Taking Back the City

Turning around crime-ridden, impoverished Newark would be a tall order for anyone, even the most seasoned of mayors. But 38-year-old Cory Booker, the Brick City's new CEO, says he's up for the challenge.


“I want to be a part of the greatest urban story America has to tell and I think it’s going to happen in Newark,’ he said in June. Amidst vows to cure Newark’s daunting ills, crime being number one, promoting multifamily development is high on Booker’s agenda.

“From his first day in office, the mayor has made it clear that creating new housing is one of his top priorities. While affordable housing is an important component, he also is deeply committed to the downtown and market-rate housing. His key achievements have been the people he has been able to attract, including deputy mayor Stefan Pryor, former head of the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., and Toni Griffin, head of city planning,” said Arthur Stern, CEO of Cogswell Realty Group LLC, a development company that plans to deliver more than 3,500 market-rate multifamily housing units to Downtown Newark over the next ten years. Cogswell Realty is one of a number of developers targeting Newark for multifamily development over the next decade. Twenty-two condo projects, totaling 770 units, have been proposed since the beginning of this year, compared with the 155 condos actually built in the city from 2002 through 2006. Booker, an outspoken critic of the two- and three-family houses that have dominated multifamily development in Newark for years, sees the creation of a condo market as a significant step toward revitalization.

Other signs of that long-awaited revival are noted by Marcus & Millichap in its 2007 National Apartment Report, including the recent success of Class A apartment projects, like Cogswell Realty’s 317-unit Eleven80, and an expected half percent increase in job creation this year. While that number may seem meager, it’s a lot better than the negative job growth that Newark (with an unemployment rate double that of the rest of the country) saw from 2004 through 2006.

Newly approved condo projects in the city include the 72-unit Richardson Lofts, the adaptive reuse of a turn-of-the-century, six-story jewelry factory into nine stories of upscale condos by Newwork, a local company that typically does design and master plan work for municipalities and other developers, including Cogswell Realty.

Newwork Partner Michael Saltzman believes, “Cory has helped open the doors to Newark, which has unparalleled real estate fundamentals, but has been held back by negative perception and the inefficiency of the governing body. He’s opening people’s eyes again to the opportunities here, which are significant.”

Richardson Lofts, with on-site valet parking service, views of the Manhattan skyline and a rooftop terrace, will be located a few blocks from Prudential Center, the future home of the New Jersey Devils hockey team and anchor for the $700 million Newark Downtown Core Development District. The Core could see creation of another 2,000 units of rental and for-sale housing, a hotel and restaurant and, at full build-out, six million sq. ft. of development covering 10 city blocks.

Much of this development was started by Booker’s predecessor, five-term mayor Sharpe James, and Booker was not a fan, especially of the arena project, which cost the city hundreds of millions in construction and improvement costs. But it was the $3.9 million of a $6.5 million allocation from HUD to build housing for the poor, which instead went to purchase 12 parcels for the hockey arena, that prompted Booker to file suit against the city for selling land too cheaply. When he took office in July of 2006, he planned to kill the arena deal, but was able to renegotiate the agreement with the Devils franchise, which promised to hire more minority vendors, return some of the land to the city for sale to a developer and give the city $125,000 to be used on other projects.

With Booker’s support, the Core is the focus of Newark Downtown District’s (NDD) $17.5 million, streetscape improvement project to dress up 56 blocks of downtown Newark, the largest ever in the state of New Jersey to be financed by a Special Improvement District (SID). Funding for the three-year, phased project includes a $10 million bond issue from the New Jersey Economic Development Agency (NJEDA) and a combination of cash and in-kind commitments from the Newark Urban Enterprise Zone (UEZ), the NDD, the City of Newark, and PSE&G, New Jersey’s utility company.

Booker is committed to activating the Passaic River waterfront and revitalizing a neglected downtown that, in the early to mid-20th century, was a bustling center of retail commerce. And he wants to use the principles of smart growth to avoid repeating past mistakes. The Brick City Development Corp. (BCDC), a non-profit aimed at promoting redevelopment and attracting new investments, was launched in June. That agency, funded with $14.4 million from Newark Land Trust money gained from land sales, takes the place of the now-defunct Newark Economic Development Corp., which Booker says worked against the public good by transferring public property into private hands.

He was in Las Vegas in June at the ICSC Convention, the largest assembly of commercial retail deal-makers in the nation, where he sat on a panel discussing underserved markets like Newark. He also was on point to drum up business from big box stores, trying to get them to come to Newark. “We have so much disposable income here that bleeds out. They actually measured it,” he said, noting that Newark residents take more than $500 million each year out of the city to shop elsewhere.

On September 27, Booker will deliver the keynote speech at the Newark Real Estate Conference at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, focusing on the sweeping changes his administration has fostered. “The Booker administration spent its first year in office laying the framework for economic development in the downtown core, as well as in the neighborhoods,” said Ted Zangari, chairman of the redevelopment law practice group at Sills Cummis Epstein & Gross, in a press release. Zangari, who also chairs the recently resurrected Newark Real Estate Board, said, “The city has now begun to make its sales pitch to corporate America, so the timing of a Newark-centric real estate conference could not be more perfect.”

But Booker also has a fiscal mess to clean up, left over from James, who rose to power after the race riots of 1967 and now is facing federal prosecution on numerous counts of malfeasance, carrying on Newark’s long history of crooked administrators. At least some of those charges stem from James’ practice of practically giving away land at prices between $1 and $4 per sq. ft. to friends and campaign contributors.

