Sparta resident John Vreeland was already prone to commuting nightmares when his law firm, Genova Burns — which has since been renamed Genova, Burns, Giantomasi & Webster — decided in 2007 it would move from Livingston to Newark. But soon thereafter he made a move of his own — to the city's Ironbound section — giving himself a trip of mere minutes, not to mention a leg up for his labor practice.
"For me, being actually in Newark would help in terms of getting out there, being closer to the firm's clients, and being closer to potential clients," said Vreeland, 44, director of the firm's wage and hour compliance practice group. "So it was part of the plan for both my personal commute and my practice."
Newark city leaders and other advocates for its renaissance probably wouldn't mind having Vreeland's story told far and wide, especially with their hope that business growth will help feed vibrant new housing development. In recent months, development officials have touted a goal of bringing 5,000 new residents to the city by 2017, an ambition fueled by its swelling pipeline of multifamily construction and recent momentum.
Nearly 700 residential units are now under construction in a zone spanning Lincoln Park, the central business district and University Heights, according to data supplied by the city. But it also has a pipeline of a dozen projects, consisting of 2,500 units, moving through city and state approval processes.
Designs of growing Newark's population go hand in hand with its robust construction forecast, said Adam Zipkin, the city's deputy mayor for economic and housing development, and "we view that as a realistic and achievable goal." They're also based on the fact that the Brick City already has been adding residents for the first time in decades, he said: Following 60 years of declines, its population increased by about 4,000, to 277,540, from 2000 to 2010, according to U.S. Census estimates.
"(That) is really the backdrop for it, and it's really been sort of an evolving goal over time," Zipkin said, adding that at this "snapshot moment, (it's) how we see the next few years unfolding. We actually view it as somewhat conservative, just based on what we're seeing in terms of the overall level of economic development all over the city."
The early returns are coming to officials from the developers on the ground. At RockPlaza Lofts, an 80-unit mixed-use rehabilitation project on Market Street, there is a waiting list of more than 200 for the 48 units that are still under construction.
Fidelco Realty Group, which is developing RockPlaza with Newark-based Hanini Group, estimates about 60 percent of its renter pool comes from outside the city. Fidelco Chairman Marc Berson said that includes students from the nearby colleges and commuters who may have been priced out of Hudson County's Gold Coast cities. There's also "the pure pioneers (who) see a good deal, they want to be where the action is, and there's an excitement" about new commercial development in Newark, he said.
Drumming up demand for RockPlaza has been "much more organic" — coming largely from the new retail that has accompanied the units — rather than resulting from dedicated marketing efforts, Berson said. He said marketing "can generate activity," but can't hold in place a tenant who moves to the city and soon regrets the decision.
"Our focus has been on the answer to that. Two weeks later, I want someone to say, 'Wow, this is great,' " Berson said. "The best marketing campaign we can launch in areas like this is successful leasing — and the tenant who loves where they are and feels part of a new community. And we've been very fortunate there."
While city officials want new projects to maintain a mix of income levels, adding new market-rate units could be key to drawing from the outside. Jacob Fisher, a senior development officer with Pennrose, recalls that non-Newark residents were inquiring about its Montgomery Heights project during construction in 2010, but were over the maximum income levels for eligibility.
Pennrose, which is based in Philadelphia, is now in predevelopment for a mixed-income project across Montgomery Street, which will likely have around 150 units, Fisher said. And as it seeks to build larger properties in the city, success will hinge on drawing outsiders, he said, "and certainly, our market studies draw a wider circle."
"To really think about getting the absorption that you need to fill the project in a reasonable timeline, you want to draw the circle a little bit wider," he said. "And our sense is that there is some interest."
The city hopes business growth and commercial projects — like Panasonic's new North American headquarters, which will open next month along McCarter Highway — will help bring in new residents. Also key is tapping into the scores of commuters among the 40,000 students who attend Newark's six colleges and universities, Zipkin said. That's "an important priority that we are moving forward with multiple projects."
They include the New Jersey Institute of Technology's Campus Gateway project, the first phase of which will open later this year with 300 new units in the University Heights section. A developer also is proposing to convert the former IDT Corp. building, at 500 Broad St., into a mixed-use site for student housing.
Zipkin also noted that catering to Newark's student population isn't just a short-term proposition: "We want to also have housing options that are attractive to these students when they graduate, so that they're not necessarily leaving the city, but looking, as a first option, at staying and living and working here," he said.
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