Newark may be a place teeming with college students, but it's far from a college town.
That’s what planners and advocates have been saying for years — and what they hope to change as the city’s colleges and universities chart their futures with expansion plans, many of them aimed at keeping students on campus as full-time residents.
“It’s an integral part of the growth of the city,” said Alfred Koeppe, the co-founder and former CEO of the nonprofit Newark Alliance. “Clearly one of the things that Newark needs is a population that doesn’t leave at 5 o’clock in the afternoon.
“To a large extent, the work population in Newark does not reside in Newark,” Koeppe said. “But students who live and participate in the city, I think, is part of the potential for vitality.”
Anchors such as the New Jersey Institute of Technology and Rutgers University are trying to help that cause while trying to stay competitive with other schools in the region. The Brick City has nearly 40,000 students who flood the downtown every day, but very few of them live in Newark or stay in the city after graduation.
To reverse the trend, NJIT and Rutgers have embarked on large-scale projects that will improve their students’ housing options. NJIT last fall opened the first phase of a multiyear, billion-dollar expansion plan, adding 600 beds to raise its total on-campus resident population to 2,200, or about 30 percent of undergraduate enrollment.
Its next phase could include between 200 and 400 units that will likely be available to the general market, NJIT President Joel Bloom said, with an eye toward creating appeal for students after graduation.
“There is an increasing number of the college alums staying to live in the city, and either working in the city … or using it as a very good place for mass transit,” Bloom said. “In all, it’s kind of this hand-in-glove operation, not uncommon to what you see in other college towns.”
Meantime, Rutgers-Newark plans to rehabilitate a historic skyscraper at 15 Washington St. for use as student housing. The $95 million project, which is being overseen by New Brunswick Development Corp., will revitalize the 21-story building that originally housed American Insurance Co. and later Rutgers’ law school through 1999 after it was donated to the university.
It’s welcome news to city officials. A citywide master plan adopted in 2012 noted that Newark has one of the highest concentrations of higher education in the Northeast, spread among six institutions within walking distance of the downtown. But planners said the colleges were isolated, “with few physical and programmatic linkages to surrounding neighborhoods.”
It’s a dynamic that goes back to the founding of the institutions, Koeppe said. Schools such as Rutgers-Newark, NJIT and later Essex County Community College “were never designed to be Ohio State or Rutgers New Brunswick. They were blue-collar schools” meant to serve people who lived within commuting distance.
“Their history … is that they were middle- to working-class schools,” said Koeppe, a Rutgers-Newark alumnus and chairman of the state Economic Development Authority. “They were designed, back when they were founded, to serve a working community in the Essex County area — and that … just by definition, was a very transient community.”
So when the schools were conceived, “dorm space was not something that was considered or even essential at all,” he said.
But Koeppe said that has changed in recent years as cities have re-emerged “as viable places to live.” Planners are increasingly “looking to create centers of excellence in the urban universities,” with a hub of learning and housing. And “there’s a whole theory that says if you can create that hub you’re going to have the city grow in many directions.”
City officials hope it becomes more than a theory.
“Our colleges and universities are one of our greatest assets,” said Dan Jennings, Newark’s deputy mayor for housing and economic development. “There is tremendous potential to better leverage this resource and grow our economic base. Having more students living here is certainly a way to do that.”
The city currently has nearly 2,900 residential units in its development pipeline, according to data from Jennings’ office. That includes 350 units from the Rutgers project and 100 from NJIT, which will spend years on its Campus Gateway project.
The first phase, an $80 million project known as Warren Street Village, opened in September. That meant NJIT could offer new beds to its honors students and 10 of its Greek organizations, Bloom said, relieving some overcrowding at its older residence halls and allowing it to bring more students on campus from rented buildings nearby.
Plans for the next phase are still a work in progress, he said. But one thing is clear: giving students an incentive to live in Newark during college will increase the likelihood they stay there after graduation.
And as part of the broader effort, Koeppe said public safety is especially critical if Newark hopes to tap its student population to grow its residential base.
“It’s essential to have that,” Koeppe said. “That’s an important factor here because you’re not going to send your kids to a location where you think they could be in jeopardy. So that’s one of the obligations that the city has.”