Newark Ironbound residents rail against city development plan

The computer simulation of potential development within an Ironbound neighborhood near Newark Penn Station is stunning.

First you see small low-rise buildings surrounded by eight-story residential structures, the height restriction under existing zoning laws in the city.

As the simulation rotates 360 degrees, the same mid-level buildings suddenly bulk up to 18 stories under a proposed residential/commercial zoning amendment that has residents furious with the city administration.

"I'm not against development, but this is poorly conceived,'' said Sergio Rodrigues. "It smells. It stinks.'

Those sentiments were heard often at Monday night's Central Planning Board meeting in City Hall. At least 100 residents stood up to oppose the measure and urge the governing body to not recommend approval to the City Council. For two hours, a long line of speakers had their say, telling board members how the MX-3 amendment hurts the Ironbound.

If developers are allowed to build 15- to 18-story residential buildings within a half mile radius of Penn Station, residents said, the Ironbound infrastructure will not be able to support the increased density.

The sewer system is old. Schools are crowded. There's double- and triple-parking on narrow streets. Current buildings, which are three-to-five stories tall, would be dominated by towering new structures.

Lastly, bumper-to-bumper rush-hour traffic on Ferry and Market streets and Raymond Boulevard, would be even more unbearable if an 18-story building is approved with three decks of parking.

The gridlock is so bad now that Lillian Ribeiro, an Ironbound native, doesn't drive or ride the bus on Ferry Street if she's going to Penn Station. She walks now, after it once took an hour by car to travel past Penn Station when she was only two blocks away.

"I can't even imagine what it would be like if they allow this,'' said Ribeiro. "I don't really understand how it would benefit the community in any way whatsoever.''

The city's rationale for the plan follows the national trend of transit villages,' where municipalities redevelop the area around train stations with commercial and residential projects. By doing so, said Baye Adofo-Wilson, the city's deputy mayor for Housing and Economic Development, it creates a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood that relies less on automobiles and more on public transportation.

"That's what we are proposing for the Penn Station area,'' Adofo-Wilson said. "We look forward to working with the community to shape the future of the Penn Station area."

It's already happening. On the other side of the transit hub, 22 acres of land across the street from the Prudential Center will be home to Mulberry Commons, a development with new businesses, residences, a park and pedestrian bridge that will connect downtown Newark and the Ironbound. A warehouse next to the Mulberry Commons project will be transformed into a 456,000-square-foot commercial and retail center known as Ironside Newark.

"Whatever happens around Penn Station will determine the future of this city,'' said East Ward Councilman Augusto Amador, who is also a Planning Board member.

Residents, however, do not want development they believe is detrimental. Residents fail to see how three decks of parking in an 18-story building promotes the city's vision of a walkable neighborhood in a commercial/retail zone.

What they see in this amendment is congestion. They see higher rents and property taxes that force out businesses, homeowners and renters. They see newcomers not invested in the community and the character of the neighborhood being overrun by buildings that are too large for the Ironbound's narrow streets.

Myles Zhang, a Columbia University architecture student who calls himself "a proud, lifelong Newarker," did an impressive job creating the simulation to show what the Ironbound would look like around McWhorter and Bruen streets and New Jersey Railroad Avenue, three of six streets targeted in the MX-3 zone.

"MX-3 area is a small portion of the half-mile radius, so what is in the future to prevent MX-3 from being expanded to encompass more of the Ironbound community,'' said Zhang, who produced the video for PlanNewark, an organization of residents, architects and planners that has been critical of the city's development plans in the Ironbound.

"Other places where transit development is happening don't have to be the model for Newark,'' he said.  "Our Ironbound is a diverse community of immigrants, of affordable housing, of low-density development, of restaurants and of people. Our Ironbound is not a community of cars or skyscrapers.''

The amendment they're fighting comes after McWhorter LLC, owned by Jose Lopez Jr., recently proposed a 12-story apartment building on land where it operates the J&L parking lot that, according to a court ruling, should not be in business on McWhorter Street. Residents had been fighting to close the lot for years, and won when the state appellate division ruled that the city's zoning board should not have approved a variance that allowed the lot to be created.

However, McWhorter LLC may not have anything to worry about if the new zoning law is approved with the proposed amendment.  Its property is within the MX-3 zone.

Residents argued at the meeting that the city must include their input because it represents a change to the master plan that many of them worked on.

"I'm so disheartened by this, that you wouldn't consider the people who wrote the master plan with their blood, sweat and tears,'' said resident Nancy Zak.

Amador asked the board members to delay voting on the amendment until the city administration meets with residents.

Residents wanted the board to reject the amendment, but its members voted 5-0 to defer its decision.

The hope is that the amendment can be revised so that everybody can agree on a plan that works in the Ironbound.

Change is on the way. At some point, the Ironbound will look different. What worries residents is how it all will happen. What worries them even more is if, when Ironbound is transformed, there will be room for them.

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