RBH Group: Teachers Village

New life for Newark

RBH Group is poised to begin work on Teachers Village, a residential development in the historical center of Newark. Company president Ron Beit talks to Gay Sutton about his vision for kick-starting wider urban regeneration.

 

By the end of the year, construction is likely to begin on the first phase of a development plan that could breathe life back into the heart of the city of Newark, New Jersey. The city already boasts the third-busiest airport in the US, has a thriving port that provides container facilities for New York City, enjoys an excellent transport and educational infrastructure that includes a thriving university sector, and is home to some of the largest financial organizations in the country. And yet for many years its historic center has been slowly degenerating—its population dissipating and its architectural heritage decaying, to be replaced by parking lots.

“I could never understand how devalued the central business district was in comparison with other business districts across the country, particularly given the inherent assets the city has,” explains Ron Beit, president and founder of Manhattan-based property development firm RBH Group. Beit had begun his real estate career in Newark before expanding nationwide. Having amassed an in-depth understanding of the city and its needs, he perceived a tremendous opportunity for urban renewal and began acquiring development properties in the heart of downtown Newark.

“We came to understand two things. First, as Newark is a challenged credit environment, we would have to get creative in the way we were going to finance such a development here.  And second, when looking at urban renewal projects that had succeeded in the short term elsewhere in the country, we saw that those developed exclusively for the luxury market had long-term issues,” Beit explains. “Good plans—and one only has to look to Manhattan with its million units of rent-stabilized and rent-controlled housing stock preserved for middle income—need a strong middle income housing stock upon which to build.”

With a shrewd knowledge of the locality, it didn’t take long to identify a prime marketplace for the initial housing development. “There are 18,000 teachers working in Newark’s charter and public schools, universities and independent schools,” says Beit. “They commute into the city every day from all over the region and work very long hours. It was apparent to us that a middle income housing project for teachers would be very compelling.”

Having acquired 32 contiguous parcels in the downtown core business district, Beit had a vision to construct Teachers Village, a combination of residential, retail and academic accommodation totaling about 360,000 square feet and costing some $120 million. The architectural plans are currently being drawn up, and since the location is in a historically significant area of the city, a great deal of careful attention is being given to reflecting the style and diversity of architecture that had originally characterized the neighborhood.

The vision for the project is persuasive. “This project will, most importantly, be horizontal rather than vertical,” Beit says. “Rather than one big building in the middle of the business district, it’s a series of eight low-rise buildings that will completely transform the streetscapes of this neighborhood.”

Six of the eight buildings will contain rental apartments over retail space and will be marketed exclusively to teachers. The remaining two buildings will house three charter schools and a gymnasium, again over retail. A variety of unique amenities are being incorporated for the residents, including classroom spaces equipped with computers that can be used for out-of-hours teaching and for personal study, while the gymnasium is designed to be used by the schools during the day and as a sports club for the community after hours and on weekends.

Sadly, many of the original historic buildings have long since disappeared. Around 91 percent of the land is currently used as surface parking lots, and the remainder consists of dilapidated properties, most of which have long been abandoned. “That’s why this project will be really important, because we can do something to restore the historic context of this neighborhood,” Beit says. To ensure that the diversity of the original architecture is reflected in the new buildings, he has appointed four different architects to design the project.

Plans for the retail element of the development will be crucial to the successful regeneration of the area and will be aimed at attracting a mix of people. With the 200,000 city residents boosted by another 80,000 employed there during the week, 50,000 students based in the University Heights district just a block and a half away, and the Prudential Center—an arena seating an audience of around 18,000 for sporting and entertainment events—located between the two, there is a large captive audience to work on.

“It’s really a matter of creating a retail offering that will draw everyone out of their buildings and onto the street,” Beit says. The plan is to achieve this through a diversity of retail offerings, some 70 percent of which will be entertainment venues and restaurants. The momentum and buzz have begun to build, and “we believe that this is really going to be the spark that moves development in the business district to another level. Once this development of residential and retail gets going, the result will be a continuous experience connecting the arena district with University Heights,” Beit says. “That, in turn, will form an epicenter of development that will expand outward.”

Creating the structure for funding this ambitious $120 million project has been almost as innovative as the vision and architecture. Beit has worked hard to bring together a broad portfolio of partners, including private institutional sources as well as city, state and federal governments. Successfully marrying their interests and satisfying their constraints, he believes the funding will be finalized within 60 to 90 days. Site preparation will then begin at the end of the year and the first building delivered by June 2012.

“The beauty of the project is that it has so many dimensions—in terms of economic development for the city, and as a catalyst for further development projects in the central business district and beyond,” Beit concludes. “But more important, it’s a project that has a heart. It will be a visible symbol of the innovative educational policies being incubated in our city.”