In the summer of 2017, I helped oppose the gentrification and rezoning of the Ironbound neighborhood of Newark. The area was zoned for buildings no higher than eight stories, which was respectful of the small and community scale of the existing structures. City officials, however, proposed rezoning a large section of the Ironbound for 18-story structures – four times taller than any other structure in the immediate area.
Motivated by profit, a large parking corporation and other landowners lobbied the city to increase the maximum allowable height – thereby increasing the value of their land and threatening the existing community with gentrification. The small streets and infrastructure of the Ironbound would not have been resilient or large enough to support such a large increase in density.
To oppose this ill-devised proposal, I created a computer simulation of how the neighborhood would appear, were the proposal passed. This computer simulation and the proposed legislation were also the subject of a Star Ledger article by human-interest reporter Barry Carter. I am providing the link to this article here. This computer simulation was also watched by members of the City Council and the property owners effected by this legislation. I also spoke five times before the City Council and at community meetings to oppose this project and argue for development in Newark that is genuinely sustainable and genuinely respectful of the existing community and the city’s people.
Speech before the City Council on Tuesday, September 19
The text of this speech is transcribed below.
I’d like to speak on why opposing MX-3 is consistent with supporting inclusionary zoning.
To my knowledge, 7 members of the City Council voted in favor of inclusionary zoning. This is an important move to protect our city most vulnerable residents and to preserve affordable housing in our downtown.
MX-3 and upzoning will jeopardize this important piece of legislation.
inclusionary zoning kicks in when (firstly) developers build structures over 30-40 units and (secondly) they request a variance to build this structure.
But, when an area is zoned for larger and taller structures developers can build more and larger structures WITHOUT requesting a variance to build larger. And when developers do not need to request a variance for height, it is less likely they will need to include affordable housing in their project.
In effect, MX-3 will remove the requirement to build affordable housing in the effected area. When zoning is overly generous to developers and zoning permits overly large scale, develops do not need variances. And when developers don’t need variances, they do not have to built affordable housing.
In addition, since MX-3 could be expanded to anywhere within a half mile radius of Penn Station, it is quite possible that MX-3 could be expanded in the future. In effect, this would eliminate the requirement for developers to build affordable housing in this area. Upzoning does not benefit affordability.
Secondly, what is sustainability?
Sustainability and transit-oriented development is not just about a short distance to Penn Station. It is not just about green roofs or any type of development.
Sustainability is about affordable housing that we the people can afford to live in. We don’t want luxury condos for the 1% in the MX-3 area. We want development that our residents and you can afford.
All of us can agree that WE ALL WANT DEVELOPMENT. But, we want development that is 1. Affordable 2. Respectful of the Ironbound community. And 3. Respectful of our city’s diversity and history.
MX-3 is none of these things. It is about landbanking and benefiting the 1% wealthiest outside our city. I encourage you to strike down MX-3 and to encourage instead an open dialogue with the community about SUSTAINABLE and AFFORDABLE development in our city.
Developers should come to Newark and development should happen. But, we should not upzone entire sections of our city, in effect removing the requirement for affordable housing, undermining the inclusionary zoning we just created, and jeopardizing the recent master plan we created with public participation.
Interactive Map of Newark’s Blighted Parking Lots
Comparative Views of Downtown Newark, Then and Now
Newark’s Parking Crisis
Edison Parking, among many other local institutions such as Rutgers and UMDNJ, has engaged in the systematic destruction of our city’s heritage. In the James Street Commons Historic District, for instance, Edison Parking and Rutgers are the single largest contributors to demolition between 1978 and today, both demolishing dozens of nationally landmarked properties. As Edison Parking continues to consolidate its properties into larger and larger parcels, the question arises: How will this entity develop this land? Will future development respect old Newark and our threatened architectural heritage? These questions remain to be answered. But new development, from Newark’s 200 million dollar arena to Prudential Insurance’s 400 million new headquarters on Broad Street, reveal that our new architecture is often out of time, place, and scale.
