Newark institutions work together to develop city’s arts district

Jessica Perry//March 14, 2022//

Newark institutions work together to develop city’s arts district

Jessica Perry//March 14, 2022//

Listen to this article
A rendering of Newark Symphony Hall’s exterior renovation. The venue is one of three major anchor institutions trying to enhance Newark’s cultural scene. – CLARK CATON HINTZ

Every story has many sides, and the story of Newark’s developing arts district has three: the “cultural triangle” formed by projects at the Newark Museum of Art, Newark Symphony Hall and New Jersey Performing Arts Center. Leaders are seeking to not only transform each institution’s own physical features and legacies, but to build connections between them to establish a hub.

For the first time in two years – almost exactly to the day – the Newark Regional Business Partnership came together in-person last week for its 2022 Real Estate Market Forum at NICO Kitchen + Bar at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, an event that highlighted the ways institutions, developers and organizations are collaborating with each other and the City of Newark for the city and its residents.

Symphony Hall CEO Taneshia Nash Laird is trying to change perceptions of the city. – WOODLINE DORCIN

“I think a lot of people might view us as competitors, and we’re not,” said Newark Symphony Hall President and CEO Taneshia Nash Laird during a panel discussion moderated by LMXD, an affiliate of L&M Development Partners, Senior Director Sam Chapin. Instead, another “c” word seems better suited to describe the trio: collaborators.

There are common threads that run through each of the artistic anchors’ development plans, housing and access to the city’s greenspaces, for example, along with creating sustainable paths for the organizations’ financial futures, that all align with the common goal of establishing an active, artistic hub in downtown.

“NJPAC is unique, in that our mission statement actually uses the word, that we are a catalyst for economic development in … the City of Newark,” said Tim Lizura, senior vice president for real estate and capital projects at that venue. The performing arts center is embarking on a $150 million project, slated to break ground this year, that will transform more than 7 acres and answer the question of “How do we create a community around our main building.” An initial phase of work will create 300 mixed-income rental units, along with about 30,000 square feet of retail space. NJPAC’s project will also see 15 for-sale units available for one of the first times in the district, according to Lizura, who highlighted the milestone as a contributing factor to establishing equitable housing opportunities in the city.

“We’re going to have 2,000 people living on this plaza in the next three years,” he said, pointing out that the number is more residents than some small towns in the state can claim. Along with projects at Symphony Hall and Newark Museum “it really is going to create a community that is a 24/7 environment, and that is just the holy grail of what we want this to be,” Lizura said.

At Newark Museum, Director and CEO Linda Harrison said the organization sees its $85 million development – which will include 250 units of housing, with 20% dedicated to affordable options – as “an art-focused project that actually helps the museum to … be a museum of the community” – not just one that is located in the community. To that end, the work at the museum will not displace any residents, she said.

“If we’re going to be a financially stable and sustainable cultural organization then we had to look at new models – different models – of revenue,” she said. That includes short-term contributions, like from renting the space out for TV and film productions – something Newark Symphony Hall has had success with, as well. But, “We knew … we also had to have a longer-term play,” Harrison said, which led the 112-year-old museum to embark on this project, which also offers a form of financial stability for the city.

At Symphony Hall, a $50 million transformation that is scheduled to be completed for the venue’s 100th anniversary in 2025, is revolutionary for the historic site, where Laird has been working, with success, to change perceptions of the historic entity. “I want to acknowledge the fact that we’re even invited here,” Laird said – because three years ago that likely would not have been the case.

She described the city’s residents as “full participants” in the project to not just restore Symphony Hall to its former glory – hosting acts like The Rolling Stones and Dionne Warwick over the course of its history – but to build it back in a way that supports further growth. According to Laird, the venue’s renovation project will create 500 construction jobs and contracting opportunities for 50 small businesses. It will also result in two floors at the propetrty being revamped as commercial spaces and the addition of a coffee shop and onsite restaurant.

And Laird said, things are already happening around Symphony Hall as a result. The venue is partnering with Lincoln Park Coast Cultural District to try to curb displacement in the area and provide job training for residents. And private development has started to proliferate, as well, with a building proposed next to the venue that would offer 111 residential units.

Laird said a lot of the work centers on the idea of changing perceptions people have about what Newark can be. “I do believe that we are going to be a model for inclusive development … in terms of policies that the mayor’s put in for inclusionary zoning … But also the way that we’re approaching our individual work,” she said.

The efforts at NJPAC, Newark Museum and Newark Symphony Hall to establish this arts district are organic and so far, informal, which is important because, as Harrison said, it helps state and city lawmakers to see the big picture.

“The other piece is the placemaking partnership that this is all about,” Lizura said. “The placemaking is part of it, but there’s a lot of pieces to it – certainly active storefronts, great retail, signage, collaboration between partners … But when you think about it, the ingredient is people walking around.”

Which can help with the next step: the formal adoption of an arts district by the city.

“[T]he key piece of this is we want people to feel comfortable that they can walk in this cultural hub. That it is safe to walk downtown,” Harrison said. “It is safe to walk from the Museum to NJPAC, to Symphony Hall … We want people to experience this, because this is where cultural hubs can really impact a city’s vibrancy and its economic growth.”