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A $150M, Richard Meier-Designed Village For Teachers? In Newark?!

Downtown Newark, New Jersey, plans to anchor a massive redevelopment project, complete with apartments, restaurants, and stores, around a group seldom associated with economic development (or disposable income, for that matter): teachers.

A $150M, Richard Meier-Designed Village For Teachers? In Newark?!

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Up until the groundbreaking earlier this year, the site of the first phase of downtown
Newark’s redevelopment
had devolved to resemble that classic picture of the hollowed-out
post-industrial city: 91% of the land here was covered in surface
parking lots. Over the previous half-century, buildings in the city’s
historic core had been razed and replaced by parking spaces that were
supposed to lure back shoppers and businesses that had decamped for the
suburbs and even farther away. But, as everyone now knows, those
shoppers and businesses never came back.

Developer Ron Beit’s plan to fill all this blank space and
jump-start the downtown’s renewal looks, in the renderings, like a fairly
standard proposal. He’s envisioning low-rise mixed use buildings, with apartments
and restaurants and retail, all of which is supposed to enliven the
long-empty neighborhood at all hours of the day. But Beit is anchoring
the whole thing around a group seldom associated with economic
development (or disposable income, for that matter): This project is
intended for teachers.

I remember [Newark] was a vibrant downtown. It didn’t look anything like what it looks like today.–Architect Richard Meier.

Over the next year, eight new buildings–five of them designed
by the renowned architect Richard Meier–will start to rise on
three square blocks of the city, at a cost of about $150 million. The development, called Teachers Village, will include affordable housing for
teachers, three charter schools in which some of them will teach, a
day care center, and retail that will feed off of this badly needed
influx of permanent residents and all those families who will have to
now travel in and out of the neighborhood every day. The idea was to
drop all of this onto one quadrant of Newark’s downtown in a single
concentrated infusion. “We needed to change the experience on the street
in one broad stroke,” says Beit, whose RBH Group has bought up 30
properties (many of them dormant parking lots) in downtown Newark for
the area’s full master plan. “You couldn’t just do this
piecemeal,” he says.

The city expects the concept–part educational development,
part economic development–to be a win for everyone: Teachers who can’t
afford to live well in Newark finally will be able to (and hopefully
will want to), local schools will benefit from the greater investment of
those teachers in the community (currently, just 17 % of teachers
in the Newark school district live in Newark), and the downtown will
start to come alive again.

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“I love the idea, I think it’s fantastic,” says Michael Duffy,
previously the head of New York City’s charter school office, and now
chair of the board of Great Oaks Charter School, one of the schools
slated to move into Teachers Village in the summer of 2013. “It puts as
the engine of economic development schools, and then the people who work
in those schools at the heart of the equation, as opposed to just a
movie theater, or restaurants or some other kind of economic development
activity.”

This arrangement won’t be for everyone.

Great Oaks was in fact modeled on a similar premise to what
Beit had in mind for Teachers Village, linking schools with the
residences of the educators who work there. Great Oaks comes with a
cadre of recent college-graduate tutors who supplement the traditional
classroom teaching of its students. Those tutors–aspiring teachers
themselves–are given a small living stipend and housing in an
apartment downtown. Duffy hopes the school’s tutors, in addition to the
school itself, will be able to move into Teachers Village. Great Oaks
itself has already signed a 20-year lease here.

This arrangement won’t be for everyone; plenty of teachers may
want more distance between their classrooms and their home lives. But
for the teachers who will rent about 200 apartments here–they’ll run
by size from $700 to $1,400 a month, a bargain in this area–the
thinking is that they’ll benefit from both the proximity to each other
and to the school cluster. A school gymnasium, for instance, will be
open to the community at night. And the apartment buildings will have
communal amenities aimed at teachers, such as classroom-like spaces
where they can share ideas and take continuing-education courses
themselves. All of this, Duffy hopes, will create a community of
interest between the teachers and the children they serve.


“Best-case scenario, they’ll register to vote there, they’ll
get involved civically in the community, they’ll see the success of
Newark as their success,” Duffy says. “There are undeniably class
differences between the kids who are coming in to teach in our school or
to work as tutors and the young children that we serve as a school. So
we have work to do in bridging the gaps between those two groups, and
perhaps Teachers Village could be the place where gaps get
bridged.”

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The housing will be marketed to teachers from any of the city’s
charter, district, and independent schools, not just the three opening
up next door. To guarantee the financing package behind the project,
non-teachers technically could move in, but Beit expects in a city of
6,000 teachers that the development will have no trouble filling these
200 units with his target population. The project has received some
criticism for housing only charter schools, and not the city’s more
traditional ones. The optimistic projection, though, is that the entire
local school eco-system may benefit if good teachers are lured by both
the challenge of working here and the pleasant downtown living (inner
cities that offer only the challenge without the amenities are more
likely, in theory, to suffer from Teach for America
transience).

Great Oaks, for example, will be producing every year more
tutors-turned-teachers than one charter school can use. And Duffy hopes
they will stay in Newark and move on to other schools.

In an era of stingy budgets, a surprising number of parties have all rallied behind Teachers Village. The project’s funding will come in
part from New Market Tax Credits and private investments by Goldman
Sachs and Berggruen Holdings. Richard Meier, a Pritzker Prize-winning
architect who is better known for international luxury developments and
museum projects like the Getty Center in Los Angeles, is also returning
to his hometown to work on Teachers Village. It’s the first project his
firm has ever done in Newark.

“It was not typically a type of project we normally do,” says
Dukho Yeon, the firm’s associate partner-in-charge on Teachers Village.
“This was part of basically everybody including the investors giving
back to the city of Newark.”


Richard Meier facades, Beit concedes, can get pretty pricey on
the exterior of a museum. “We made them the Target line, if you will,”
Beit says. This is one of the ways the project has kept costs down
through design and construction (this is also why Beit is developing a
series of low-rise buildings and not a much more costly downtown tower).
“At that point,” he says, “we knew how much these buildings were going
to cost, we knew what the teachers were making, and we backed into what
we needed to do on the public investment side to make this
work.”

As for why so many groups were willing to get involved to make
this possible, Beit talks about a nostalgia for Newark that many people
once connected to the city still feel. He cites a time as far back as
the 1950s, when Newark was the business and entertainment capital of the
state.

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“Newark in many ways back then was the center of this
Northeastern economy, even more so arguably than Manhattan, in terms of
the innovation in technology and manufacturing,” Beit says. “The first
international airport in the New York metro region was in Newark. The
ports were in Newark.”

The project has received some criticism for housing only charter schools.


This is the Newark where Meier grew up.

“My memories of it are very different,” Meier says, thinking
back on the site that will become Teachers Village. “When I was young
and we’d go downtown there, I remember it was a vibrant downtown. It
didn’t look anything like what it looks like today.”

The hope is that this soon will change. And Teachers Village
may in the process demonstrate a new national model on the old rule that
the vitality of a neighborhood is intimately tied to the quality of its
schools.

Follow the conversation on Twitter using the tag #USInnovation.

About the author

Emily Badger is a writer in the Washington, D.C., area, where she writes about cities, sustainability, public policy, and strange ideas. She's a contributing writer at the Atlantic Cities and has written for Pacific Standard, GOOD, the Christian Science Monitor, and The Morning News.

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