Newark should embrace its past to accomodate future generations, report says

By David Giambusso/The Star-Ledger
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on March 16, 2014

The National Newark Building stands behind a row of blighted buildings


NEWARK — The turn of the 20th Century was a golden age for America’s cities.

Ornate public buildings, well-appointed brownstone mansions and towering skyscrapers spoke to the wealth and ambition of the country’s urban centers.

But as manufacturing fled cities, population soon followed, leaving homes and public spaces abandoned and blighted.

Newark is among the best known of these “legacy cities” and as Americans increasingly flock back to urban areas, President Obama’s Advisory Council on Historic Preservation is urging business, city, state and federal leaders to restore historic structures to combat blight and “rightsize” cities to accommodate a new generation of city dwellers. (Read the report here)

“Newark always brags about its age but it hasn’t behaved in a way that honored its historic legacy,” said Clement Price, the city’s official historian and vice chairman of the national advisory council.

A new report issued by the council, titled “Managing Change: Preservation and “Rightsizing in America,” stresses the importance of re-purposing cities’ classic, often blighted architecture and leveraging political and financial support to do so.

“It may help us to re-frame some of the issues that are so controversial and even rancorous; most notably the downsizing of public schools,” Price said. “What do you do with a public school system that was designed for a population of 400,000 people?”

Newark’s population has dropped nearly half since the 1950s when it boasted close to a half-million residents. Once a shopping and cultural destination, much of the
resplendent architecture of downtown Newark is plastered over with signs for discount stores and hair salons.

The report examines cities throughout the U.S., with a focus on Detroit and Saginaw, Mich., Buffalo, Cleveland and Newark, where the council held its first New Jersey meeting in 2012.

“Historic assets that are preserved and reused are the foundation for the future,” the report states, adding that celebrating and refashioning historic sites in legacy cities “will enable cities to transition to healthy communities that attract new residents and new businesses to meet the needs of the 21st century.”

The emphasis on preservation is a departure from urban renewal trends from the 1950s and 1960s that sought to level older neighborhoods and structures, invariably displacing minorities and poor populations.

The report cites numerous existing resources, such as the federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentive program, that encourage investment and development in historic preservation and urges lawmakers and developers to make preservation more of a priority in all of their development decisions.

“Local governments need assistance from state and federal agencies as well as organizations such as the American Planning Association (APA) to develop and use preservation planning toolkits in all aspects of physical and economic development,” the report states.

Price said the movement toward historic preservation is already underway in Newark.

“The Hahnes building has been derelict for 30 years. It embodies a lot of memories,” Price said, referring to the iconic Broad Street building that once anchored a premier shopping destination in downtown Newark.

“Now there’s a plan to retool that building not as a department store but as a venue for Whole Foods, residential space and it’s no secret Rutgers is interested in that building as an artists’ space,” said Price, who is also a professor at Rutgers-Newark.

The boutique Hotel Indigo, also on Broad Street, will open this summer in the former First National State Bank building.

These and other efforts go beyond a sentimental appreciation of the past, the report states. They serve as anchors for a new city.

“If you restore that aesthetic you restore that city’s identity,” Price said.

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