‘FOOD, ART, TECH, FITNESS’: INSIDE AN ENCOMPASSING PLAN FOR A SLICE OF NEWARK
Published September 20, 2017 | Andaiye Taylor
140-142 Sussex Avenue, on the Newark Street side. All 23 residential units in the mixed-use building are currently leased. Credit: Gomes Group
Newark native Pedro Gomes and his company Gomes Group are steadily unveiling a slew of new residential and commercial real estate projects in the area around Sussex Avenue and Norfolk Street in Newark.
For Gomes, who grew up in the Ironbound, it is the culmination of a vision born whole seven years ago, when he started acquiring property in the area (Gomes broke into real estate at age 21, when he flipped his first house).
Now those buildings are launching, or nearing launch, as fully realized retail, residential and business concepts, and Gomes says the vision that came to him “clear as day” for the area he now calls “Fownders District” is beginning to make sense for others who couldn’t see it at first.
The name is drawn from Fownders, a startup accelerator Gomes co-owns with entrepreneur Gerard Adams that is an anchor in the development. Gomes and his team are looking to spread the ethos of innovation and entrepreneurship being seeded at Fownders into a full “live, work, play” concept that might attract people, particularly millennials, to live and socialize in the real estate concepts being developed nearby. Related:With Fownders Newark, tech star Gerard Adams brings startup aspirations to the neighborhood
An advertisement for the mixed-use building at 140-142 Sussex Avenue. Credit: Gomes Group
In July, I walked through the area with Gomes himself. We started inside 140-142 Sussex Avenue. The brand new structure sits on the site once occupied, in part, by Holman Wine & Liquors and New Armory Tavern, on the corner of Sussex Avenue and Newark Street.
Now it’s a 23-unit mixed-use building whose apartment units feature open floor plans, hardwood floors and stainless steel appliances. A two-bedroom apartment there rents for $1,800. (For comparison’s sake, HUD calculates the “Fair Market Rent” for the surrounding 07103 zip code at $1,350. That’s the estimate for rents in the 40th percentile, meaning 60 percent of two-bedroom rents in the building’s zip code are priced higher than $1,350.)
Gomes also showed me an open-plan loft unit, still under construction at the time, that featured two bedrooms, high ceilings, recess lighting and a kitchen with an oversized island that can fit up to eight people. The loft was priced at $3,300. At the time I toured the building with Gomes, half of the units had already been pre-leased. As of this publishing, all apartments in the building have been rented.
Building residential is one thing, Gomes said, but the key to his overall project is the retail, work space and restaurants that will fill it out.
“It’s easy to build a [standalone] real estate project,” Gomes told me. “But it’s another to bring culture.” Gomes said that he is hoping to build amenities that consider all of the things millennials might like to do within steps of their residences. For Gomes, they’re the types of amenities that would make the crowd who shows up for a Startup Grind fireside chat at Fownders stay for a beer, a meal or a rooftop cocktail. And those that might motivate them choose to live there full-time. Related:Google-backed Startup Grind community will soon come to Newark
Gerard Adams, center, with entrepreneurs from the first Fownders cohort. Fownders is located at 48 Norfolk Street, one block west of 140 Sussex.
Gomes said he wants it to be the type of place students who graduate from nearby Rutgers and NJIT might want to live.
We walked out of the loft unit and over to the ground floor spaces facing Newark Street that will house commercial businesses including a yoga studio, coffee shop and a potential franchise that offers healthy food options. EG Muñoz Construction recently leased 1,800 feet of office space in the building as well. I asked Gomes how he developed concepts for the buildings.
“I try to take advantage of every inch in the building–I don’t like to leave anything behind,” he said. Indeed, as he described the retail spaces in 140 Sussex, Gomes discussed the flow of the property in terms of how an actual person might traverse it.
Gomes said he’s being deliberate about the types of commercial tenants that occupy the buildings in the development, with a preference for those that are aligned with the culture he’s trying to cultivate: food, art, tech and fitness.
Pedro Gomes, left, with Gerard Adams. Click or tap to enlarge. Credit: Mike Richy
Gomes selected the area because of its proximity to Broad Street Station and the Newark Light Rail stop at Norfolk Street, and because of the abundance of available lots for sale. The other draw: “thousands of students,” he said.
One of the features of the area, said Gomes, will be murals. He commissioned Venezuela-born painter Sebastian Ferreira, who created the artwork that appears in Fownders, to create murals on buildings throughout the development. Ferreira is the cousin of Antonio Dinis, a chef with whom Gomes co-owns three restaurants under the Porto by Antonio umbrella, including Munchies by Antonio at 42-48 Norfolk Street.