Too often the name of progress is invoked to justify the destruction of old. But, not often enough do Newark leaders realize that progress is only attained by using the past as the literal building block toward the future. One can walk through Brooklyn or preserved parts of Manhattan and then ask oneself: Where would Newark be had it preserved its architectural heritage? I do not know, but for certain our city would be in a very different position to rebuild its heritage.
The degree of what was lost only reinforces the need to preserve what remains. Click here for interactive map of Newark past and present.
Below is a speech I gave before the Newark City Council on May 19th.
Good evening ladies and gentlemen of the Newark City Council.
My name is Myles. I am a proud, lifelong Newarker.
Newark is a city surrounded by asphalt.
To the south lies our port and airport, comprising 1/3 of Newark’s land area. Our airport handles 40 million passengers a year. Our port handles over a million containers of cargo a year. Both pollute our air.
Our city is surrounded by highways: Route 78 to the South, The Parkway to the West, Route 280 to the North, and McCarter Highway to the East. Millions of car travel these congested highways every year.
Our urban core is buried in asphalt. Thousands of commuters per day. Millions of cars per year.
Edison Parking is beneficiary of this pollution. Their 60 thousand parking spots are valued in the billions. They make millions on the land of buildings they demolished often illegally. They pay no water bills; their water runs off their lots and into our sewer mains. For a company so wealthy; they contribute little to the health of our city.
One in four Newark children have asthma, far above the national average. Chances are that your children or the friends of your children also have asthma.
I too have asthma. Always had. Always will.
Enough is enough. It is time to develop our city sustainably. Public transportation. Public bike lanes. Public parks. Sustainable infrastructure.
Edison Parking is not a sustainable corporation. When our zoning board approves of the illegal demolition of our historic architecture, they are complacent in this violation of our law. When our zoning board sits silently as Edison Parking uses our lands for non-permissible zoning use, they are not upholding the laws they are subject to.
It is time to change. You, as our elected officials, are in a position to enact the change your public needs. You, as informed citizens of Newark, are responsible for holding corporations accountable to our laws.
This is not a question of complex ethics or morality. It is a matter of common sense. Edison Parking has and continues to demolish our heritage, pollute our air, and violate our laws. Edison parking is breaking its responsibility to the public. Will you hold them accountable?
Please consider the city you want for our children and our future.
The following video lecture contains paintings and photos I compiled while walking in New York
(Dedicated to Professor Brendan O’Flaherty)
Strolling in New York City is a world tour. The street fairs of Spanish Harlem mesh into college town Columbia. Columbia gives way to the shabby chic of the Upper West Side. A few blocks farther and I am drowned by the tourists of Times Square. Even further, and I reach the mindless bustle of Wall Street brokers. There could be no more fitting a place for the United Nations
I stroll and try to identify the passing languages. Spanish in the outer boroughs. Polish in Greenpoint. Russian in Brighton Beach. Cantonese in Chinatown. French and German in SoHo.
Reading “Here is New York” by E.B. White, I realize how little New York has changed in the past 60 odd years. Sure, the streets, cars, and tenements are different. But the essential spirit of dynamic and diverse urbanism remains. Here is New York.
To read more about my walks in New York, click here.
Growing up in inner-city Newark and attending school in suburbia, I have always wondered how these two environments were so distinctly different. How could so many cultural and socioeconomic differences exist in communities only a few miles apart? Furthermore, how did the suburban environment of my school effect the urban environment of my home?
I have spent much of my life walking around New York City. And, the layout of this metropolis’ streets has always interested me. I relish in discovering new ways to walk between two places and in finding new streets I have never seen before. Inevitably, I ended up asking myself the following question: How does the layout of New York City streets reflect its history and heritage?
Here are a few facts:
One: Bikes are affordable.
