In the summer of 1999, a new minor league baseball stadium opened in Newark, New Jersey, attracting more than 6,000 spectators, including the mayor, to the first game.
The publicly financed ballpark, which offered sweeping views of the Manhattan skyline, cost $34 million and was one of the most expensive minor league ballparks ever built.
Elected leaders said the stadium would help reverse the declining fortunes of a city struggling with poverty and crime. One official declared that it would “send a loud signal that Newark is back in business.”
Twenty years later, the stadium has been reduced to a pile of rubble, the team that played there having folded. Taking its place is yet another project supporters say will bring an economic windfall: a sprawling development featuring hundreds of apartments, stores, office space and a hotel.
But this plan comes at a pivotal moment for Newark, a city that has long exemplified the struggles of America’s fading manufacturing hubs.
The proposal for the stadium site is just one of several residential and commercial projects with the potential to accelerate the slow but steady transformation Newark has experienced in recent years.
With the city’s star on the rise, local officials find themselves at a crossroads: They must manage the development Newark has long needed while avoiding the kind of gentrification that could push out its poorer and largely African American residents.
Skyrocketing rents in major metropolises across the country have forced people to abandon places like San Francisco and New York City in favor of smaller nearby cities like Oakland, California, and Hoboken, New Jersey.
But now even those places are becoming unaffordable. As a result, developers are taking a greater interest in Newark, a 20-minute train ride from Manhattan. Elected officials and activists have vowed to prevent Newark from becoming, as the mayor often puts it, “the next Brooklyn” by making sure the city remains affordable.
“We’re trying to get that development to happen and get people investing in the city, while at the same time creating opportunities for the residents who live here in the city,” the mayor, Ras Baraka, said in an interview. “It’s not easy. There’s no city in America who’s actually figured it out. Everybody has been attempting to do this, including New York, and it’s been very and extremely difficult.”
Under former Mayor Cory Booker, a Democrat who is running for president, companies like Audible and Panasonic established their headquarters in Newark, bringing new life to the downtown area and helping raise local property values.
In the past three years, at least four multimillion-dollar developments have brought luxury apartments, charter schools, office spaces and the city’s first Whole Foods market to Newark.
A new infusion of homes, stores and restaurants follows decades when the city struggled to attract outside investment.
Newark was left hobbled both by the loss of many middle-class white residents to surrounding suburbs and the infamous 1967 riots, which many African Americans viewed as an uprising against an abusive police force and a local government that neglected their needs.
The unrest seared the city, leaving a legacy of gutted buildings, vacant lots and a lingering perception that Newark was a broken, dangerous place.
Though the city is safer than it has been in years, with violent crime steadily decreasing, fighting the stigma has proved almost as difficult as fighting crime, said Larry Hamm, director of the People’s Organization for Progress, a local grassroots group.
“At one time you couldn’t get people to come to Newark,’’ Hamm said. “They were afraid. And so investment was only coming in dribs and drabs,” he said, adding, “The development never outpaced the rate of decay.”
In the 1990s, local leaders hoped the stadium could help repair the city’s image. The team playing there was called the Newark Bears, named after a club that had left the city in the late 1940s during a more prosperous era.
“What I was hoping for was to bring the old Newarkers back, the people I grew up with, hardworking people,” said Rick Cerone, the first owner of the Bears, who was born and raised in Newark and played for the New York Yankees in the 1980s and 1990s. “I wanted to see the team bring this city into its former glory.”
The idea of using a stadium as a tool for revitalization was part of a national trend. In New Jersey, seven minor league baseball stadiums were built between 1994 and 2001. But as many sports economists have shown, building flashy new stadiums rarely translates into economic gains for taxpayers.
Attendance at Bears games started out strong but competition from the region’s many professional sports teams made it difficult to fill the stands. After switching owners at least three times and narrowly escaping bankruptcy in 2008, the team finally folded in 2013.
The city and county continued to pay off millions of dollars in debt on the stadium until 2016, when Lotus Equity Group, a New York-based developer, bought the property for $23.5 million. Lotus, which also purchased an adjacent property where a seedy motel once stood, plans to turn the 12 acres of vacant space into a development called Riverfront Square.
The project, which is estimated to cost around $1.7 billion, will include 2,000 residential units and developers said they believed the building would appeal to professionals from New York.
Perry Halkitis moved from Manhattan to New Brunswick after he became dean of the Rutgers School of Public Health, which has campuses in both New Brunswick and Newark.
But after just a few months, he said, he realized, “the place I really wanted to live was Newark.”
Now he is getting ready to move into a building that was once a chocolate factory. Though he said he got a great deal — $265,000 for a 700-square-foot loft — the price was not what drew him to the city.
“It reminded me of what New York was like as it was developing in the ‘70s and ‘80s and ‘90s,’’ Halkitis said. “It was interesting and it had edge and it had culture. I hope and pray that Newark will hold on to some of that edge because that’s what makes it great.”
Ben Korman, the chief executive of Lotus, said the company was doing everything it could to “make sure that this project will ultimately give opportunities to Newarkers.”
The project will include hundreds of rental housing units at below the market rate, a public park that will host programs for the surrounding community and retail spaces that will be operated by small-business owners.
Still, some people expressed concern that the project would cater to wealthy newcomers while excluding longtime residents.
“It’s not for us Black people,” said Gail Goodson, 68, who lives in a public housing complex a few blocks away from the proposed development. “We’re not going to benefit from it.”
Some activists worry that a building boom downtown could radiate out into more residential neighborhoods and push up housing costs.
“When you limit it and contain it, then I think that that’s appropriate, but how the city reacts to setting boundaries, I think that’s going to determine if there will be gentrification or not,” said Maria Lopez Nunez, a director at the Ironbound Community Corporation, a neighborhood group focused on social justice.
The pressures of rising housing costs are already being felt by many people in Newark. Between 2000 and 2015, median rents in the city rose 20% even as median household income fell by 10%, according to a 2016 study by Rutgers Law School.
“The risk of displacement — even in the absence of traditional gentrification — is real for most Newarkers,” the report said.
Since Baraka took office in 2014, he has won the support of affordable housing activists by adopting policies like inclusionary zoning, which requires developers to offer 20% of residential units below market rate in new buildings with more than 30 units.
Developers can also receive tax abatements for hiring minority and female contractors as co-developers on projects to build affordable housing.
And Newark recently became the third city in the country behind New York and Los Angeles to start providing free legal representation in court to low-income residents facing eviction.
“Anybody that comes to the city now is going to come with a mind-set of collaboration,’’ Baraka said. “I don’t care who they are. They’re going to come and sit with everybody at the table.”
Despite these measures, activists wonder how well the city will be able to resist market forces.
“They’re walking this tightrope of trying to entice developers to come and build in the city,’’ Hamm said, “while at the same time trying not to hurt the very people who voted them into office. That’s a tough tightrope to walk.”