The Gateway Center in Newark, New Jersey, was built with good intentions. The commercial complex was a product of the civil unrest of 1967, when buildings in Newark were literally burning. To demonstrate our commitment to our headquarters city, Prudential helped finance construction of the Gateway buildings to reinvigorate development. The project was heralded as “urban renewal.”
Knowing that some people felt unsafe on the streets of Newark, the Gateway Center was attached to Newark Penn Station.
This enabled workers to commute in, take skywalks and tunnels to their offices, and use those same passages to catch the train home.
But it also meant they never frequented the local businesses. The shops inside suffered, cut off from the city. And with no street-facing retail, the blocks around the buildings were eerily desolate at night. The Gateway complex unintentionally furthered the narrative that Newark was not a desirable destination.
The Gateway Center’s fatal flaw was that it was built with one group in mind: the transient and relatively affluent commuters. Left out of the process: Newark’s own residents and business owners.
In other words, the complex wasn’t inclusive by design. And now, in 2021, Gateway Center is being completely reimagined and renovated.
We find ourselves in an unprecedented moment where we can invest in our communities, and we have an opportunity to do better.
If our goal is thriving communities and inclusive economic growth, then we must build an end-to-end process that empowers residents. This means selecting developers who are connected to the community, who talk with residents about their needs. This also requires investing in policies and services. These are relatively inexpensive line items in a building budget, but they can be enormously beneficial to the people who live there.
It’s not only the government that can play a role in this commitment. Corporate America is uniquely positioned to—and should—add value. We can advocate for policies. We can contribute with jobs and purchasing power. We can activate our networks—nonprofit partners, other companies, community leaders—to layer in tangible and intangible investments in the communities where we operate.
For more than 50 years, Prudential has invested in Newark’s vibrancy. As the Gateway Center showed, our approach wasn’t perfect, but we have learned and evolved. We work with diverse developers and fund services and programs. We ensure the community has a say in development plans.
We applied our lessons to the landmark Hahne & Co. building in downtown Newark. This once-iconic department store was transformed into a welcoming mixed-use site with modern, market-rate apartments and popular retail venues. The developer collaborated with the community to understand how the building should be used. Among the outcomes: The building features an arts space with a gallery, a studio where residents can get free portraits taken by Rutgers arts students, a print studio for the community and more.
We take the same approach in our efforts to improve availability of affordable housing. We see housing as a hub for a broad suite of services that have a positive multiplier effect. These services create jobs for community members that drive further progress long after the construction wraps.
Turning to access, I’m reminded of an issue faced by residents of Newark’s South Ward, a historically low-opportunity neighborhood. They had no convenient access to the transportation designed to get to and from Newark Airport, right in their backyard. Without accessible stations, it was arduous to travel to quality jobs just a few miles away. This is precisely how you end up disenfranchising a community.
So, with the New Jersey Institute of Technology and Rutgers University, we supported a community-based initiative that consists of research, outreach and working with local legislators, among other efforts. We are hopeful that this community-based approach will soon give residents easy access to the train and light rail, increasing their economic opportunities.
As I write, the Gateway Center is being dramatically redeveloped by Prudential and other investors. The former concrete behemoth will feature a floor-to-ceiling glass atrium. Lined with retail space, the new Gateway will invite Newarkers inside and discourage office workers from simply going from their train to their desk. With more access points, the complex can spur further development. It can be the centerpiece of the neighborhood rather than a shelter from it.
I’m heartened by the opportunity at this moment. We cannot squander it. The investments we make should not improve only the buildings, bridges and roads. They must also unlock opportunities for the people who use them. It’s vital we learn from our past. Otherwise, in another 50 years, we may find ourselves starting from scratch once again.