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“New” Military Park transforming a Newark neighborhood

The ribbon cutting of Newark's Military Park this summer marked a rebirth for one of the city's most significant historic landmarks.

It also punctuated the transformation of the neighborhood where our organization is based – a neighborhood that also is home to Prudential’s rising headquarters tower, several new residential developments, and a number of office and hotel properties that are benefiting from Newark’s renewed momentum.

Just how much impact is the stunning new park having on the community? Everyone is saying that the park is beautiful. The people who work and live here are taking real pride in what already has been accomplished.

This summer, prior to Mayor Ras Baraka’s inaugural ball at our Robert Treat Hotel, we catered a two-hour cocktail reception in the park. More than 1,000 invited guests attended. In the nearly 40 years our firm has been involved in Newark, we have never seen Military Park host an event of that magnitude.

The outstanding work by the Military Park Partnership – the non-profit corporation responsible for the redesign, construction, and ongoing maintenance of the park (and headed by the same team that transformed Manhattan’s Bryant Park) – clearly enabled us to use the park as the venue for such an important occasion.

Additionally, Military Park absolutely is serving as an amenity to the neighborhood’s office tenants, including those at our Park Place properties (the Military Park Building, Robert Treat Center and Fireman’s Insurance Company Building). Since the ribbon cutting in June, it has been drawing crowds during the lunch hour. What had been a place to walk through when moving from Point A to Point B has clearly become a destination. We see people sitting in the park with their boxed lunches and coffee, reading, socializing, and just relaxing. It is so nice to see the daily activity stemming from the programming, and the interaction between local residents – of all ages – and the professional daytime population. This project has brought terrific energy to the Park Place neighborhood.

Dan Biederman and Ben Donsky of the Military Park Partnership deserve a great deal of credit. Their perspectives on the project’s progress and future potential are encouraging. They provided the following insights for this piece.

The redevelopment’s status

Biederman: The construction is 98 percent completed, and our daily programming schedule is ramping up nicely, with offerings ranging from fitness classes, poetry readings and children’s activities; to free concerts, an outdoor film series and a weekly farmer’s market. The opening of the park restaurant in the fall will be the final major element to fall into place. However, as we have learned at Bryant Park, the project will really never be finished. From a programming, maintenance and enhancement, and revenue-generating standpoint, Military Park will continue to evolve. What you see in two years will be better. What you see in 5 or 10 years will be great. This property ultimately will serve as an important forecourt and amenity for the neighborhood’s commercial, cultural and residential components.

Regarding early expectations

Biederman: From the outset, we knew what we could create here. Military Park in many ways mirrors Bryant Park. They are both the same size, sit within a business community and border a cultural institution (the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and the New York Public Library, respectively). And while they also both symbolized urban decay, we could see their potential to serve as vital asset for their communities. Based on what Bryant Park has become, we fully expected that Military Park would soar.

Donsky: That said, we have had a few surprises, particularly in our demographic study. For example, we are very pleased at the number of women who are patronizing the park. More than 50 percent of our lunch-time visitors are female. Considering that women tend to be more skeptical of public spaces, this is a gratifying testament to the atmosphere we have created. Additionally, we are seeing more loyalty, i.e. “regulars,” much earlier than we did at Bryant Park.

Daytime population response

Donsky: Already, a number of great programming-related stories are coming out of the park. We are seeing the children of PSEG and Prudential executives playing with children who are living in the YMCA shelter for homeless families. Office workers during their lunch breaks are playing chess with senior citizens, and ping pong with college students. This type of interaction ultimately will lead to very changed perceptions of downtown Newark for the people who work, live and visit here. In a sense, Military Park is becoming a physical and metaphorical link that ties the neighborhood together.

Miles Berger is chairman and chief operating officer of The Berger Organization, a Newark-based, privately owned diversified real estate company with more than 1 million square feet of commercial space and 12 hospitality properties in Northern New Jersey and New York City. Berger, credited as a visionary for Newark, purchased the company’s first property there in 1976. Since then, his deep appreciation for the city’s rich history and personal, unwavering commitment to restoring Newark’s past brilliance has led to concentrated real estate acquisitions, the employment of more than 300 local residents, and ongoing involvement in projects and programs that support progress there. Today, half of The Berger Organization’s portfolio is located in Newark, on Park Place and Broad Street.

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