Like many large U.S. cities, Newark has spent the better part of the last 40 years struggling with unemployment, crime, and a flight of residents to the suburbs. The once-thriving metropolis mirrored the freefall that stalled similar-sized cities such as Detroit, Cleveland, Washington, D.C., and St. Louis.


But Newark’s advantageous geographical position – near the heart of the greater New York City region and with one of the nation’s largest international ports – may give the city a leg up on the rest of the country’s struggling metropolitan areas that are attempting to revive themselves.

In fact, the city of nearly 280,000 people is in the midst of its biggest development spurt in decades.

“There is tremendous potential in this city,” says Gordon Griffin, managing principal for Princeton-based Hillier Architecture, which has designed several projects in Newark over the last two years. “It fell into disrepair, as many urban areas did in the mid-1960s, and it’s been slow to come back. But something is ready to happen. It’s already happening.”

Downtown Area is the Key Element 

Municipal officials are pinning their hopes for a civic “renaissance” on the $700 million Newark Downtown Core Redevelopment District, which is anchored by the Prudential Center, the future home of the New Jersey Devils hockey franchise.

The idea is to give the downtown an identity that is attractive enough to lure residents out of the suburbs – or even New York – and into Newark, and to create a catalyst sparking new projects elsewhere in the city, says Ted Domuracki, president of MAST Construction Services of Little Falls, N.J., which is serving as owner’s representative for the Newark Downtown Core Redevelopment Corporation and its plans to build out the entire 24-acre district around the arena.

“The energy [the Prudential Center] is going to put into the whole area is going to be huge,” he adds. “The level of activity downtown is really the key to the rest of the development in the area.”

Construction on the $375 million, 18,000-seat arena, under the direction of Gilbane Building of Providence, R.I., began in 2005 and is slated for completion in time for the 2007-2008 National Hockey League season that starts in October.

The red-and-charcoal brick, steel, and glass exterior, designed by Morris Adjmi Architects of New York, is nearly completed, and work on the interior designed by Kansas City-based HOK Sport is also advancing this summer. [See related feature in this section].

The arena project is the largest part of the downtown core effort, which also calls for a hotel and restaurant in its early stages. At full build-out, the downtown core district will have 6 million sq ft overall, including residential complexes and storefront retail that will cover 32 city blocks.

If any downtown redevelopment is going to take hold, the primary ingredient is getting young professionals to take notice, Griffin says.

“What Newark has going for it right now is an international airport, its proximity to New York City, cultural amenities, sporting venues – it’s got all the parts in pieces,” he adds. “The next thing is getting people living there. Then you’ll have the 24/7 that you need. And I think Gen-Xers want to be back in the cities.”

Long Road to Revival Takes Shape 

The 1997 opening of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center downtown is widely regarded as the genesis of the redevelopment push that the city is undergoing today.

Soon after the opening of the arts center, Newark’s business district added a new $30 million baseball stadium for the Newark Bears of the independent Atlantic League, a modern $50 million Rutgers University law school building, and a new 12-story FBI headquarters building beside the Passaic River.

Then in 2006, New Jersey Transit finished work on a $208 million light-rail shuttle between Newark’s Pennsylvania Station and Broad Street Station. The line not only links the two major commuter hubs but also reaches most of the city’s new attractions.

Scattered new development over those 10 years under the administration of Sharpe James, Newark’s mayor from 1986 to 2006, provided glimpses of the city’s potential for rebirth.

Since then, the 2006 election of Cory Booker – who was James’s political rival and a fellow Democrat – has ratcheted up talk of the city’s revival. The 37-year-old Booker battled but lost a bid for the mayoralty in 2002 to James, whose political roots stretched back to the Civil Rights era of the 1960s. James opted not to run for a sixth term last year.

Now, Booker’s administration has not only taken the helm of the downtown redevelopment that his predecessor launched, but he has created considerable buzz about the city’s prospects by hiring Stefan Pryor – who was  president of the Lower Manhattan Redevelopment Corporation overseeing the World Trade Center rebuilding effort – as Newark’s deputy mayor for economic development.

“The unrealized potential for this city is tragic,” Pryor says. “You get a 24/7 live-and-work community downtown and everything starts to snowball. That will continue to attract additional development. And the arena will be able to be leveraged to create other projects such as additional residential, hotels, and office space.”

Since taking office, Booker has outlined major initiatives to reduce crime in the city, corruption at City Hall, and blight in the neighborhoods, in addition to the redevelopment effort. Booker has created high expectations for a hungry city, says Richard Dressel, president of the Mechanical and Allied Crafts Council of New Jersey, a coalition of various AFL-CIO building industry labor unions.