Successful Development Requires Community's "Blessing"
This past Friday, October 16, "NJ Spotlight on Cities" offered a refreshing number of ideas about how to improve conditions in NJ’s cities. The day-long conference at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) was presented by NJ Spotlight, a nonprofit state-wide public policy news site.
The speakers at one stimulating panel, "Development 2025: What Does the Future Hold?" included Ron Beit, CEO of RBH Group, LLC and President of RBH Management; Paul Silverman, Co-Founder & Principal of SILVERMAN; and Christiana Foglio-Palmer, CEO of Community Investment Strategies. RBH Group currently manages development projects in Newark, SILVERMAN is based in Jersey City, and Community Investment Strategies has projects across the state.
Panel Moderator Peter Kasabach, Executive Director of New Jersey Future, launched the discussion by asking about the key components of development. The panelists referenced a global and national trend showing that citizens are actually flocking toward cities rather than to the suburbs. Why? In addition to the conveniences that come with living in a city (e.g. access to public transportation, restaurants, entertainment), people want to be part of a community, and they want to live among neighbors whom they can depend on.
The panelists cited Camden, Newark, and Jersey City as having explosive potential for growth. As developers, they explained, you want to see an entire city succeed. It is important to be involved with and to support the success of all corners of a city, even those that you don't own property in. If all corners succeed, then all citizens succeed.
The panelists explained that a holistic vision is necessary when planning a development project and that developers have a duty to preserve three things: 1) the people who already live in the neighborhood in which you are going to build, 2) the area's historic landmarks, and 3) the cultural institutions of the neighborhood. Mixed communities are vibrant communities, and it is part of the developer's responsibility to ensure that residents don't get pushed out of their own neighborhoods.
Paul Silverman voiced concern that the borough of Manhattan, for example, could become less interesting if it were to become affordable only for "the very wealthy." No matter what the development project may be -- residential, commercial, or mixed use -- a key to success is gaining the blessing of the surrounding community.
Ron Beit cited the East Ward Ironbound section of Newark as one example of a healthy partnership, where construction of a new building -- the world's largest indoor vertical farm (operated by AeroFarms) -- will soon begin. The RBH Group worked with the Ironbound Community Corporation to explore the needs of
the community and discovered, among other findings, that residents of this former industrial neighborhood wanted green jobs. The 69,000 square foot indoor farm
is now projected to create employment opportunities for 70-80 local residents.
Beit also mentioned the development of educational spaces as another powerful way to re-invigorate neighborhoods. Schools may draw in 1,000 families, twice a day, to an area. Those families then frequent the nearby restaurants and shops, thereby stimulating local businesses. "Teacher's Village" in Downtown Newark is a major redevelopment project that involves converting parking lots and dilapidated buildings into three charter schools, residential housing for teachers, and retail space. The Village is surrounded by Newark’s six universities.
Silverman said a major component of successful development is investing in the city's infrastructure, as it affects the developer's ability to preserve old buildings and build new ones. He cited Jersey City's Hamilton Square condominium complex as an example of "adaptive re-use" of historic buildings, in which a former hospital building was converted into a mixed retail space – a walkable urban neighborhood with access to PATH train, light rail, and ferry stations.
Christiana Foglio-Palmer identified “the perception of safety” as an important factor in attracting new residents. She described one residential redevelopment project that she worked on in Elizabeth, NJ, where safety issues "kept her up at night.” The building had seen high crime, gang, and drug activity and was "pulling the rest of Elizabeth down."
By renovating the space for the area’s residents and creating a hydroponic farm, which in turn generated green jobs, Community Investment Strategies was able to change the way the area was perceived. With the addition of increased building security, the crime rate went down.
Foglio-Palmer concluded that if one respects the people living in an area, the people will in turn respect the building and the environment. As a developer, she said, "You want to leave the place better than you find it."
Leaving your home, neighborhood, community, and eco-system a better place than you find it, is wise advice for us all.
Sonia Schnee is Video Production & Outreach Coordinator for CivicStory.
Photo by Amanda Brown, NJSpotlight. Left to right: Paul Silverman, Co-Founder & Principal of SILVERMAN; Ron Beit, CEO of RBH Group, LLC and President of RBH Management; Christiana Foglio-Palmer, CEO of Community Investment Strategies.