Update Dec. 11, 2018 @ 4:47 p.m.: The Newark Municipal Council voted to defer the MX-3 zoning hearing and vote until the Jan. 9 council meeting. That meeting is scheduled for 12:30 p.m. in the Council Chambers.
Higher buildings around Newark’s Penn Station? The Newark Municipal Council is considering the MX-3 zoning ordinance for a second time on December 11th.
What should the area around Newark’s Penn Station look like?
That’s at the heart of a controversy that will play out at this week’s city council meeting about a proposed ordinance that would allow the creation of a residential/commercial district known as MX-3 on certain blocks near the train station.
The new zoning would allow developers to erect buildings as high as 145 feet–or 12 stories. That’s four stories higher than the limits set by the city’s master plan, which sets the height limit in the area to eight stories, or 96 feet.
The meeting, which will include a public hearing and a vote on the issue, is set for 10 a.m. in the City Council Chambers of City Hall, 920 Broad Street.
The session is expected to be contentious not just because of the substance of the ordinance but because of the timing of the MX-3 proposal and the decision to hold the meeting to vote on the plan during the day, making it difficult for residents to attend and voice their opinions.
To critics, the future of the Ironbound is at stake. They say the plan will wreak havoc on a neighborhood that is charming but congested, is prone to flooding and has overcrowded schools. In addition, they say, the new housing, which is intended to attract higher income residents, will put pressure on existing rents.
“I think the character of Ironbound–its walkability and charm–could disappear with the construction of a bunch of huge buildings,’’ Nancy Zak, a longtime resident who works as a community organizer for the Ironbound Community Corporation, wrote in an email. “They will create a wall around Penn station instead of an invitation to walk along Ferry Street.’’
Mayor Ras Baraka has cast the issue in terms of a necessary, but unwanted “compromise’’ that serves the needs of the city, given the rapid changes that are happening. In return for the higher height limits, he argues, the city will be able to force developers to comply with the inclusionary zoning ordinance, which requires large developers to designate 20 percent of new buildings as affordable housing. There are three paths for this: a developer can set aside the housing the housing “on-site;’’ the developer can build affordable housing in another neighborhood or the developer can pay into an affordable housing fund so that the money can be used to help underwrite affordable housing projects in distressed neighborhoods.
“Listen: three, four, five years ago, the city was not moving this fast,’’ Baraka said at a Nov. 26 community meeting to discuss the issue. “We did not have back-up–we have stuff that can’t get to the Zoning Board for five or six, seven months. There’s a bunch of back-ups–40 to 50 projects that are behind. We have all this stuff that is happening in the city now. . . so we can pretend that it’s not happening . . . stick our heads in the sand and go about our business. Or somebody has to say these things are happening–how are we going to deal with it, and reconfigure the city in such a way that we can get the benefit from this and so we don’t wake up tomorrow and get hit with an avalanche. Because that’s what will happen.’’
History of the ordinance
The MX-3 proposal is not new. It dates back to the summer of 2017 when it generated strong resistance from Ironbound residents who said such development would destroy the character of their neighborhood. Despite neighborhood opposition, it was approved by the City Council in October.
By late November, the fate of MX-3 was in the courts, as a result of a lawsuit filed by Ironbound residents, members of land-use advocacy group PLANewark and the Button Factory Condominium Association. The suit claimed the new zoning rules violated Newark’s 2012 Master Plan, which limits the height of buildings in the neighborhood to eight stories, and that the MX-3 zoning was passed without giving the community adequate opportunities to make their voices heard. In a decision issued in October, Superior Court Judge Patrick Bartels sided with critics, overturning the ordinance on the grounds that the city had not provided residents with adequate notice. This forced the city to re-start the process.
What’s happening this time around
The city resurrected the process on Nov. 27 by introducing the measure in the City Council and then getting approval from the planning board on Dec. 3. It also held three community meetings on the ordinance between Nov. 26 and Dec. 6 that were hosted by Andréa Mason, of the People’s Assembly, an arm of the Mayor’s Office.
During the meetings, Ironbound residents–many of them affiliated with the Ironbound Community Corporation, a neighborhood organization that has been on the forefront of Ironbound issues for years–suggested a compromise where building height in the zone would be limited to 120 feet – or ten stories, with the added proviso that anything over the existing 96-foot limit would be considered a conditional use, so the city would have more control over the outcome.
“That is more than we would like but we can at least we can have a discussion with the city,’’ Joe Della Fave, executive director of the Ironbound Community Corporation, said in an interview this morning.
Della Fave noted that the Master Plan is very clear about limiting building height in the area to eight stories. To go beyond that, he said, “you are challenging the character and livability of the neighborhood.’’ He added: “There’s plenty of room for density and hard development Downtown. This encroachment into the neighborhood to increase density is just not the right approach to minimize gentrification and displacement.’’
Tyler Tourville, chair of PLANewark, offered similar thoughts. In an interview this weekend, he said his organization generally supports increased density in the area around Penn Station, but it is troublesome that the city wants to pass an ordinance that directly opposes the eight-story limit in the Master Plan. The ideal solution would be a re-examination of the Master Plan that would include community input, but short of that, the organization would support an amendment that would require any buildings over eight stories to be a conditional use.
Whether the conversations that unfolded at the community meetings will result in changes in the text of the MX-3 ordinance remains to be seen. Theoretically, the administration or the Council can use the December 11th session to make additional recommendations to the zoning proposal and even delay a vote.
In the meantime, issues about notification continue to plague the process.
“When the city proposed this last year, they began it over a holiday weekend, July 4th,’’ Zak said in her email. “Now this was brought up over the Thanksgiving week and weekend, so lots of people were busy with family and trips, etc…the next council meeting where the MX-3 may officially be adopted is Dec. 11 – and it is a daytime meeting when people work. If they defer it, it will end up right around Xmas. It really should be put off to after Jan. 1 if people were really to have a good chance to participate.’’
Tourville agreed, adding that because the Council meeting is being held during the workday, “It will be difficult for a lot of people to attend.’’