NEWARK, N.J. -- It seems an almost impossible task: Transform a city legendary for blight, brownfields and crime into a model for energy efficiency, green spaces and environment-friendly urban design to rival Denver or Seattle.
City leaders are trying to map a strategy for doing just that. With the aid of the Apollo Alliance, a nonprofit devoted to fostering renewable energy and green jobs nationwide, organizers of Newark's "Green Future Summit" have spent a year preparing city officials and community organizers.
By employing people in trades aimed at enhancing the energy efficiency of old buildings and by attracting new green businesses to the transportation hub on the doorstep of Manhattan, Mayor Cory Booker maintains that Newark can create an example for other municipalities to emulate.
"We want to be at the front lines of that fight and show that we can create more jobs, energize our economy, that we can create safer spaces for our children," Booker said in a news briefing during an energy summit last weekend. "All these things can be solved if we approach our issues and our efforts with a green consciousness."
The often heated exchanges during the two days of talks that Booker began Friday demonstrated how daunting that task will be. Already political fault lines are being drawn thanks to the city's notoriously fractious politics, even in an effort as seemingly innocuous as this.
But the city government is committed, revamping its master plan to incorporate Booker's "green consciousness" and even hiring a sustainability officer. Having experienced their share of past redevelopment failures, officials are fully aware that this latest effort to green a very brown city will attract attention as it progresses.
"The nation is looking to Newark to set an example about how to build a green economy," said Phil Angelides, chairman of the Apollo Alliance.
Several initiatives are involved, with some already in the works.
Booker and his team are poring over the city's zoning ordinances to seek ways to require better energy management in new buildings. Tighter zoning alone could have a significant impact as Newark continues to benefit from a building boom thanks to its proximity to New York.
But the primary focus is on existing buildings, refurbishing the city's older structures to leak less heat and air conditioning and use less electricity. City Hall is convinced that spurring greener retrofitting and refurbishment activity will spark job growth, with nonprofits and community colleges training citizens in the electrical and construction trades that will make the changes possible.
The city is also exploring ways to redevelop its waterfront along the Passaic River, one of the nation's most polluted waterways. Derelict warehouses and abandoned chemical factories now line the river, but drawings from Newark's master plan -- spelling out its development goals to 2025 -- envision a green promenade with mixed residential and commercial buildings.
The goal is to green up downtown Newark and encourage more people to live there. Through careful zoning, forward thinking, development planning, a healthy does of financial assistance and expertise from the state of New Jersey and the federal government, Newark thinks it can make its streets safer and more lively at night. And an enhanced image of the city, coupled with some strategic tax incentives, should have a knock-on effect of spurring businesses to relocate there.
Several Newark community leaders are also moving forward, inspired by the city government's vision but not content to wait for it to move. Probably the most visible citizen-led green initiative is Brick City Urban Farms. The organization is working to transform empty lots into inner city gardens, growing fruit and vegetables to supply city food banks for the poor.
There is more to come, officials say. But they admit the devil is in the details, particularly the cost estimates, which are yet to be found among the several items in this vision.
"From a very practical sense, this very bold starting point will now shift to the minutiae of it, and we're going to break out a lot of work and strategy session to look at the real challenges," Booker said.
History of urban decay
Perhaps the greatest challenge for Newark lies in overcoming its unfortunate past.
Home to one of the country's largest ports and resting at a confluence of rail lines, Newark was once one of the United States' most industrialized cities, and manufacturers here helped build much of the country. But today the city is more famous as a poster child for urban decay.
The boom left as quickly as it came. The flight of manufacturing to the Midwest or overseas devastated the economy. As poverty grew and was concentrated into high-rise public housing projects, crime flourished. Those with the means fled to the suburbs as Newark became one of the nation's most dangerous places to live.
As a result, Newark lost almost half its population in about 50 years. Those that remained fought bitter battles over what money, jobs and services remained.
Signs of old Newark were alive and well at the weekend summit. Powerful labor union leaders took to the floor to complain that the government had not consulted with them on the vision for the future and made clear that they expected jobs for their members.
