CEO of Dranoff Properties. “Could we have a better bullseye location? Look around you. Look at the neighborhood. Everything is within walking distance of Theater Square.”
Since its slow emergence from the great recession of 2008, the Newark economic engine has been humming. Almost $2 billion in commercial and residential development underway, more than 5,000 units of housing under construction or already approved, most of it market rate. Ten percent of Theater Square’s 245 units will be set aside as affordable housing. In a city with an affordable housing crisis, this projects represents only a small step. But officials say it’s critical for the city to attract more middle class residents.
“I believe we’re bringing to the city on Newark people who have the purchasing power to make Newark a city that other establishments may want to come to because right now we lack good retail establishments and by having people with purchasing power, we may entice them to come back to the city,” noted Councilman Carlos Gonzalez.
Today was also about the vision of former Gov. Tom Kean, who first proposed NJPAC — and its adjacent housing component — back in 1986.
“I remember those days well,” said the former governor. “This was a dream. It’s the one proposal I made that both parties came to me and said, ‘We’ll do a lot of things with you, but that.’ First of all, they didn’t want an arts center and secondly, they didn’t want it in Newark.”
Sharpe James, who played a major role in the development of NJPAC, acknowledged the governor’s key role.
“Now we’re talking about housing, now we’re talking about businesses, now we’re talking about a new element, a new economic engine,” he said. “None of this, none of this could have happened without Gov. Tom Kean. I love that individual.”
When it’s done — in 2018 — Theater Square will rise 22 stories and could be a potent symbol that this Newark comeback will be the one that sticks.