The Willows at Symphony Hall reveals promise, and trials, of artist housing development
Published June 7, 2018 | Miriam Ascarelli
If there are three words you’ll hear spoken a lot in Newark these days, it’s “affordable housing” and “artists.’’ The concepts are at the heart of the city’s economic development strategy, which is designed to harness artists’ creative energy to help shape the city at a moment that feels like a turning point after decades of struggling.
In the last year, a major focus in this effort was The Willows at Symphony Hall, a four-story, $15.6 million development in the Lincoln Park neighborhood that opened last June and was marketed as affordable housing for artists.
The apartment building seems like a place artists would love. Well-placed pops of canary-yellow add dimension to the building’s dove-grey exterior, giving the building an edgy, urban vibe. And inside, the common areas are filled with modern furniture like chrome-and-glass tables and chairs upholstered with fabric evoking Andy Warhol-style pop art. There’s even a rehearsal room and a gallery space available to tenants.
A year since the building’s opening, the building is fully leased, and there is a long waiting list to get in. And while there are artists in the building, there are not nearly as many as the city had hoped.
Of the 45 units designated as “artist preference,’’ only ten are being rented to artists who were able to both meet the building’s income requirements and produce a portfolio documenting their status as a practicing artist, according to property manager Felicia Gordon. And the gallery and rehearsal space has yet to be used.
That’s disappointing, admits Bruce Morgan, of BCM Affordable Housing, the real estate development company that helped build the project.
Morgan said his company worked hard to come up with designs that would appeal to artists. It also collaborated with local organizations like Newark Arts; the Lincoln Park Coast Cultural District; and City Without Walls, a local gallery, to spread the word about the building, even organizing a “hard-hat’’ tour of the building that was well-received and drew 100 people.
But when it came time to turn in applications, the response from Newark’s artists was low.
“It wasn’t without trying,’’ Morgan said, “It’s the truth.’’
Morgan’s efforts did not go unnoticed.
Jeremy Johnson, the executive director of Newark Arts, applauded Morgan’s efforts and reiterated the city’s position that it wants to continue working with developers “to make sure artists are an important part of the mix in this city.’’
“We see this as a beginning,’’ he said.
The lesson here, he said, is that it takes more time and energy than people may think to get artists to get their documentation ready and submit their applications. Going forward, he said, Newark Arts plans to work more closely with partner organizations and devote more resources to getting artists through the process.
“There’s quite a bit of handholding, quite a bit of walking folks through the process,’’ he said. “We need to manage the process. It’s not just a matter of saying, ‘Hey, we’re building a building, and we’re going to open it up to certain populations,’ and you wait people to apply for it.’’
How affordable housing works
The Willows at Symphony Hall is one example of one of the many varieties of affordable housing being built in Newark today as a means to both jump-start economic development and prevent long-time residents from being priced out of town. “Affordable housing’’ is actually a government term that refers to privately owned housing that is built using government subsidies like tax credits and low-interest financing. In exchange, the owners agree to lease a certain portion of the apartments in the building to people who meet certain income categories, which also vary from building to building; rents are set as a percentage of tenants’ income that is considered to be “affordable.’’
In the case of The Willows at Symphony Hall, 45 of the building’s 60 units were designated as artist-preference, meaning artists who could both produce documentation showing they met the building’s income requirements and could also produce a portfolio demonstrating they were practicing artists were given first preference — but if qualified artists couldn’t be found, the units were leased to non-artists.
To lease a one-bedroom apartment, tenants must be making an income is 50 percent of the median income of Essex County (for a single person household, that’s $33,000 a year), and rents are set at about $800, said property manager Felicia Gordon. For two-bedrooms, the targeted income range is 60 percent of the median area income, which for a single person would be an income of $40,000. Two-bedrooms cost between $900 and $1,200 a month, Gordon said.
The building also includes 15 units set aside for people with special needs. (Of those, six are for people with mental illness and nine for homeless people with a disability.) All of these units are fully furnished and have been filled by people within these categories, Gordon said. People in these units also have access to a 20-hour a week case manager, and per a partnership with YMCA, vouchers cover rent based on the resident’s income, up to the full amount.
Impact on the neighborhood
There’s no question the city sees The Willows at Symphony Hall as an important piece in the redevelopment of Lincoln Park, a neighborhood at the southern edge of Downtown Newark. To quote Mayor Ras Baraka from a press release issued last year announcing the opening of the building: “The Willows at Symphony Hall is a prime example of our strategy to ensure that new development in Newark reflects the diversity of our city and fosters Newark’s leadership in the arts. Beyond that, it is another giant step in the comeback of the Lincoln Park neighborhood.”
It’s hard not to want Baraka’s vision to come true. Which is why what is happening in Lincoln Park can also be seen as an important test of whether downtown redevelopment can spread to other parts of the city that have been trying for years to dig out of a trap set by decades of decline.
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History of the neighborhood
Not too long ago, Lincoln Park was the pride of Newark. In the late 19th and early 20th century, it was home to some of the city’s industrial elites. The Dryden family (of Prudential fame) owned a mansion here. So did Louis Aronson, inventor of the Ronson lighter. In the 1930s and 40s, the neighborhood evolved into a center for medical services as well as a major hub for the city’s thriving jazz scene, garnering the nickname “the Coast.’’
But then came the 1967 riots — and Lincoln Park hit rock bottom. The neighborhood was abandoned, so much so that in 1998, when community leaders came together to form the Lincoln Park Coast Cultural District (LPCCD) in hopes of resurrecting the neighborhood by celebrating its architectural riches and its legacy as a major center for black culture, it was faced with a neighborhood that was essentially “off the grid,’’ said LPCCD executive director Anthony Smith. City services like garbage pick-up and street cleaning weren’t happening; police protection was next to nil.
Over the last 20 years, the LPCCD has worked hard to stabilize and re-brand the neighborhood, thanks in part to the annual Lincoln Park Music Festival (now fourteen years in the running) and new housing that has replaced the boarded-up buildings and empty lots that once pockmarked the neighborhood.
All this has “primed’’ the neighborhood for redevelopment, Smith said.
“What’s happening now is that we have an opportunity to be more intentional about what our needs are in this community so that it’s not development for development’s sake,’’ Smith said.
That optimism was shared by Johnson, who said he was looking forward to unveiling the city’s new cultural plan in late July at this year’s Lincoln Park Music Festival. Among other things, the plan will address ways to further jump-start redevelopment efforts in Lincoln Park, he said.
As for the Willows at Symphony Hall, he noted the building was the site for one of the first community meetings seeking feedback for the plan, and that he envisions more arts programming in the building in the future.
“We’re going to make sure there’s going to be more [artists] in the future,’’ Johnson said. “This is not for the feint of heart. But we’re artists. We can make this happen. This is Newark.’’
Miriam Ascarelli is a lecturer in the Humanities Dept. at New Jersey Institute of Technology, where she teaches journalism and composition and has come to love Newark and all its history, grittiness, hope and resiliency. Prior to teaching, she worked as a reporter and editor at The Jersey Journal in Jersey City, the City News Bureau of Chicago and other newspapers in the Midwest. She lives in Glen Ridge with her husband, Jim, two teen-age daughters and three cats.
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