On the one hand, the average used car costs $16,000 (National Automobile Dealers Association). On the other hand, the average bike costs less than $500. Cars are 32 times more expensive than bikes, and that’s discounting gas, maintenance, and environmental costs. In a city whose average wage is almost $30,000 less than the state average, bikes are a sustainable transportation alternative.
Two: Bikes fight poverty.
Over 29% of our population is in poverty. Over 31% of our male and 38% of our female population is obese. Only 30% of our youth receive enough exercise (Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation). Poverty, obesity, and lack of exercise are closely correlated. Biking is a form of exercise. Exercise fights obesity and poverty. Newark needs bikes.
Three: Bikes fight childhood obesity.
Newark’s been ranked as one of the least walkable cities in America. We must do something about that. 30% of our youth say our neighborhoods are unfit for walking, running, or biking. 44% of our youth say our neighborhoods are unsafe due to automobile traffic. And, only 30% of our youth receive enough exercise (Rutgers Center for State Policy). Maybe, there’s a correlation here. Improve the livability of our streets; help our children.
Four: Bikes are sustainable.
Newark is 27 square miles. The average commute within Newark is 11.5 minutes and under 4 miles (US Census). Yet, despite the small size of our city, the average commuter goes by bus and car. Why not by bike? Why not by bike?
Five: We need more bike lanes.
Our city has 320 miles of streets. But our city has few miles of exclusive bike lanes (NJDOT). Bikes are the way to the future. Cars aren’t. We don’t need more room for roads and parking lots. We need more room for bikes.
The culture of the car caused white flight from our city, gave asthma to our children, and destroyed much of our city’s culture and heritage. Newark needs fewer cars. Newark needs more bikes.
We can’t give every Newarker a car, nor should we! But, we can give every Newarker access to biking opportunities.
Every idea has a start. It is true that our bike lanes are not as busy as those in Amsterdam or New York. It is also true that our city government is not enforcing legislation intended to protect our bike lanes. Build our bike lanes well and protect them; people will use them with time.
Change takes time. We don’t have the firm roots of a bike culture. We have only the seeds we need. Plant and grow these seeds of green bikes, green bike lanes, a green waterfront and a green city; and these seeds will take root.
If not now, then when…? If not with bikes, then with what…? If not in our city, then where…?
As a Newarker, I see so much potential in our city. Our city, at the doorstep of New York, is currently the confluence of planes, trains, and buses. So, moving forward, we have the foundations for a more sustainable Newark. Starting today, with bikes, we can create a greater Newark for us all.
On a warm Sunday this August, bulldozers started tearing away at a historic, turn-of-the-century loft space. Although the first floor was sealed with unsightly cinder blocks, the upper floor was adorned with large Chicago windows and intricate terracotta fretwork. In the neo-classical tradition, the structure sported a detailed cornice, white ornamentation, and copious bunting. The building was so sturdy it took demolition crews many hours of pounding and loud smashing to significantly weaken the structure. When the outside walls finally fell, they exposed sturdy concrete floors over a foot thick and hundreds of re-bars for added durability.
Situated on the corner of Washington and Bleecker Streets, the 2-story neo-classical structure stood in the heart of the James Street Commons Historic District. Normally, such a structure would never be demolished but . . . The property’s owner is Edison Parking, one of the largest landowners in Newark and New York City. Its owner, Jerry Gottesman, spent $1 million to oppose the High Line. His company also owns Manhattan Mini Storage, whose billboards in New York City read — “Bloomberg is gone. Time to put the bikes away.” To profit from blight, this landbanker buys cheap land, waits for its value to improve, and then profits without doing anything. While waiting, Edison Parking generates huge revenue from surface parking. Often ten dollars an hour for one parking spot. Multiply the results by 60,000 parking spots daily!
In fact, demolition is in Edison’s best interest. Real estate is taxed according to the value of the structure, not the land. Therefore, Edison’s huge land holdings share almost no tax burden. Edison doesn’t even pay for storm water runoff, which is calculated by a property’s water consumption. In other words, the public heavily subsidizes surface parking. Only under the current land-use policy is Edison’s greed and urban blight rewarded.