One of Booker’s first orders of business as mayor was to levy an 8.3 percent property tax increase to help close an inherited $180 million budget gap. He is continuing to balance the budget with money gained in a settlement with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, but only $40 million of those funds remain. He offered municipal workers an early retirement at 60 percent of their salary in a lump sum, and that program saw 100 takers, saving the city around $13 million. But those funds, combined with a total of $85 million of state aid, reduced expenses and other revenue, are not enough to close the budget gap. Booker announced in July that lay-offs of between 300 and 500 municipal workers are eminent.

Booker is running Newark like a business, as its CEO, employing many of the tactics used by one of his mentors, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who laid off 3,400 city workers in 2003 to remedy his city’s budget woes. But, while Bloomberg arrived at his mayor’s post a 65-year-old seasoned businessman, having served as senior partner at Salomon Brothers and then as head of his own company, Bloomberg LP, Booker has never held a corporate management position. That fact has some Newarkers wondering if the new mayor has the organizational skills to deliver on his well-orated promises. Some see him as an outsider, disconnected from the real issues of the city.

Born in Washington, D.C., to social activist parents Cary and Carolyn Booker, who were among the first black IBM executives, Booker was raised in the predominantly white and affluent Bergen County enclave of Harrington Park, N.J. An overachiever all his life, the 6-foot, 3-inch college football tight-end earned a B.A. from Stanford University, an honors degree in modern history from Oxford, which he attended on a Rhodes scholarship, and a law degree from Yale University.

He moved to Newark, after graduating from Yale in 1996, to defend the poor as counsel for the Urban Justice Center and set up a non-profit tenants’ rights group. Instead of renting a home in one of Newark’s newly built gated communities or an apartment in a renovated downtown loft building, Booker moved into Brick Towers, a public housing project in the city’s Central Ward that often was without heat or hot water. Along with fellow residents, he launched a letter-writing campaign and took management to court over the substandard conditions. Later, he staged a 10-day hunger strike in a tent on a Newark street corner to call attention to the rampant drug dealing activities there.

Booker ran for mayor in 2002 against James, who managed an unscrupulous campaign that is memorialized by filmmaker Marshall Curry in the Academy Award-nominated documentary, Street Fight. Booker’s losing margin was so narrow that, four years later, James decided not to seek reelection, choosing to defend his state senate seat, which he held simultaneously. When Booker ran again in 2006 against Ronald Rice—the 20-year state senator from New Jersey’s 28th district—he won by 72 percent.

From the beginning, the high-profile Booker was able to attract support from outside the political arena–from filmmakers Steven Spielberg and Spike Lee, publisher David Bradley, the Heinz family, the Waltons of Wal-Mart and Oprah Winfrey. He’s a friend and supporter of Barack Obama, with whom he’s been compared, and he’s been seen at events with Oprah’s best gal-pal Gayle King, who introduced the two Ivy League politicians.

But, it’s been a tough year for Newark’s new mayor, whose plan for the city’s recovery hinges on reducing crime. Just before taking office, he was the apparent target of an assassination plot by prison gang members. He hired police director Garry McGarthy, a former top cop from New York City, who set about repairing crumbling police precincts, doubled the size of the police gang unit and established a zero-tolerance policing strategy. But the city’s murder rate continues to be alarmingly high, even though shootings and overall crime are down. Today, Booker is taking the heat as Newark reels from the August 6 execution-style killing of three college students and the wounding of another in a school play-ground in the city.

Schools are another big issue for Booker. He’s a proponent of school choice and often refers to himself as the Malcolm X of education, dedicated to educating Newark’s children by any means necessary. But he drew more criticism in July, when the summer jobs program he launched this year was unable to deliver first paychecks on time to at least 600 of the 2,100 young employees. And, a grassroots movement by James’ supporters to recall the mayor is using for fodder every perceived misstep, such as his recent distasteful description of a now-deceased housing advocate, whose appearance and behavior he criticized, while also calling her a heroine. He later apologized for those comments that he made to a mostly white audience during a fund-raising speech.

And, although he doesn’t have the managerial background of a Michael Bloomberg or a Jerry Brown–the mayor credited with turning around Oakland, Calif.—Booker’s willingness to seek the advice of those with more experience speaks volumes in his favor. He calls Bloomberg a visionary leader who has been—generous with his insights on economic development. He was the one who sat me down in the beginning and said, “The first year in office my approval rating plummeted (to 31 percent) because I had to make difficult decisions that were not popular,” and he said, “‘Stick to your guns.'”

To his credit, Booker has imported a skilled economic development team, including his friend from Yale, Pryor, a former VP at the Partnership for New York City, who helped to coordinate downtown reinvestment after 9/11. He also brought on Toni Griffin, who previously held the position of deputy planning director for Washington, D.C., and former Vanguarde Media exec Bo Kemp, who now serves as Newark’s city business administrator.

“Booker has brought in some very smart people to be involved with development, who bring with them credibility, professionalism and an understanding of how to make Newark a more main stream place of business. The city is still struggling to get the mechanics of how you support development and economic growth, but I think they have the right long-term thinking. They are on the right track,” said Saltzman.

One year isn’t enough to solve Newark’s problems, but Booker may be the right man to jump-start its recovery. When asked by CBS’s Maurice DuBois if his political aspirations transcended Newark, Booker said, “The next candidate Booker you’ll see will be running for re-election in three years. This is a calling for me. I think that America has in many ways not achieved itself in urban areas. I feel blessed to be in what I think is a great city in America. I’m staying in this fight. I’m not going anywhere.”