Leaders in the city's black community -- the majority of Newark's citizens -- blasted what they saw as a top-down approach and insisted that future funds be channeled through community organizations. One community organizer likened this latest green development push to a similar initiative by former New Jersey Gov. Christie Todd Whitman (R), in which money was promised to Newark but never materialized.
The green planners insist that they saw it coming. "Every city thinks it's unique, but it's not unusual to hear," said Kate Gordon, co-director of the Apollo Alliance and one of the principal organizers of the meeting.
But the community of Newark has been losing economically for so long that the battle lines drawn are that much sharper here, and the bad blood that much more acute. Gordon admits that any outsiders coming in with new ideas and proposals will have to tread carefully. The key is to work with labor, community groups and educational institutions to get the necessary training in place before anyone gets a chance to compete for the new green jobs.
"We're dealing with an economy with shrinking jobs and a lot of desperation, and when you have shrinking jobs, everyone who gets those jobs wants those jobs," Gordon said. "But if you bring the jobs in first, you don't have the work force. So it's a chicken-and-egg thing."
The local utility is also on board, careful to keep sensitive to the city's politics. PSEG, the state's largest energy provider, is hoping to win approval for a new energy efficiency drive focused on Newark and Trenton. The aim is to install better meters and other equipment to cut electricity demand. Households that cannot afford the systems will be provided them free of charge, the company says.
"We firmly believe in universal access to all," said Alfredo Matos, a Newark native and head of renewable energy at PSEG. "It's not just the rich who can have solar panels."
Ironically, sensitivities over past injustices, some real and some imagined, will make it much more difficult for Mayor Booker and his team to take advantage of what is arguably the city's strongest suit: its impressive transportation infrastructure.
Newark is home to both a giant deepwater port and Liberty International Airport, one of the nation's busiest. Several railroads converge at the city, connecting freight traffic up and down the East Coast and beyond.
Booker aims to attract business to these assets, arguing that high fuel prices will make ocean and rail freight more competitive. But virtually all of the transportation hubs sit adjacent to impoverished neighborhoods. Expansion or redevelopment plans frequently face stiff opposition due to concerns over pollution and noise.
Officials here acknowledge that improving the ports and drawing in more traffic will probably have to come at later stages of Newark's green overhaul.
And then there are the opponents who worry that the city government has its priorities mixed up. Booker mentioned one critical posting on his blog that was emblematic of the skeptical view: "A green Newark ... great. A balanced budget ... priceless."
Energy-saving buildings, renewable energy projects, fuel-efficient vehicles and improved and cleaner systems will make it easier for him to address Newark's other numerous problems, Booker insisted.
"We have a budget crisis right now," Booker admitted. But greening the Brick City will "make doing business, the business of government, so much cheaper in so many ways, from just the chemical and pesticides that we buy to reducing our overall energy costs."
'Rolling up our sleeves'
There are some signs that Newark may be turning a corner.
Several high-profile developments, including a performing arts center and a new hockey arena for the New Jersey Devils, have attracted more businesses to parts of downtown. The one-hour commute to New York is also encouraging some to flee Manhattan's high housing prices. City officials boast that Newark is now the second fastest growing city on the East Coast, after Boston.
Violent crime rates are way down, although the city suffered a spate of murders recently. While his predecessor begins his federal prison term for corruption, Booker is engaged in a very public effort to clean up the city's politics and bureaucracy and professionalize its police department.
But Booker's chief aim is to draw in more jobs, specifically green jobs. His team will have to navigate the morass of Newark's political, social and economic realities to bring the community together behind an eco-friendly revival. The enormity of the challenge perhaps explains why the city's green visionaries opted to worry about financing their dreams at a later date.
"Everybody is here dealing with smaller parts of the bigger picture," Booker said. "We're going to be really rolling up our sleeves, because my goal here is that we don't have a conference to just make us feel good and hear us talk good, but we want to make sure that we do good."
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