Newark City Council will vote on re-zoning around Penn station at its Wednesday meeting
Published January 8, 2019 | Miriam Ascarelli
The Newark City Council is scheduled to vote tomorrow (Wednesday) on a controversial zoning plan that will allow developers to erect buildings as high as 145 feet – or 12 stories high – in the area around Penn Station.
Tomorrow’s meeting is set for 12:30 p.m. in the City Council Chambers of City Hall, 920 Broad Street.
The new zoning, known as MX-3, could dramatically change the Ironbound neighborhood, a largely working class neighborhood predominately made up of Portuguese, Brazilian and Latin American immigrants and located in densely packed, four-square mile-area between the train station and the Passaic River. The Ironbound is known for its family-owned restaurants, cafés and shops along Ferry Street and is routinely highlighted by the city’s Greater Newark Convention and Visitor’s Bureau as a foodie destination.
MX-3 would change the city’s Master Plan, which currently sets the height limit in the area around Penn Station at eight stories — or 96 feet – and instead allow for buildings as high as 145 feet – or 12 stories.
City officials say the higher building allowances are needed so developers can get a return on their investment and fulfill the requirements of the city’s Inclusionary Zoning ordinance which requires large developers to designate 20 percent of new builds as affordable housing. (Developers can fulfill the requirements by setting aside the housing on-site, building in another neighborhood or paying into an affordable housing fund which will be used to underwrite affordable housing projects in distressed neighborhoods such as the South and West wards.)
But many neighborhood residents fear the rezoning will not only change the character of the Ironbound by making it less walkable, it will also lead to higher rents, making the neighborhood unaffordable to current residents, and will strain the infrastructure in an area that is already known for traffic jams and is prone to flooding.
In a statement issued on Friday, Joseph Della Fave, executive director of the Ironbound Community Corporation, an organization that has been on the forefront of neighborhood battles over the years, argued the greater density will “support the worse aspects of gentrification’’ and that those problems will eventually spread throughout the rest of the city.
“We have no doubt, nor does most of the literature and documented experiences, that increasing the number of market rate units in a neighborhood readily leads to higher rents overall in the same neighborhood,’’ Della Fave wrote while, in a separate paragraph, praising Mayor Ras Baraka for “doing a great job of promoting and supporting equitable revitalization.’’ “Through increased height and density, this ordinance enables more units to be built, and, as we have seen from proposed and planned projects in this area, new developments will likely primarily consist of studio and one bedroom units, further intensifying development. Since the intended market rate for these units is clearly beyond the financial means of most Newark residents, these projects will gentrify and likely promote higher neighborhood rents and, therefore, displacement.’’
City officials say the MX-3 zoning will not lead to gentrification.
“The Ironbound Community Corporation has been our partner in working to achieve equitable growth in Newark and to prevent the displacement of residents, and we will continue working with them to ensure that present Newark residents benefit from the surge in investment and development,’’ John Palmieri, deputy mayor for Economic Growth, Transportation and Infrastructure said in a statement yesterday. “However, we respectfully disagree with their assumption that MX-3 zoning will cause gentrification. There is no evidence that high rise construction causes displacement, and certainly no proof that raising the height of buildings from eight stories to 12 stories triggers gentrification.
As for criticism that the development will exacerbate traffic issues, Palmieri defended the MX-3 by noting it will create a “transit-oriented development’’ designed to appeal to renters and condo owners who are less likely to own vehicles. Regarding infrastructure concerns, he said, developers will be required to demonstrate that there is sufficient water and sewer capacity to satisfy demand. They will also be required to demonstrate that their development incorporates conservation and energy efficiency practices.
The battle over MX-3 zoning 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 2017.
By late November 2017, 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 that the MX-3 zoning was passed without giving the community adequate opportunities to make their voices heard.
In a decision issued in October 2018, 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.
The city resurrected the process in 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. During the meetings, Ironbound residents – many of them affiliated with the Ironbound Community Corporation — registered their opposition to the plan. A City Council vote on the matter was originally set for Dec. 11, but it was postponed until Jan. 9.