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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?!
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.

"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."

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.

"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.

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