Edison’s evasion of the law is a high art. In this case, the property Edison destroyed is on the National Register of Historic Places and is protected by local and Federal law. But, this parking mongol quietly acquired surrounding land. Then, it secretly removed the property’s windows and poked holes in its roof. Finally, Edison hired an unlicensed engineer to inspect the property. Edison then obtained a demolition permit from Newark’s corrupt Engineering Department, without approval from the Historic Preservation and Landmark Commission. In one weekend, this historic building and its many stories were purged from history.
When the public noticed the illegal demolition, it was too late. The Landmarks Commission called an emergency meeting to discuss the crisis. Sitting directly behind me was a heavy, suburban lady, obviously working for Edison. Upon learning no city code enforcement officers were present, she whispered under her breath, “Yes! Excellent!” and promptly left the meeting.
Joined by many outraged citizens, I spoke before the Commission:
My name is Myles. I am a life long Newark resident.
Parking is a travesty. I have seen . . .
Too many viable buildings demolished in the name of progress.
Too many parking lots erected to serve commuters indifferent to Newark.
Too many vacant lots awaiting non-existent development.
This blight of so-called “development” must stop.
Newark is a city with a strong history. Its buildings are testament to that. Yet, unscrupulous developers’ utter disrespect for our heritage threatens our urban identity.
Newark has future potential. Its buildings are testament to that. Yet, unscrupulous land banking slows down the development our city so desperately needs.
Newark is a lawless city. Its buildings are testament to that.
Parking developers have no right to illegally demolish historic structures. They do so anyway.
Parking developers have no right to channel millions of gallons of storm water runoff without paying a cent. They do so anyway.
Parking developers are not above the law. They think they are anyway.
Those who break the law must be held accountable.
Letting unscrupulous destruction continue without government oversight is permitting lawlessness to continue.
Letting Edison Parking demolish our architectural heritage is telling them, “Go ahead, do it again.”
A thief does not think he will be caught. A thief does not stop until he is punished.
I realize Newark’s Historic Preservation Commission does not have the power to levy fines or jail these surface-parking criminals. But this commission has . . .
The power to lobby for stronger legislation that will protect our neighborhoods.
The power to prevent continued parking construction.
The power to force corrupt city officials to do their job.
I admire the invaluable service you have rendered this city so far. I encourage you to do more. I encourage you to fight these ignorant developers. Even if victories may be pyrrhic, at least there is the comforting knowledge that one fought greed, corruption, lawlessness, and ignorance.
In 1978, the James Street Commons were made a historic district. In the Federal approval process, each building was meticulously identified and photographed. Each time I review these images, I painfully remember vanished buildings and our lost heritage. Edison Parking is not alone. Many other institutions in this historic district also contribute to the destruction of public assets and, therefore, to their own identity. For instance, a few years ago, a large public university schemed a land-swap with Jerry Gottesman at this very demolition site. It did so to evade regulations preventing state institutions from demolishing historic structures. As a result of this short-sighted practice, this university has painfully transformed itself into an inferior commuter school, a trend it now tries to reverse.
On September 11, 2011, the Newark City Council was on the verge of passing landmark legislation: The Save Our Water Ordinance. This ordinance would effectively guard the city’s public watershed from corporate privatization. I spoke before the city council in favor of the proposed legislation.
MUA’s do not work: to see, look no farther than Pennsylvania’s capital, Harrisburg. In 1992, the cash-strapped city sold its garbage incinerator for 42 million to The Harrisburg Authority, their MUA. The incinerator, already plagued with problems, only further deteriorated under private hands.
