Tearing down a fortress in Newark to make way for a new beginning

Newark has struggled to overcome decades of bad urban planning decisions that destroyed whole neighborhoods and wiped out commercial activity. Fixing those bad choices has been a focal point over the years to rejuvenate New Jersey’s largest city.

None of those bad ideas was worse than the construction of the fortress-style downtown Gateway Center office towers. Started a few years after the 1967 Newark riots, the four buildings are connected to Newark Penn Station and one another by skywalks designed to keep office workers off the streets below. The lack of street-level entrances discouraged outsiders from entry and parking decks walled off access to the waterfront.

The result? Countless workers never set foot on surrounding sidewalks, went out for lunch or shopped in surrounding stores.

Today, there are signs things are about to change for the better around the Gateway complex. The owner of three of the four office towers, Onyx Equities, has begun to renovate the hostile architecture in a way its executives believe will force pedestrians onto the streets. The renovation will coincide with a $190 million facelift of the nearly 90-year-old train station that Gov. Phil Murphy announced in December.

“A big part of what we’re doing changes the way you enter the concourse to enter Newark Penn and enter the Gateway,” said John Saraceno, co-founder and managing partner of Onyx. “We get people outside, encourage people to engage the street. We’ll take people inside out instead of outside in.”

The company already has begun — for the first time — to add street-facing retail to Gateway One and it plans to reconfigure the skywalks to feed into a two-story glass atrium called “The Jewel Box.” NJ Transit says $30 million in mostly aesthetic improvements are underway at the train station and the remaining $160 million will roll out over the next five years. The idea, Saraceno said, is to give Gateway One and Penn Station the feel of a smaller version of Union Station in Washington, D.C., and New York City’s Grand Central Terminal.

“To me, the future of Newark is Market Street from the train station to Mulberry Street,” he said. “If, over the next few years, you can transform it and really activate the street, you’ll have a vibrant walkable neighborhood.”

Still, there are questions and challenges. No one can say with certainty what the coronavirus’ economic impact will be long-term. Is remote work here to stay? Or, better yet, what impact will that have on where people live and work and shop and seek entertainment?

Saraceno’s vision for downtown Newark is not new. The long elusive goal has been a work-eat-live destination of luxury apartments, retail shops, nightclubs, sports, culture and restaurants. Getting there has been painfully slow. Over the past three decades, government, corporations, entrepreneurs and charities have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on transformative projects, such as the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, the Newark arena, high-rise residences and new affordable housing in the city’s hardscrabble neighborhoods.

“I’m a believer. I’m an absolute, 100 percent Newark guy,” Saraceno said. “I come to work here every day. I love this place.”

In December, Onyx’s headquarters moved from Woodbridge to Gateway. The company owns more than $2.2 billion worth of real estate assets in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Connecticut.

The Newark gambit fits Onyx’s reputation as a long-play investor that hunts deals that go against the grain. Last year, for instance, Onyx bought $200 million in commercial offices in Parsippany from Mack Cali. As the coronavirus shut down the economy, few, if any buyers, were shopping for suburban office campuses. Instead, the lion’s share of lenders and deal makers poured money into rental apartments across Northern New Jersey.

At some point later this year, things will start to improve in Newark, which has been hit hard by the pandemic. And there’s good reason to believe that once the good news builds, people will return to the area around Newark Penn Station. When they do, Saraceno said, improvements will arrive much faster than many expect.

“The train has left the station at this point, not to make a pun. It’s going to happen,” Saraceno said of the Gateway and Newark Penn makeover. “The question is how fast is it going to happen. And post-Covid, does Newark take a couple of punches in the stomach and take a couple of steps back economically?”

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