Officials Forum: The Need for “Multiplier” Neighborhood Projects in Urban Economic Redevelopment

Written by

Newark Councilmember Ron Rice
Newark Councilmember Ron Rice

Councilmember Ronald Rice is from a family of Newarkers who have dedicated their lives to public service and political reform. Rice credits his beginnings in Newark politics to his father, State Senator Ronald L. Rice (D-28th), who engaged him in his campaigns when he was just 10 years old. Ron has led the way in city government reform, economic development, and community empowerment initiatives. Councilmember Rice was the lead advocate for the West Ward Abandoned Properties Initiative, a major neighborhood redevelopment project in the Fairmount District that will build new workforce housing, use local, minority contractors and developers that hire Newark residents, and empowers local residents to have input in the process.

In the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, urban cities have been hit hardest in America. Newark, NJ has an estimated 15% unemployment rate and a record number of foreclosures, particularly in my ward.

As the nation slowly recovers from this catastrophe, the type of economic development that can best benefit our hardest hit urban centers must have a “multiplier effect”: development that positively affects many sectors all at once, resulting in a win-win-win solution. We have initiated a model in Newark that can and should be replicated nationwide.

On December 22, 2009, my administration, led by Mayor Cory Booker and in conjunction with the Greater Newark Housing Partnership (GNHP) and local minority developers, began the first phase of the West Ward Abandoned Properties Initiative, commencing a plan to rehabilitate blighted properties throughout the Fairmount section of the ward. We established simple goals that were symbiotically supportive of each other and represented a holistic approach to the development of an underdeveloped community:

  1. to rehabilitate more than 48 pieces of city-owned dilapidated properties,
  2. to develop new housing and retail opportunities on more than 15 pieces of city-owned property,
  3. to pressure private property owners to rehabilitate their dilapidated property or risk eminent domain,
  4. to create more recreational and green spaces,
  5. to provide opportunities for local, minority developers,
  6. to provide jobs for hard to employ Newarkers, and
  7. to do it all without gentrifying the neighborhood so that current residents of the area will benefit from the changes. 

I sponsored the city’s first-ever Abandoned Property Ordinance. Based on the State of New Jersey’s Abandoned Properties Rehabilitation Act, the ordinance allowed the city to take appropriate action against privately owned residential or mixed-use buildings that have been vacant for more than six months and on which taxes remain unpaid, or have been deemed blighted and hazardous to public safety.

Using federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP) grants in the amount of $1.5 million in the first phase, five previously city-owned properties have been rehabilitated and two sold to former renters in the area. Two Newark-based minority firms completed the work and the city has received funding for an additional eleven rehabilitations led by Youthbuild-Newark, Renaissance Community Development Corp., and Jarid Jamar, Inc., firms that employ and train residents with criminal convictions who are in the city’s Re-Entry program. Funding is currently being sought for the last 26. 

In April 2010, volunteers at the State of New Jersey’s 62nd Annual Arbor Day celebration planted more than 200 trees in the footprint of the Newark project. The new West Ward Panther Pride Sustainable Garden, a project that melds environmental conservation with a new neighborhood green space across the street from 13th Avenue Elementary School, was completed in May 2010. It was created through a public-private partnership between city government, the Greater Newark Conservancy, the New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Commission, the NY-NJ Harbor Estuary Program and NY/NJ Baykeeper. It features a rain barrel for water collection, a step water pump and an underground storage tank. 

Lastly, a partnership between the Urban League of Essex County (ULEC), which had engaged in the initial planning and community outreach with the West Ward initiative with Newark-based firm Newwork, Inc., and the City of Newark created and funded a painting company in 2011 comprised of trained residents that will have the painting contract for the next 26 rehabilitations.

While our experience has had stops and starts along they way and finding funding for the numerous parts of the initiative remains a constant challenge, the West Ward Abandoned Property Initiative represents a model of community economic development for our most challenged urban cores throughout the nation.

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