When I asked Gomes whether he planned on collaborating with Newark artists, he said that outreach is forthcoming. On October 12th there will be an art walk event in the neighborhood.
Next up on our tour: a digital production and meeting venue on Sussex Avenue, past Lock Street, where media/event strategy, planning, and production firm SuSu Productions has space. Both this venue and an art gallery directly across the street from it are in Baxter Park, the complex located on the former site of Baxter Terrace, the 500-unit housing projects that were demolished in 2012.
Gomes said his project has gotten positive reviews both from City Hall and from community residents. He said Mayor Ras Baraka “loved it” and complimented him on how comprehensive the concept is. He also said a diverse array of people who frequent the area–nearby residents, police and firefighters, city employees who work nearby–have complimented him on the concepts he’s bringing to the neighborhood.
“The neighbors are happy I’m bringing their house values up. The businesses are telling me people are knocking on their doors to buy their properties because other developers want to develop the area,” he said via email. “I welcome this because the more people building [in] the area, the better.”
In early September, I returned to the area in the proximity of 140 Sussex Avenue to hear what locals had to say. While the immediate area around Gomes’s buildings was bereft of residents at the time, I did meet a few business owners and workers who had been in the neighborhood a long time. They were all optimistic about what the new buildings and concepts might bring to the neighborhood, especially in light of their impression that the neighborhood has been safer overall in recent years.
Maribel Ramos, owner and head instructor at Shinsei Karate Do & Fitness at 50 Sussex Avenue; Wandy Santana, manager at Jeffrey’s Auto Body at 54 Sussex Avenue; Mark Smith, owner of EX-TREME Auto Repair at 97 Sussex Avenue. All photos: Andaiye Taylor
“It’s been so much nicer,” said Newark native Maribel Ramos, head instructor at Shinsei Karate Do & Fitness at 50 Sussex Avenue, right across the street from the art gallery. “Cops are around. We don’t have trouble around here anymore.”
Ramos’s father owns the building and once owned a store there. She said it used to get robbed “all the time,” but that things changed for better as the colleges moved closer. Now she’s able to offer college students fitness classes. It’s why she welcomes new development.
“I’ve noticed that they’re developing everywhere. It’s been good for me business-wise, and I’m trying to [offer programs to] get the kids off the streets as well,” said Ramos, who has also worked with youth at Boys & Girls Club.
She’s noticed the programming in the gallery across the street. “The other day they were doing some dance thing in there,” Ramos said.
Wandy Santana, who manages Jeffrey’s Auto Body two doors down, agreed. “Everything’s calm now,” said Santana, who is also a lifelong Newarker. Before, he said, it was “a mess. A lot of drugs. As soon as they took all that out,” he said, motioning toward Baxter Terrace, “everything changed.”
A flyer for 140 Sussex Ave posted in a restaurant window on Rutgers-Newark’s campus. August 13, 2017. Photo: Andaiye Taylor
I showed him a photo on my phone of what the new apartments around the corner looked like. “Nice,” he said. “How expensive [is] it gonna be?”
I told him a two-bedroom would cost $1,800 monthly.
“Yeah, cuz downtown is right there, so…” he thought for a second, “…it’s gonna be good.”
Mark Smith runs his own auto repair shop on Sussex Avenue: EX-TREME Auto Repair. The business is located diagonally to both 140 Sussex and the site of a planned beer garden, and is directly across the street from New Hope Baptist Church. I asked him if he knows what’s coming to the block.
“In some sense, because the owner that’s doing the building here, he actually introduced himself to me at one point,” said Smith, referring to Gomes. “So he’s really doing good. What he says he wants to do, he’s trying to develop the area a little bit better, which is good. Especially the new building that’s right on the corner,” he said, gesturing toward 140 Sussex Avenue.
Smith said he has been at his Sussex Avenue location, which he rents, for about 10 years, and that he is not concerned about his rent rising because he has a good relationship with the building’s owner. “I should be ok,” he said. “It’s going to be new people coming in, people with more income, so it will help the business more,” he continued.
“There was nothing much [apart] from the bar that was here. The church, the bar, and that was about it,” he said, referring to New Hope and New Armory Tavern. “It’s way better than before,” he said.