In 2003, only 11 years later, the federal government closed the incinerator because it spewed dioxin, science’s most dangerous substance. Instead of permanently closing the incinerator, as the city would have done, The Harrisburg Authority borrowed one hundred and twenty million dollars to rebuild and expand the incinerator. THA’s “solution” was riddled with shady, mismanaged deals. So it was no surprise when it could not repay the loan. But, since the loan was city guaranteed, Harrisburg was stuck paying for THA’s failure.
Everything went downhill from there. The city was swamped with 120 million in new debt, 108 million in old debt, 30 million in lawyer’s fees, a dioxin-spewing incinerator and its toxic landfill, and the highest garbage disposal rates in the nation—288 dollars per year per family. Altogether, the city owed more than 300 million, more debt than any American city. If equally distributed among the city’s 49,000 residents, each person would be stuck with 6,200 dollars of debt.
The result? The city went bankrupt and was taken over by the state. The hijacked city is now selling its parking, water, sewer, and perhaps a park. But this only covers a fraction of the debt; the city will have to also cut back on basic services. Harrisburg is stuck in debtor’s prison for life. But don’t worry, Newark could very well become Harrisburg’s cellmate for life.
When an MUA controls Newark’s water, it can easily hold the city hostage. There is nothing, at all, to stop it from raising our water rates when we refuse to guarantee its debt. The money that the MUA offers us is bait. One nibble and our beloved city is buried in a mountain of debt.
This city will follow Seattle, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Atlanta, Buffalo, Puerto Rico, Guam, Los Angeles, Tampa Bay, Indianapolis, Gary, Hoboken, Jersey City, and Harrisburg if this council passes the despicable MUA. A scepter is haunting Newark, it is the scepter is of privatization. You must prevent Newark from receiving the MUA’s lethal dose. Pass the SAVE OUR WATER ordinance today!
When Mayor Cory Booker tried to privatize Newark’s water system, thousands of citizens protested by signing an initiative called the Save Our Water Ordinance. Privatization would inevitably jeopardize the city’s 35,000 acre watershed, permitting its forests to be developed by private companies. After much public outcry, the city was forced to reconsider privatization.
But it still remained to close the corrupt, semi-private agency managing the watershed, the Newark Watershed Conservation and Development Corporation (NWCDC). The presiding judge formed a committee to manage the closure. Yet, many months later, the procrastinating committee was still not finished and was even trying to sue the impoverished city for over a million dollars. Even worse, the same law firm that started the privatization hassle was managing the closure, a clear conflict of interest. At a recent NWCDC board meeting in Newark, I read the following statement:
My name is Myles Zhang. I am a seventeen-year-old resident of Newark.
I do not have the speaking capabilities of high-priced lawyers. I am unable to twist and mutilate reason and logic, making a mockery of our nation’s justice system. I am unable to magically conjure obscure legal justifications. But, I see needy Newark every day.
On the way to school every day, I pass by the veritable old institution of the Newark Public Library. Its doors are shuttered too often to the public. Its budget is too slim to serve Newark’s needy citizens. On the way to school every day, I pass the empty lots of this needy city. They are overgrown and waiting for development. On the way to school every day, I see a city that is in dire need of help.
Today, I ask you the question: How are Newark’s limited resources to be spent? Are they to be spent paying a corrupt and greedy law firm millions of dollars? NO! Are they to be spent on spoon-feeding lawyers and former employees of the NWCDC? NO! Are Newark’s limited resources to be spent fighting for the people? YES!
The corrupt farce of the NWCDC has dragged on far too long. Needy Newark has been deprived of a clean water department for years. You were appointed, with the full faith and credit of Newark’s people, to kill this monster once and for all. More than six months later, I see mountainous legal bills, a court case, and little discernible progress. Nobody should drag Newark’s already tarnished name through the mud again.
The next time I walk by the Newark Library, I would like to see it open to all people at all hours. The next time I walk by City Hall, I would like to be rest assured that this city has a clean water department delivering clean water to a clean city. You have a responsibility, no a duty, to help this city. Act now.
For a recent New York Times exposé about water privatization, click here.