Like a good neighbor
During a coffee break at Dunkin Donuts on Central Avenue, I ran into a pair of reverends, Keith Wilks, Sr. and Bob Engel, both of World Impact’s Urban Ministry Institute, which is located at 275 Sussex Avenue.
Reverend Keith Wilks, Sr. and Reverend Bob Engel of World Impact’s Urban Ministries enjoy a coffee break at the Central Avenue Dunkin Donuts. Credit: Andaiye Taylor
The two were chatting over coffee when I asked the manager if he was aware of the development happening a half block from their location. When I noticed Wilks, Sr. lean forward in curiosity, I put the question to him instead.
“I think it’s a good thing, I really do. I grew up here in Newark down at James Street and this has been a long time coming to me,” he said.
But he cautioned: “I think the way that it’s handled is important. I think as developers are coming in, they need to make sure that they have community involvement, that they are community-friendly and willing to address legitimate concerns for the community.”
Wilks, Sr. continued: “The g-word, ‘gentrification,’ that does not have to be a bad thing. Because business being done in Newark is good. If everyone is working together, we can coexist, and it will help the entire community.”
It was a sentiment shared by Yusef Ismail, who was born and raised in Baxter Terrace and cofounded the anti-violence non-profit Stop Shooting. Ismail’s daughter attends Marion P. Thomas charter school, which is located directly across the street from 140 Sussex Avenue. I was curious about what a former neighborhood resident might think about what was coming to the area and asked him what his impression was of Gomes’s plans.
“In terms of development, I’m all for it, it’s great for Newark,” he told me over the phone. “I see that area as part of University Heights and an extension of Downtown.”
Ismail echoed Wilks, Sr.’s sentiment about community involvement. “A lot of questions from some like me are going to be, ‘How is the community input?'” Ismail said. “So I would just recommend that community engagement be a focal point as well.”
In an email exchange after our walkthrough, Gomes said he wants to be an inclusive neighbor.
“I’m here to integrate what’s [already] in the area with what’s new and upcoming, not trying to push anyone or anything out,” Gomes said about his project. And in bringing projects like Fownders into the development, he’s hoping to project an “open door policy” for the area overall–offering amenities that everyone in the community who is interested in, and can benefit from, that type of programming can enjoy.
Gomes said Fownders undertook a 30-block cleanup on Earth Day this year, and that he had personally donated 250 book bags for the recent back-to-school Labor Day book bag giveaway and barbecue at nearby Branch Brook Park. “We want to change the [area] for the better in all aspects, not just putting up buildings,” he said.
Back on our tour in July, Gomes and I doubled back across Sussex Avenue and walked around to Orange Street, within view of the Colonnades. On that corner will rise Gomes Group’s next project: two new buildings, each with 30 apartment units and commercial spaces on the bottom floors. I asked Gomes what other types of spaces he was contemplating for the area.
“I’m considering doing a boutique hotel in the future. Something with a W-type feel,” he said, referring to the W Hotel chain. “I can see something modern and sexy being here, and also a place where parents can come to visit their kids in school.”
He added: “But I can’t do it until I get more residents in.”
Newark Street near the corner of Sussex Avenue. Top: In 2015, the site of Holman Wine & Liquors and New Armory Tavern. (Credit: Google) Middle: In 2016, after the building housing those businesses was razed to make room for 140 Sussex. (Credit: Google) Bottom: In 2017, where 140 Sussex now sits. Its residential units are fully leased. Commercial business including a yoga studio, coffee shop and health food concept will inhabit the spaces on the bottom. (Credit: Andaiye Taylor)
The development has not been without its hiccups, said Gomes. One example: the city’s liquor license statutes. In all areas of Newark except downtown (or the “Downtown Family Restaurant and Entertainment District,” as it’s identified in the city’s liquor statutes), a building is prohibited from holding a liquor license if it is within 1,000 feet of another liquor license-holding building. But Gomes’ ultimate plan potentially calls for alcohol-selling establishments that are closer to each other than that.
Those projects include a planned 5,000-square-foot Porto by Antonio beer garden and a rooftop lounge. The beer garden will inhabit a building on Sussex Avenue that Gomes Group recently closed on that formerly housed Hallmark Auto Body Services. Gomes said he and team are preparing to seek an exception that will let them build other alcohol-serving establishments closer than 1,000 feet from the beer garden.
This will enable a higher density of restaurants, he said, and that will increase opportunities for neighborhood leisure and add more local job opportunities.
“I’m not just a guy putting up a building,” Gomes said. “I’m a guy who’s building a community and who has a vision.”
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